Shirley Manson on ’90s fashion, radical style and keeping it real
What we wore: the Garbage front-woman discusses a lifetime in looks and being the poster-girl for ’90s-obsessed Gen Z. Plus! What item of clothing would she save from a burning building?
Pop culture in the ’90s was obsessed with looking forward. It was an optimistic mindset that, pre-Internet, imagined a post-millennium world of flying saucers, pet cyber dogs and metallic sci-fi fashion. “We definitely were obsessed with the future,” says Shirley Manson, front-woman of Garbage, the influential alt-rock band that formed in 1993 and is going strong some 30 years later.
“When we first emerged, we called ourselves ‘sci-fi pop’, because back in the ’90s, we were one of the few bands who were mixing rock music with pop with hip-hop beats, and samples taken from classic records.” It was all paired with striking visuals, a robust exercise in pushing boundaries to the fullest. Garbage played around with invisibility in the music video for Cherry Lips and Manson turned into an engineered android for The World Is Not Enough. Just about every music video was – and still is – a lesson in top-notch style subversion. And ’90s-obsessed Gen Z can’t get enough of it, often reposting photos of Manson in her late twenties, red-haired, rebellious, doll-faced and acid-coloured.
In Garbage’s formative years, Manson’s radical look was as much a part of the band’s hype as its addictive mash-up of post-grunge and electronic rock that tore into themes of sexuality, hedonism and heartbreak. She’d wear a T‑shirt with “don’t touch my tits” written across it one day, a hi-tech cargo skirt the next, followed by a completely transparent dress on the Grammys red carpet.
“There was a lot made of my style when I first emerged in the ’90s and I couldn’t really understand it,” says Manson. “I never really have considered myself a particularly ‘fashionable’ person, as in I have never followed any sort of trend. If everybody’s doing it, I don’t want to be doing it.” No doubt, Manson never did look like part of the crowd, and that’s what pick-n-mix Gen Z are all about.
“I would be really dishonest if I said I’m surprised people use me now as a sort of reference for the ’90s,” she continues. “I love it! It’s cool to have young people get into the band so many years down the line. That means you’ve done something that transcends time. Instead, you can stand on your own two feet. People can appreciate that. It’s a lovely feeling.”
At the end of October, Garbage released Anthology, the band’s first album compilation in 15 years, featuring some of their biggest hits such as Only Happy When It Rains, Stupid Girl and #1 Crush. While Manson wouldn’t necessarily consider the band’s back catalogue to be particularly political, the band’s storytelling was laced with liberating messages of LGBTQ+ rights, androgyny, freedom and womanhood, long before it was commonplace on the charts. That ultimately filtered into Manson’s riotous on-stage presence.
“It’s strange, we’ve never been an overtly political band, with a capital P. We’re not like Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy,” Manson says. There is a new song on the compilation that is undeniably political, though. The Men Who Rule the World is a scathing attack on the greed of our world leaders. “The men who rule the world /Have made a fucking mess /The history of power /The worship of success”, sings Manson over a broken beat. “I couldn’t contain my outrage anymore,” she says of the new addition to Garbage’s discography. ”There were so many things I was fit to burst about that it poured into the record.”
“I’m really grateful we have that record in our back pocket, to be able to lodge our complaints every night on tour,” she says, followed by that unmistakable, throaty laugh. “To open each show with that and hear the crowds cheer, it makes you feel so much better about the future. It gives me a lot of hope.”
Below, we discuss Shirley Manson’s life in looks, from admiring Edinburgh’s punks as a young teen to leopard print coats.
Shirley, you’ve lived a mighty life in looks. Where did it all start?
Arabic coal liner that I used to get from a sort of punk shop in Edinburgh [as a teenager]. It would come in these beautiful vials of liquid eyeliner and it was semi hard. We’d use matches and put a cocktail stick inside the vials, melt it and then apply it to our eyes with the cocktail sticks. I was obsessed with black eyeliner. It’s still my thing. I know at 56 years old, I should probably drop it. But I just fucking can’t.
Who did you look up to growing up?
It was all Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith. They were really the three people that had the most influence on me, my style and, most of all, my attitude. The local punks used to hang outside record shops in the street and I was obsessed with those girls in particular – punk rockers who just went to town. They were always wearing red lipstick, fishnet tights and boots. Hollywood movies had a lot to do with [my style], too –Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, people like that. But primarily, it was punk rock.
Were you a punk rocker or an onlooker?
I was a bit of a punk rocker! I used to paint my face white, much to my father’s amusement, and I’d crimp my hair, spike it and hairspray it. But because I had red hair, I never looked the part. I just didn’t fit in and I always felt frustrated with myself. I had a lot of self loathing anyway, but I really hated myself for having red hair because I felt like I couldn’t be a proper punk rocker. This is how sad a 13 year old child thinks – I was so deranged.
Did you have many battles with your dad about what you wore?
