When Brittany Howard was a child in Athens, Alabama she often dressed up in outfits that she solely wore to play outside. She explains that she would often dress as a cowgirl or a pirate before she went to play in the junkyard that was on the outside of her home, which was on a farm. This was an imaginative era for Howard who would eventually become a singer and guitarist. “I dressed myself as a child [with] lots of patterns,” Howard tells me over a call from what appears to be a studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Aside from the costumes she wore, her earliest fashion memories also included her mother, Christi dressing her for church. This was completely separate from what the future performer wore to school. Howard nearly laughs when she recalls wearing “itchy polyester dresses” and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes as her Sunday Best.
Growing up, alongside her older sister, Jaime, in a rustic setting meant that they saw animals in a different light than others. Howard says they watched animals through all phases of life and death. “I ran around the woods, I played outside all day, we did farmer things,” says Howard. She even had a pony. As children, Howard and Jaime would play in the junkyard or at the farm. Howard would often wear costumes and one-pieces that would often get dirty or disheveled during this time in her life. “We couldn’t wear nice stuff outside.”
These moments instilled something in Howard, perhaps a sense of individualism–but they each informed her earliest sense of self since clothing was her way of expressing herself. As the years powered forward, by middle school, she recalls wearing knockoff Tommy Hilfiger and going shopping at flea markets. “I came out with some really funky outfits.” When revisiting this era she mentions that overalls, one-piece jumpsuits, Starter satin jackets, and Catalina windsuits were what her wardrobe was comprised of.
Howard had a playful, rambunctious, and exploratory nature that continued for years. This energy poured into music that she leaned into as time went on–she taught herself to play drums, bass, and the guitar by the time she was in junior high school. She’d also been writing song lyrics in notebooks. By 17, she’d begun having jam sessions for Alabama Shakes, the band she’d created with her high school classmate Zac Cockrell, in her home where she lived alone. Steve Johnson and Heath Fogg would later join. Odd jobs such as truck driving, bagging groceries, and beyond ensued for Howard as the band built the crux of their artistry. By 2012, their debut album Boys & Girls was released and things shifted completely for each bandmate.
Missy Elliott, was the pinnacle of style for Howard. She speaks highly of the rapper and producer who is an essential part of the lineage of hip hop. Her outfits were aspirational and she was always inspired by the custom pieces that have become synonymous with her music. The jumpsuits that Howard wore for years can be seen as an homage to Elliott who for years wore one-pieces and sweat suits.
In the earliest stages of Alabama Shakes’ performances, Howard says she reverted to wearing clothes that evoked a version of herself from her childhood. “In the very beginning, all I knew was that people were buying tickets so I needed to look nice for fans.” She says that she immediately thought back to her church days and would wear dresses because she associated them with looking nice. As time went on, Howard worked with different stylists who created custom outfits for her to wear on the stage. “I really, really enjoyed doing that,” she notes.
As the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, Howard received acclaim, and her voice, which is infectious, always tells stories of her past. In 2019, she went solo, revealing Jaime an album which paid homage to her late sister and bloomed majestically. Her guttural stories and voice have carried her, but so have her instinctual songwriting. Now, a five-time Grammy winner who also has a Billboard No. 1 album and White House performances under her belt, she’s entering a newer era. She tells me that her forthcoming album What Now is all about “evolution, freedom, and authenticity.” Howard even alludes to it feeling like the 1999 Matrix sci-fi film by the Wachowskis.
At the moment, she is prepping for a nationwide tour, which means she has enlisted the assistance of a stylist to create custom pieces for her. “For this era, everything has to be designed for the stage to flow and to also breathe,” Howard says. “As for me, there’s a lot of physicality on the stage.” The singer and her stylist have been working closely together for months to perfect the wardrobe she will be wearing on tour as she performs her next album. “You want to be smart with your energy when you’re a performer,” Howard tells me.
The comfortability with self that Howard evokes is undoubtedly a part of her personality. The value she has always placed on what is a part of her packaging as an artist, her attire is a piece of her too. It’s almost as if she’s been teaching herself these lessons since she was a child picking out her clothes in Athens, Alabama, but now the world is her stage.