Nancy Wilson admits that the tie-dyed dress she wore for her first Rolling Stone cover in 1977 is nothing special compared to the hand-picked designer clothes that today's rock goddesses wear. The guitarist, who fronts the rock band Heart with lead-singer sister Ann Wilson, bought the garment at a department store.
"You had to make your own style, do your own makeup," Nancy, now 57, recalls.
Yet that dress and a purple suede frock Ann wore onstage during the same period are among the items that represent two of rock's first frontwomen in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power. The exhibit, which opened May 13, celebrates women's contributions to the genre from its inception in the 1920s.
The dresses illustrate what Nancy fondly describes as a more innocent time in Heart's career. "The dogged determination of creating your own image was part of the more naturalistic, childlike doors through which we originally walked," she says.
The sisters came of age in the late 1960s, when gender roles were changing and almost anything seemed possible, she says. Moreover, their musical influences were almost exclusively male. "When The Beatles came out, it wasn't weird to pretend you were a boy," she insists. "You were just trying to be cool." Later, Ann would emulate Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant's powerful vocals and onstage persona.
"We walked into this career thinking we were just like Led Zeppelin or The Beatles or the Rolling Stones, bands like The Mamas and The Papas that had cute girls, fat girls, guys, whatever," Nancy says. "It didn't matter."
That all changed in the early 1980s with the advent of MTV. Ann, now 60, remembers that managers, producers and stylists began asking her and Nancy to show an uncomfortable amount of skin.
"There was no precedent for the image of a strong woman in rock," she explains. "So the automatic default was the sex-kitten image. It was really wrong. But we all went along with it because we were being told it was a really good way to sell our records." Worse yet, many people were telling Ann, who had always battled a weight problem, that her career depended on dropping the extra pounds.
"I don't think anybody ever really said that to [Led Zeppelin drummer] John Bonham," she quips. "He probably would have knocked their lights out."
The low point finally came in the late 1980s, when somebody asked Nancy, "Wow, do you really play guitar or is it just a prop in the video?"
"I knew it was time to do something else," she says. So the sisters took a break to start families and pursue other interests.
That packaging and marketing of women continues to concern the Wilsons, who are highlighted in the Rock Hall exhibit for helping to pave the way for women to gain more control over their careers.
"It's not just a sex kitten now. It's a pole-dancer, a porn star!" she says. "I know a lot of people disagree. They somehow have mixed up being hyper-sexualized with feminism, as if a woman being sexier and more available for sex makes her more free."
The Wilsons believe they serve as an inspiration to other female performers. "Because of our experience, we have confidence that we can do what we like, be what we want and say what we feel," Ann says. "Those are really good things for younger women to look forward to if they have long careers."