David Byrne Explains How the “Big Suit” He Wore in Stop Making Sense Was Inspired by Japanese Kabuki Theatre

In the nine­teen-sev­en­ties and eight­ies, the name of David Byrne’s band was Talk­ing Heads — as the title of their 1982 live album per­pet­u­al­ly reminds us. But their over­all artis­tic project arguably had less to do with the head than the body, a propo­si­tion mem­o­rably under­scored in Stop Mak­ing Sense, the Jonathan Demme-direct­ed con­cert film that came out two years lat­er. “Music is very phys­i­cal and often the body under­stands it before the head,” Byrne says in a bizarre con­tem­po­rary self-inter­view pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. To make that fact vis­i­ble onstage, “I want­ed my head to appear small­er, and the eas­i­est way to do that was to make my body big­ger.”

Hence cos­tume design­er Gail Black­er’s cre­ation of what Talk­ing Heads fans have long referred to as the “big suit.” Byrne has always been will­ing dis­cuss its ori­gins, which he traces back to a trip to Japan. There, as he put it to Enter­tain­ment Week­ly in 2012, he’d “seen a lot of tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese the­ater, and I real­ized that yes, that kind of front-fac­ing out­line, a suit, a businessman’s suit, looked like one of those things, a rec­tan­gle with just a head on top.”

A friend of his, the fash­ion design­er Jur­gen Lehl, said that “every­thing is big­ger on stage.” “He was refer­ring to, I think, ges­tures and the way you walk and what not,” Byrne told David Let­ter­man in 1984. But he took it lit­er­al­ly, think­ing, “Well, that solves my cos­tume prob­lem right there.”

Though Byrne only wore the big suit for one num­ber, “Girl­friend Is Bet­ter” (from whose lyrics Stop Mak­ing Sense takes its title), it became the acclaimed film’s sin­gle most icon­ic ele­ment, ref­er­enced even in chil­dren’s car­toons. New York­er crit­ic Pauline Kael called it “a per­fect psy­cho­log­i­cal fit,” remark­ing that “when he dances, it isn’t as if he were mov­ing the suit — the suit seems to move him.” The asso­ci­a­tion has­n’t been with­out its frus­tra­tions; he once spec­u­lat­ed that his tomb­stone would be inscribed with the phrase “Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?” But now that Stop Mak­ing Sense is return­ing to the­aters in a new 4K restora­tion, near­ly 40 years after its first release, he’s accept­ed that the time has final­ly come to pick it up from the clean­er’s. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it still fits.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Brief His­to­ry of Talk­ing Heads: How the Band Went from Scrap­py CBGB’s Punks to New Wave Super­stars

An Intro­duc­tion to Japan­ese Kabu­ki The­atre, Fea­tur­ing 20th-Cen­tu­ry Mas­ters of the Form (1964)

How Talk­ing Heads and Bri­an Eno Wrote “Once in a Life­time”: Cut­ting Edge, Strange & Utter­ly Bril­liant

Japan­ese Kabu­ki Actors Cap­tured in 18th-Cen­tu­ry Wood­block Prints by the Mys­te­ri­ous & Mas­ter­ful Artist Sharaku

How Jonathan Demme Put Human­i­ty Into His Films: From The Silence of the Lambs to Stop Mak­ing Sense

Talk­ing Heads Live in Rome, 1980: The Con­cert Film You Haven’t Seen

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Wm mann says:

    Dear Col­in;
    Pret­ty heady stuff.Thanks for the arti­cle.

  • Dave says:

    He actu­al­ly wore the suit dur­ing “Take me to the riv­er” as well and still has the pants and over­sized shirt on dur­ing “Crosseyed and Pain­less”. Basi­cal­ly he did­n’t do a cos­tume change once he put it on, but only shed the jack­et dur­ing Take me to the riv­er and untucked the shirt before crosseyed.

  • Bernard says:

    Hi all

    Where is the Big Suit now ??

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