Gimme Gimme Gimme Tax Deductions by Vivian Le
The Swedish pop group ABBA was known for a lot of things, but the subtlety of their fashion choices was not one of them. In fact, one of the most memorable things about the group was their persistently outrageous stage attire. There were those Napoleonic blazers in Waterloo, plus enormous lapels, capes, sequins and so much more!
Recently, noted ABBA fan and 99pi producer Vivian Le read in an article that the band’s flamboyant costumes were actually inspired by something surprisingly mundane: tax law. Per Swedish tax law: as long as entertainers’ outfits were too impractical for everyday wear (outside a performance), they were considered tax-deductible. Thus the theory that this legal loophole had actually encouraged ABBA’s costume designer to make their clothing as colorful and unwearable as possible. There is a grain of truth there, but in reality: these incredible outfits were actually just the product of an incredibly flamboyant personality, which Vivian learned on a phone call with the man behind the apparel.
Vivian called up Owe Sandström, the original designer of all of ABBA’s outfits, who has had one of the most interesting careers one could imagine. Sandström is actually a professor of science who teaches zoology to students. But that’s not all: he also works with endangered animals, leads tours of the Galapagos, works as a safari guide in Kenya, owns a restaurant, and creates flower arrangements!
Sandström explained to Vivian that he actually stumbled into costume design years ago during his days as a professional flamenco dancer. At the time, he started learning the craft in order to create dresses for his fiancee, a fellow performer. By day, he continued to teach zoology to students, but by night he began crafting costumes for local musical artists in the area, which is how he came to meet Frida from an up-and-coming band called ABBA. “She took her friends to my studio,” remembers Sandström, “and I said: ‘Tell me, what do you want?’ And then Bjorn said these words: ‘Owe, remember nothing is too wild.'”
Sandström took those words to heart! He recalls the first ABBA costumes he designed for the music video of Ring, Ring. “If you look at it, you can see Bjorn. He looks like something between a circus artist, a drag show, and Superman.” Sandström admits that he styled the group along the lines of circus performers because he actually was friends with circus performers.
As for the bigger initial question of whether or not Sandström designed ABBA’s costumes to be unwearable for tax reasons, the answer is: not really. While Sandström does admit that other artists have asked him to create tax-deductible stage outfits, that was never a factor in ABBA’s costumes. So were ABBA’s costumes a tax write-off? Almost certainly! But the reason why ABBA looked like ABBA was purely a product of Owe Sandström’s eclectic background and vivid imagination.