Let’s be clear: Sabrina Ellis was not trying to flash a crowd of well-heeled Austin music patrons at a Black Fret event in September.
Roughly a month before she was scheduled to play the Austin City Limits Music Festival with Sweet Spirit, the Austin singer took the stage at Speakeasy downtown for a gig sponsored by the local music nonprofit with her other band, A Giant Dog. She wore an extravagant new costume piece, a custom-fitted latex leotard with a Catwoman-style cut on the bodice. Getting it on her body required the assistance of two girlfriends: one to hold the top in place while the other one zipped. She felt like she was wearing a swim cap, and the look was ridiculously hot. The leotard passed the “bounce test” she regularly administers to the revealing costumes she likes to wear onstage.
She looked stunning when she hit the stage, but as the show progressed, a problem arose.
“The thing about it that I couldn’t have foreseen was that sweat makes latex not stick to your body anymore,” she says with a laugh.
Halfway through the set, she did a dramatic twirl with her arms in the air and out popped her breasts. The angle of her body meant only her bandmates got the peep show, but she immediately realized it was not a solvable issue.
“My way of dealing with that is to communicate with the audience about it so that they’re not embarrassed for me,” she says.
The audience was far more buttoned up than the average dive bar crowd AGD draws, but they were sympathetic.
“I ended up throwing on my overgarment for most of the rest of the set, and by the end of the set my entire spandex leotard was down around my waist and I’m wearing this kind of frumpy velvet cloak and sweating my ass off,” she says.
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One of the most dynamic live performers in the city, Ellis is known for her full-immersion flamboyance. “She’s channeling Freddie Mercury,” Spoon frontman Britt Daniel once observed. But her onstage style has evolved significantly over the last few years.
“I’ve always had a way of dressing that’s kind of bipolar,” she says. “I’ll either dress kind of eccentrically, in a way, to kind of peacock and stand out. I’ll almost dress in theme. Or I’ll just wear the crappiest clothes ever. Not even jeans, I’m talking about wind shorts ... or a really huge T-shirt and no pants. I’m lucky that all this workout gear stuff is coming back into mainstream fashion, because I happen to have always worn that kind of stuff, and I don’t even work out.”
Ellis grew up in Houston where she was a high school oddball, a drama nerd. She once likened her youthful persona to Mike Judge’s “King of the Hill” character Bobby Hill. Along with her current bandmate Andrew Cashen and former A Giant Dog drummer Orville Neely, she played in a ‘70s cover band, but her classmates weren’t fans. One time the group played a dance and the chaperones and teachers grooved to their Stevie Wonder and Ramones covers while most of the kids just mean-mugged them, wishing the DJ would come back.
She began to develop her whimsical approach to fashion around her sophomore year.
“It was kind of this impulse of, 'I’m getting picked on, I’m getting made fun of for my way of dressing, and I’m actually trying to look cool and it’s just not working. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m just going to start wearing whatever comes to mind and see how that goes for me,'” she says.
Her favorite pants during that phase of her life were a pair of polyester “old man pants” from the Salvation Army that fit high at the waist and the ankle.
She was bored in high school and had a natural inclination to “cause a ruckus,” so she and a friend started a “foreign Fridays” tradition. They’d stay up late each Thursday, researching the fashion and culture of a different country, talking on the phone about their outfit plans. Then they’d show up on Friday morning (usually late) with an outrageous look, a fake name and a set of catchphrases from whatever country they tried to emulate.
In retrospect, she recognizes there was sometimes a cultural insensitivity to their youthful rambunctiousness. For Japan day, they dressed as Kabuki theater artists wearing silk dresses and carrying parasols. They staged a fight in the commons.
An obsession with the movie version of the musical “Hair” convinced her she needed to live in New York City, and after high school she spent two years in the experimental theater program at New York University before she dropped out and moved to Austin to be with her high school friends.
By the time she was 23, they had reformed the high school band as punk outfit A Giant Dog.
