Jewish Fashion Icon of the Month: Bette Midler

When I started writing this, I had no idea whether Bette Midler was going to be a guest at this year’s Met Gala on May 6. (Although she’d certainly been before, attending as Marc Jacobs’ date in 2016). But given the theme of this year’s exhibition and fundraiser — Camp: Notes on Fashion — it seems fitting to anoint her our Jewish Fashion Icon of the Month. Was there ever anyone who did camp better than the Divine Miss M?

The Divine Miss M

She’s a singer, songwriter, actor, comedian and film producer, but essentially Bette Midler has been perfecting the art of being fabulous ever since she first appeared in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway in the 60s. Her performances at the Continental Baths, a favorite of Manhattan’s gay community, earned her the nickname Bathhouse Betty; later, she starred in camp classics like Hocus Pocus and the weepie Beaches, and was at one point the highest-paid woman in Hollywood.

These days, Midler is proving as relevant as ever into her seventies. Fresh from her star turn in 2018’s Hello, Dolly!, she’s just been announced as one of the guest stars in The Politician, a new show from Ryan Murphy (the creator of Glee and Pose, and himself no stranger to camp).

Bette’s fashion family

You can’t argue with a woman who coined the aphorism, “I firmly believe that with the right footwear one can rule the world.” So it’s little wonder that Bette Midler’s offstage (and offscreen) style has been consistently worth watching. From the time she rocked up at the 1975 Grammys wearing a vinyl record on her head to the sheer, floral embroidered “naked dress” she wore to perform at the Oscars this year, Midler has never been shy about pushing a look as far as it can go. Her annual Hulaween Gala for the New York Restoration Project, a non-profit organization she founded in 1995, is as glam as Halloween gets: in 2018, Bette and her daughter Sophie Von Haselberg went all out with sparkly headdresses bobbing with stars and planets entirely in keeping with the Cosmos theme.

And the fashion world has embraced her right back. An early champion of designer Norma Kamali, she performed at Carnegie Hall in a silver lamé dress she called “The Baked Potato” in 1972; more recently, she unveiled a new community garden in Brooklyn last year with her friend Michael Kors. Marc Jacobs is another fan, and cast Midler in his Spring 2016 ad campaign. “To this day, I still credit Bette Midler (unbeknownst to her) with a large part of my foray into fashion design,” he wrote on Instagram at the time. Whether she hits the red carpet at this year’s Met Gala or not, Midler will certainly be there in spirit.

Susannah Cohen
Susannah Cohen is a fashion journalist, e-commerce editor (specialist subjects: lingerie and diamonds) and Jewish mom. Recently relocated from London to the West Coast, she’s feeling a lot more spiritual these days.