When it comes to putting on a show, Abigail and Lily Chapin — aka pop-infused folk duo The Chapin Sisters — know that it takes more that mere music to light up a stage, especially when it comes to the self-sourced vintage frocks that double as their costumes.
"When we get dressed for stage, we don’t want to wear what we’d wear in normal life," says Abigail, 34, who has been performing with her 32 year-old sibling since forming their band in 2004. Though half sister Jessica Craven (daughter of horror movie king Wes) left the group in 2009, the pair has found a following with a retro-tinged sound that straddles the line of haunting and whimsical. They're also known for their flowy, vintage-heavy stage wardrobes, especially since their most recent full length album — their third — is an homage to the Everly Brothers.
“Their album covers just struck a chord with us. We kind of saw a similarity in how we conceptualize our own style even though our style has always been incredibly feminine and kind of dramatic,” says Abigail. “In reading about them, their fashion was very conscientious—a huge part of their persona.”
To add how dressing up and looking like the Everly Brothers helped bring their performances to life, Lily adds, “It’s just a tool you have as a performer and an element you can use as a brush stroke to paint the experience you’re creating for the people.”
Having wrapped up their summer tour with She & Him on July 11 at Wolf Trap Vienna, VA, the Chapin Sisters performed their own show that following Saturday at Dia:Beacon Museum in Beacon, N.Y., where they stepped out of their ‘60s-inpsired suits and ties into their usual, one-of-a-kind vintage frocks. The venue’s creative environment, which was held in the Dan Flavin gallery, motivated the singing duo to hit the stage with an artsy approach.
“He’s [Flavin] an artist that works primarily with neon so we were trying to wear something that was appropriately colorful,” says Lily, who also notes that their wardrobes are taken highly into consideration during a performance. “I would say we’re usually pretty conscientious of the element that a costume plays into a performance. You know, the more attention you put into your costume, the more of an effect you might be able to have [with your show].”
From outdoor amphitheaters to an art exhibit, prepping backstage differs with every setting for the girls. “We’ve played in every kind of venue […] We’ll do our makeup in front of a mirror with lights and get dressed in a leisurely way while we drink a glass of wine,” says Abigail. “We’ve also played at rock clubs where we’ll get dressed five minutes a co-ed bathroom where there’s no backstage so it really runs the gamut.”
Recalling one of their not-so-pleasant moments of getting ready for a show, Lily says: “In the early days, we’d be crouching in a one-stall bathroom with graffiti on the wall that smelled like someone had vomited in it. Just crouching there with these long dresses, trying not to get it on the ground.”
The Chapin Sisters spent most of their childhood in New York’s Hudson Valley, but relocated temporarily to Los Angeles where they started the band in 2004. Not only did the girls grow up surrounded by musical influences with their dad as Grammy Award-winning folk singer Tom Chapin and singer-songwriter Harry Chapin as their uncle, Abigail and Lily’s personal styles also started at an early age. The girls were exposed to design and fashion, helping at their mom’s boutique in Piedmont, N.Y., named appropriately after the girls, Abigail Rose & Lily Too.
“She’s our original influence as far as style icons go,” Lily shares how their mother shaped the feminine looks on stage. “She’s the one who taught us to sew and the different kinds of fabric, quality, workmanship and design.”
Learning how to hem and stitch prove to be a useful skill since most of their performance outfits require slight alterations with these pieces usually from random thrift stores. As Lily puts it, “Abigail and I are freaks about always having to go into a thrift store if we drive by it. We can’t pass up a vintage or antique store when we’re on tour.”
“Sometimes we end up in the weirdest places when we’re touring, and our favorite thing to do is to explore and find these weird off-the-beaten path stores so we pick up clothes everywhere we go,” adds Lily.
This was especially true while on tour with She & Him where they found themselves searching for vintage pieces whenever there was down time. Aside from their Everly Brothers get-up, the Chapin Sisters are usually seen wearing Victorian and Gothic dramatic dresses. Abigail explains, “We like to play with femininity and drama. When we get dressed for stage, we don’t want to wear what we’d wear in normal life. It’s like putting on a play, we want to wear a costume.”
Abigail, who is also a wardrobe stylist for commercials and owner of handbag line Arc of LA, shares that one of her favorite onstage outfits are these ‘30s dresses found from a vintage store called Playclothes in Burbank, Calif.
“They were in the back because they had been damaged and they didn’t think people would want them,” says Abigail on coming across their rare find while shopping for their previous album tour. “The one that Lily got is all tulle, ruffles and totally falling apart, but for stage, it doesn’t matter. Mine was all taffeta and off the shoulders.”
When it comes to wearing thrifted dresses on stage, Lily doesn’t mind the old wear and tear, explaining, “We sew things up that seem to continue our way [from thrifiting]. I like wearing the old stuff ‘cause it’s like we’re giving it a new life.”
Now that they’ve wrapped up their summer tour as the Everly Brothers, Lily and Abigail will be back in the studios this fall to record their next full-length disc of original material. We’ll be looking forward to the vintage stage costumes they’ll be donning when they hit the road for that album.
See photos of Lily and Abigail getting ready backstage, below: