Dame Zandra Rhodes on Designing for Freddie Mercury

As the long-awaited Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody hits cinemas, the British fashion institution opens up about her designs for and her relationship with the late musical icon

“I was never a music groupie. People assume that of me because I have bright pink hair, but I was actually very boring and working most of the time; I still am,” Dame Zandra Rhodes tells me over the phone, from where she is staying in California. Indeed, Rhodes is multi-tasking as we speak: “It’s great chatting on the telephone, as I can always just flick around my designs while I’m talking to you. It kills two birds with one stone!” It was a telephone call that first connected the 30-something-year-old Rhodes – a then-fledgeling fashion designer – with one of the greatest pop cultural icons of our age: Freddie Mercury. Although, at the time of their first encounter, she hadn’t the faintest idea who he was. “I thought Queen was a teeny bopper band!” she laughs.

Rhodes, now in her seventies, is renowned for her outrageous aesthetic and all-encompassing fabulousness, a trait that was shared with the late-Mercury, who she would go onto dress alongside Queen guitarist Brian May. The band were photographed on stage and for magazine editorials in her designs, and are some of the most enduring images of the operatic rock ensemble. This month sees the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic chronicling the career and turbulent personal life of the late-Freddie Mercury, for which Rhodes’ costumes have been replicated. Here, she shares the story of how the originals came to be.

When did you first meet Freddie?

Zandra Rhodes: I got a phone call in the early 1970s, while I was working in my funny little studio in an attic in Bayswater. It was Freddie Mercury, saying that he would like to come by and look at some clothes. Queen had a hit single at that time, which all my girls who were working for me in my studio knew about, but I didn’t. I had to ask them who he was! It was long before Bohemian Rhapsody or anything like that. My little attic was just full of sewing machines and rails – there was no changing room or anything like that. So I said to Freddie and Brian [May], ‘why don’t you come round in the evening when no one else is here?’ So it was just the three of us, and I got them to try things that were on the rails – it was just what I already had hanging there.

Do you remember what you dressed him in during that fitting?

Zandra Rhodes: It was the white pleated top that you always see Freddie pictured in with his arms outstretched. He tried on several things, modelling them in the studio, but then he tried that on and it was the one. It was actually a piece that had started out as an idea for a wedding dress. So I said to Freddie ‘move around the room and look in the mirror see how you feel, and if it’ll work for you whilst you’re on stage.’ But really, we didn’t have much of a conversation about it – his movements said it all.

“The thing that’s so fabulous, is that Freddie in my white pleated top went onto become one of the iconic images of him. It is incredible to be a part of that history” – Zandra Rhodes

Was he the first man you had made clothes for at that time?

Zandra Rhodes: I’d made clothes for Marc Bolan – it was a green jersey top, and there’s a video of him wearing it. But Freddie was the second man that I had provided my work for. I had never thought about it being a unisex design – it was just that he had tried it on and it felt right for him. I went to the concert where he first wore that piece. It was at Earl’s Court Olympia, which they’ve now pulled down. I went with my great friend, the artist Duggie Fields. The thing that’s so fabulous, is that Freddie in my white pleated top went onto become one of the iconic images of him. It is incredible to be a part of that history.

What do you think Freddie’s impact was on fashion at large and the way that men dressed at the time?  

Zandra Rhodes: He was a hidden revolutionary in the fact that he dressed exotically and wore make-up. I think he was probably one of the founders of the androgynous movement in fashion. I think at that time, a lot people had to pretend they were straight, as was the case for Freddie. I have an amazing gay radar, but it wasn’t my job to ask about this of course or to get to know him. I just wanted to dress him, as a client.

Did you have any inkling that Freddie Mercury was going to become a cultural icon?  

Zandra Rhodes: He was already a star when I met him. But Queen, as a band, went into the stratosphere, and I think there is not enough credit given to someone like Brian, who had an astrophysics degree and was incredibly intelligent. It was because of their intellect that they were able to accomplish what they did, musically. Right at the beginning before Queen made it, Freddie worked in Kensington Market, where he ran a stall. I didn’t know him then, but it’s quite possible that we had met before when I also had a stall there. But, it’s impossible to know when someone is going to take off as he did. So there are all sorts of instances in your past that you can look at, with hindsight.

Do you know where the white pleated top is now?

Zandra Rhodes: No! I’ve made replicas for the costumes in the new biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody that comes out this month. They’re putting replicas in the foyer of the premieres, all across the world. But I have no idea where the original is now. There’s a big prop museum in somewhere like Oklahoma I think, that I think it might have been sold to. But who knows.

And what does the future hold for you?

Zandra Rhodes: We’ve got a retrospective planned next year at the Fashion and Textile Museum and I’m being honoured in Dallas next month, for my contribution to fashion. There is also a fabulous girl, Bridie O’Sullivan, who has been following me around, filming all sorts of different exposures of my life to make a documentary about me called Zandra With a Zee.

Do you think you’ll ever stop working?

Zandra Rhodes: Well, I suppose one might slow down… Eventually!

Bohemian Rhapsody is out on October 24