Inside the “Women Who Rock” Exhibit

x-posted from Kitchen Sisters Hidden World of Girls website.

Trivia: Only 9% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees are women.

Last month I had the opportunity to accompany Nikki on a trip to Cleveland, Ohio for the opening of the brand new Women Who Rock exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It was an amazing experience where we had the chance to interview several members of the museum’s curatorial staff, tour the exhibit, and brush up on women’s history. We also got to sit down and talk with Wanda Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, and Darlene Love – all of whom are featured in the exhibit and performed at the Rock Hall’s educational fundraiser that weekend!

L to R: Darlene Love, Wanda Jackson, and Cyndi Lauper at the opening of the exhibit

The new exhibit, which takes up two floors, pays tribute to the women who have played a vital role in the evolution of rock and roll but who often get left out of the collective memory. The exhibit offers a chronological look at the lyrics, hairstyles, instruments, and fashion of some of the world’s most important female musicians.

Lauren Onkey, who is vice president of education and public programs at the museum, told us that she hopes the exhibit will not only tell the history of women in rock, but also get young people, especially young girls, excited about these pioneers. As the first exhibit of it’s kind, Women Who Rock has the unique opportunity to inspire young girls with images of strong, independent, and hard-rocking women.

Meredith Rutledge, assistant curator at the museum, says she had been pushing for a women’s exhibit for years, but others rejected her proposal, concluding that an exhibit about female musicians would not have “wide appeal.” Meredith admits, “Rock and roll, like the general society that it comes from, is a male dominated animal. Men have been running the show, and women for so long were considered adjunct, window dressing, something extra on the side.”  It’s taken decades to get recognition for women musicians, and Meredith says, “this exhibit is a really good first step – and I want to make sure that we continue this. I don’t want my male colleagues to, you know, wipe their hands and say we’re done with the girls now, we can go back to the status quo. Now that we’ve got our foot in the door we want to keep it open.”

The exhibit starts out with the early soul and blues singers, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mahalia Jackson. From Meredith, we learned that Ma Rainey was one of the pioneers of “bling” — she used to wear multiple $20 gold pieces around her neck on a chain. Meredith says that this was revolutionary; “For an African American woman to flaunt her means in the 1920s was just so unheard of and really courageous.”

One of my personal favorites was Loretta Lynn’s dress that she wore on the cover of her Jack White-produced album Van Lear Rose. I think it is part Southern Belle, part Glenda the Good Witch, and completely classic Loretta.

Both Nikki and I loved the sweatshirt  belonging to Genya Ravan – lead singer of Goldie & the Gingerbreads. Genya herself offered up artifacts she had saved from the band’s era. Most people haven’t heard of Goldie & the Gingerbreads, which is a shame because they were in fact the first girl band who played their own instruments to be signed to a major label….by Ahmet Ertegun no less. The Gingerbreads broke ground for female musicians, and by featuring them in the exhibit, the Rock Hall is helping to reclaim the band’s lost history.

Click images to enlarge.

Also on display is Mavis Staples’ red Bill Whitten dress from the mid-70s. Mavis Staples is one of the most prolific and respected gospel/soul/R&B singers of the 20th century, and she has continued to release incredible albums into the 21st as well. We had the thrill of seeing Mavis perform at the museum’s benefit concert while we were in Cleveland, and she knocked our socks right off.

Another standout is Lesley Gore’s forty-pound dress that she wore at the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel in 1969. Apparently the dress was so heavy that Lesley could only bear to wear it for one song. It’s a beautiful dress and every inch is covered in beads, sequins and rhinestones.

Grace Slick’s white-fringed vest (below, second from the right) from her Woodstock performance is also on display. Meredith relayed to us the story of how Grace chose the vest in anticipation of a hot August weekend in New York. As is well documented, the weather turned out to be wetter than expected, so in order to preserve her outfit Grace avoided the rain and mud by secluding herself indoors.

Click images to enlarge.


Of course I have to mention Joan Jett’s leather jacket from the “I Love Rock and Roll” music video. It’s covered in buttons, the largest of which reads: Keep Abortion Legal.

In the exhibit you’ll also see Joan’s bandmate from the Runaways, Cherrie Currie’s gold lame jumpsuit  from the late 1970s. Well, at least it used to be gold. You can also see the one of her silver boots that she wore on tour. Apparently, the other boot was lost to an enthusiastic fan.

In the middle is Donna Summer’s outfit from the cover of her “Work That Magic” album, and on the left is Cher’s memorable Native American-inspired costume from “Half Breed.”

Click images to enlarge.


Patti Smith
has several artifacts on display, including an old school Atlanta Braves jacket with a tomahawk on it – probably from the 1950s. The mannequin is also wearing  a tattered t-shirt that has car racing flags on it, leather pants, and boots that are literally tape together with duct tape. Also on display is Smith’s clarinet, which she used to play at her early poetry readings with Lenny Kaye.

These are just a few highlights, and we’ll continue to blog about the exhibit in the coming weeks and months. If you’re in the Cleveland area, head over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to check out the exhibit yourself, or for a special sneak peek, check out this video, which highlights some of the exhibit’s artifacts.

All photos credit: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

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