F rom catsuits to cummerbunds, Freddie Mercury’s encyclopaedic wardrobe is currently on display as part of Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own, the takeover exhibition at Sotheby’s London until 5 September 2023. I spoke to Carey Wallace and Sarah Hodgson—the team behind the cataloguing of this epic collection—as they reflect on the experience of uncovering some of the most famous apparel in music history.
I first catch a glimpse of Carey and Sarah in a West London warehouse back in the spring of this year. In a spacious back room, makeshift desks groan with books, photographs, laptops, notebooks, cups of tea. Surrounded by racks upon racks of tantalisingly gorgeous, glittering garments, the two experts are easy to miss with heads buried in their close, careful work. How did they feel when they first received the call? “Oh, my god. Literally, because it was just before Christmas, and I was like, please don’t say you need this soon!” laughs Sarah.
“We had no idea though, really, on the complete size until we came into the warehouse,” remembers Carey, and it would soon manifest as a selection of more than 1,500 individual items. Whilst no strangers to working with important estates (previous collections the duo have worked on include those of Eric Clapton, Shirley Bassey, Margot Fonteyn and Marilyn Monroe) it quickly became apparent “this [was] the biggest by far.”
"the lines would blur between on-stage and off with well-loved items of clothing appearing later in music videos..."
Describing the experience of seeing the collection in the warehouse for the first time, “my initial reaction was that it was akin to Howard Carter’s reaction when he first discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb,” said Sarah. “When asked what he saw through the small hole he’d made in the wall, he simply replied “I see wonderful things”. That’s exactly what it felt like.”
Like all great works of art, the process of cataloguing Freddie’s famous closet began with the research. Source material took many forms, from photographs and books, to music videos and first-hand accounts from friends, designers and collaborators. “If you read the words, ‘sequinned stage catsuit’, you know it can only be one of those, so that was easy enough, but it was finding the photographs that matched all the other bits and pieces that weren’t so well-known: that was where the real work was involved,” explains Sarah.
As the weeks wore on, even the subtlest of clues were picked up by the pair’s keen eyes: an important black and white top with matching scarf designed by Zandra Rhodes was identified by an on-stage photograph from 1974, just from “a little fragment of material coming out of a cuff.” Anecdotes like these–and there are many–have undoubtedly contributed to Wallace and Hodgson’s recent dubbing by the BBC’s Samira Ahmed as the ‘glam-rock detectives.’
Glitter and glamour aside, the collection also includes a detailed glimpse into Freddie’s off-duty wardrobe, from the flamboyant vintage jackets of the ‘70s to the T-shirts, jeans and bomber jackets of the ‘80s. “He wore men’s as well as women’s clothes, which is very current,” Sarah explains. So too, the lines would blur between on-stage and off with well-loved items of clothing appearing later in music videos, such as the black velvet jacket worn in the music video for Bohemian Rhapsody. Ultimately, the constant for Freddie, along with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, was comfort. “Comfort was the thing.” Manifest in the softest of fabrics and his dozens of pairs of ballet slippers: both on-stage and off, Freddie’s wardrobe choices were so often led by what he could dance, sing, truly live in.
“But very skintight trousers.”
This process also revealed that “he wasn’t devoted to brands. So many artists [of that period] were devoted to a different designer. […] But it wasn’t like that with Freddie at all. Labels didn’t matter to him. It was what it looked like.” Not following trends made Mercury no less exacting in his style choices. On a visit to the collection during the cataloguing process, designer Wendy de Smet confirmed that the frontman would often adapt and embellish her designs himself. As Carey recalls: “He’d handsewn on all these sequins and the decoration. He was completely hands on. […] He had a vision of what he wanted, and he did it. Pretty amazing, really.”
A collection unlike any other, “there were just constant surprises the whole way through,” enthuses Sarah, with certain items of clothing acting as visual markers for the different chapters of Mercury’s story. “The discovery of that beautiful Japanese maple leaf jacket was a particular high point because we discovered it was the earliest piece of clothing in the collection. We found photographs of Freddie wearing it in July 1970, so it’s literally just when Queen became Queen and it was before John Deacon joined the band. There are photographs of them at Imperial College rehearsing and Freddie’s wearing that. So, he must have had an interest in Japanese things then before he’d even been to Japan.”
And of course, no important collection is complete without a dramatic last-minute addition. For Wallace and Hodgson, this came in the form of an eleventh-hour unearthing of Freddie’s iconic silver sequin catsuit. “That was one thing we always felt was missing from the collection. We kept saying, ‘oh, it would be so nice to have that because it’s such a recognisable costume for Freddie, and then a week before we finished cataloguing, Mary [Austin] found it and it was rushed in by taxi.” The suit, believed to be the only one made for Freddie, was last worn for his remarkable appearance at the Royal Ballet Gala at the London Coliseum on 7 October, 1979. The suit, which was accessorised with a leather jacket, symbolised the dawn of the 80s and a sartorial shift for the artist. “It was the end of the catsuits and the beginning of the leather.”
Wallace and Hodgson’s own journey to this moment comes after almost 30 years of working together. With Carey’s career beginning at another auction house in 1985, “you started as a secretary if you were a girl or a porter if you were a boy, in the old-fashioned days,” she remembers. Seizing some chance opportunities, she was able to form the firm’s Popular Entertainment Department, inviting Sarah to join in 1994. The two would set up independently in 2009. Summing up their partnership, “We’re work wives. It’s been a joy,” smiles Sarah.
Now, no longer the temporary custodians of Freddie’s fabled wardrobe, the duo can reflect on the magnitude of the job and its particular importance to fans. Online, the clothing often elicits the most visceral of responses (“What do they smell like?!” one follower has asked on social media). Perhaps it’s the particular human qualities that clothing can be imbued with, beyond the more traditional art forms. Perhaps it’s “the fact that he’s actually physically worn these things, touched them, breathed on them, you know?” muses Sarah.
Of the experience overall, Carey sums it up plainly. “It’s been a terribly exciting voyage of discovery, really, and still is.”