Constantly! I was stealing his clothes a lot, which made him crazy. He’ll still tell stories to this day of discovering me at a high school wearing what he calls his “funeral coat”. I used to wear a lot of his jackets and it really pissed him off. I think my father was horrified by how I presented myself to the public, as was my granny. But there was nothing really they could do about it, God bless them. I think they just decided it wasn’t a hill they were prepared to die on. They were like, “let’s just leave her be.”
So style was your way of rebelling as a teenager?
I am still quite a rebellious character. I want to be a malleable soul and I want to fit in more gracefully, but there’s just something in my personality – and I can’t help it – that just doesn’t want to be easy. I’ve always been loud, I’ve always been really opinionated and I will never be told what to do or how to do it. I like doing my own thing and forging my own path. I don’t want to follow someone – I want to do it myself and do it my way.
Have you always wanted to stand for something with what you wear?
Well, it goes as far back as me watching Kylie become sort of cool alt-Kylie Minogue. She was this pop princess who dabbled in alternative culture and it changed the way we all viewed her. I’m talking specifically about when she became involved with Michael Hutchence All of a sudden she was wearing leather and singing Better the Devil You Know, and looking absolutely fantastic and dangerous.
So Kylie had a big impact on you?
I was really captivated by that transformation. When I was preparing to release the first Garbage record [Garbage, 1995], I was aware that alt-girls were dressing sort of tough. They were all in plaid shirts, jeans and combat boots. I didn’t want to be like that – not because I didn’t think it was a cool look, but I just wanted to have my own identity and stick out from the crowd. I always thought that’s what fashion was all about.
I took a small note from the club scene that I used to party in when I was younger. I was into neon colours, which was very non alt-rock. But when I emerged, it really caught the alt scene by surprise because nobody was dressing like that. I definitely was a rule unto my own back then by default, because I just didn’t want to look like everybody else.
One of your most memorable looks has to be at the 1999 Grammys, where you wore a transparent dress with the band’s most recent album, Version 2.0, printed on the front, which was nominated for Album of the Year.
I had no idea it was that see-through! I worked with Jennifer Elster, an amazing stylist, on this dress and she had it made for me. She said, “how amazing would it be if you wore your album cover to the Grammys?” This was before Macy Gray and Madonna had advertised their records on the red carpet. I don’t know if it had ever been done before. So I’m like, “yeah, let’s do it!” But I had no idea it was completely transparent.
Blimey, that must have been a surprise in the papers the next day. In recent years, the darker side of the ’90s is being revealed, such as the misogyny faced by so many women in the public eye.
It was unbelievably misogynistic and sexist. The music press in particular was really aggressive and unpleasant, and it hurt me deeply. But I dealt with it with humour for the most part, because I knew that if I allowed them to see that it really made me suffer, I would attract more criticism. They made fun of me a lot of the time. I was described in really unfavourable terms because any woman, of course, who expressed any opinion about anything of any importance was labelled either a bitch or a crazy person.
It no longer hurts me, if I’m being really honest. I’ve gone past that point. But when I was younger, I felt it was putting my career in jeopardy, so privately I’d be freaking out. I felt like if they were writing unpleasant things about me, then the public would start to believe that, then my career would be over. It was based on irrationality, but at the same time it really did hurt my feelings.
Did it affect the way you physically saw yourself?
I’ve got a lot of shame about my body, just because I grew up in the ’70s where there was no discourse about body shapes. We were expected to be really thin – awful conditioning that I suffer from to this day. Women were still being treated as objects [in the ’90s], there were still naked ladies in The Sun and all that shit. That damages your mind. I love seeing all this discourse again in our culture, particularly for young people who are able to have pride about their bodies, despite not being a size zero or whatever. I wish I’d grown up in that environment. It’s so much healthier.
On the flipside, when do you feel at your all time best?
Certainly when I’m performing – there is definitely a transformation that takes place when you step on stage. I have played every toilet under the sun and I’ve gotten really good at what I do. You may not like it, but I still know that I’m good at it. When you have that sort of foundation on which to stand, that breeds confidence and confidence, of course, is when you feel at your very best.
What turns your head when you’re walking down the street?
I just love people that are expressing themselves differently. Anything that looks like it took effort really captures my attention, when I know somebody’s poured time and attention into their makeup or designing their own outfit. I like anyone that looks freakish – aliens, punk rockers, anyone with a mohawk still capture my attention. I always tell anybody that looks good how amazing they look and you always get such a lovely reaction. It’s such a joy.
Do you ever look back at an outfit and go “what was I thinking?”
That is a fucking funny question. Of course, there are definitely regrets. But I have to say, in general, I did pretty good. I know that there’s lots of really embarrassing photos floating around for a lot of people and I don’t feel like there’s too many [of me] – I feel like I made some pretty good, solid choices. But I also am not that person that regrets when you fuck up, because when you fuck up, it’s when you learn.
And lastly, if your house was on fire and you could save one item of clothing…
Can I have two?
It would have to be a pair of boots, probably by Ann Demeulemeester. And then it would be a fake fur leopard skin coat.
Gorgeous. Thanks, Shirley!