When the band first started playing clubs, Ellis’ first instinct was to make her stage look very feminine. She wanted to be pretty and to put an effort into her appearance that matched the work she put into the music itself. She wore babydoll dresses and Mary Janes, which seemed pretty cute, but when the band started to play, it felt wrong. She learned something about herself.
“I’ll look good in a dress when I’m trying it on, but then when I get onstage I’m very uncomfortable looking that way, because I know I turn more into this kind of animal creature, sort of like a lady spirit,” she says.
Dressing hyper-feminine, she says, feels like dressing in drag. “I feel like I’m putting a costume on and a face on just as much as I’d feel like I’m putting a costume on if I put on a tuxedo.”
In the early days of A Giant Dog, her go-to look became a T-shirt and panties, and she often skipped footwear completely.
“I was onstage barefoot like I was in a jam band or something. It was pretty misguided,” she says with laugh. “I won’t be barefoot on stage anymore, but it was a nice feeling of agility that I got from being barefoot.”
At the time, she was working to come out of her physical shell. She felt inhibited about dancing.
“A lot of my moves are kind of ridiculous and clownlike and surrealist, because I watch a lot of beautiful dance and I want to do what they’re doing, but in the attempt I just get three-fourths of the way there to what a real dancer can do.”
She learned to satirize herself deliberately. “If I’m going to look wrong, I’m going to look really wrong,” she says.
Meanwhile, her body was developing. She was getting curvier. And her bands were getting bigger. By 2012, A Giant Dog was tapped to do a tour opening for Spoon.
Her friend, Emily Swinson, a vintage clothing collector, decided to take Ellis on as a project. She invited Ellis to drop by her house to go through her things, then sent her away with a bag full of 10 outfits — real outfits.
“She was like, ‘Take these on tour with you and show off,’” Ellis says.
Her new stagewear had a glam feel, and the outfits were more revealing than her old look. She was still wearing panties on stage, but they were much better panties.
“I got into wanting to wear more fancy-looking lingerie and stuff,” she says.
Suddenly, other friends were gifting her stagewear, too.
“Almost every woman I’m close with ... has given me a costume of some sort,” she says. “I feel really lucky.”
Local designers including Brandy Lee at Big Sister Studios have also signed on to dress Ellis for shows. She will wear an outfit by a young designer named Sloane Lenz at ACL Festival.
Like a lot of women, Ellis’ weight vacillates in a range of 20 pounds or so, but unrealistic beauty standards don’t dictate her look.
“When I have extra, I still am going to show up in a leotard. I’m going to jiggle around, I’m going to show off, my arms are going to flap, and I’m not going to think about it,” she says. “If somebody doesn’t want to look at me like that, or they’re not attracted to me like that, it’s like, I’m not here for you to assess whether you’re attracted to me. I’m here to do a human performance, and dressing that way feels just as good when I have extra as it does when I don’t.”
Women often come up to her after shows and say her style makes them feel empowered, like they too can get away with wearing whatever they want.
“I’m like, ‘Of course you can!’ And I love that attitude. You don’t have to run on a treadmill all week or have a personal trainer to want to dress however you want to and express yourself however you want to.”
Which brings us back to that latex leotard, which Ellis describes as “a stupid impulse buy.”
“Latex garments are really expensive. ... At the beginning of this year we had gotten a licensing deal, and I was like, ‘I want the most fabulous costume.’ So I custom-ordered this to my measurements, which were way smaller at the beginning of the year. ... By the time it showed up three months later, I’d gained 15 pounds and it wouldn’t fit.”
She can get into the leotard now, “but it taught me something,” Ellis says.
“Spending my money on vanity is not where I want to put it. ... I thought it was going to make me feel good about where I’ve gotten in my career, but it doesn’t make me feel good, and it wasn’t really a practical purchase in any regard,” she says.
“My body changes too much to wear something that custom and that fitted, and then it, you know, exposed my boobs to Black Fret.”
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