Byline: Karen Parr

NEW YORK — “I was a punk rocker when I was 16 or 17,” drawls Katharine Whalen, the sultry Southern banjo player and one of the singers for the band Squirrel Nut Zippers.
“I wore black and had my hair up in all these mats, and black lips. I kind of looked like a raven.”
Backstage at “Sessions at West 54th,” a TV program taped here, Whalen looks worlds away from punkdom — and worlds away from the present.
In fact, after putting on a gray floral dress sprayed with tiny white beads and rhinestones, she looks like a Fifties dame ready to dance the lindy.
Her hair is dark and close to her head, her eyebrows seem modeled after Joan Crawford’s, and her lips are bright with her trademark red lipstick. One word — striking — best describes the 29-year-old.
She pulls at the waist of the dress — a birthday present her mother got her from a PTA thrift shop in North Carolina, Whalen’s home state.
“I think it’s a little large,” she says, checking herself in the mirror. “Does it seem all right?”
The folds of gray cotton skim over Whalen’s curves. It does seem all right — as does every vintage ensemble Whalen puts together these days for her time in the spotlight. With their second album, “Hot,” which recently went gold, the seven members of the Squirrel Nut Zippers have come a great distance from playing local clubs in Chapel Hill, N.C.
They’ve also shocked the music world. Who would have thought a band that concocted a new hybrid of old music — jazz, Delta blues, Dixieland brass — named after a chewy peanut-flavored candy, could suddenly become hip (and “alternative”) in the Nineties?
Responsibilities come with being hot. And Whalen’s clothing has helped her fulfill her role as a band member.
“I don’t want to show up in ragged jeans and a torn-up T-shirt,” she says. “I respect the job too much.
“We have an old-fashioned notion of how we should be represented or how we should appear to anyone we’re working with.”
Whalen’s wardrobe is also old-fashioned. She usually wears classic Fifties and Forties vintage clothing, especially sundresses, suits and skirts that hit the knee or below.
“It’s my body,” she explains. “I’m more womanly, I’m not girlish. I don’t look good in little minidresses.
“Vintage clothes fit me better; they’re better made, they’re nicer fabrics,” she adds. “I can find a nice item and look like a million bucks, and will have spent $20. I would rather spend my money on oil paints instead.”
Oil painting was what Whalen did before joining the band. Her subjects ranged from landscapes to her fuzzy white cat, Willie.
“They’re hard,” she says, describing cats as subjects. “Like chickens, they don’t hold still.”
She lifts the lid of her “jewelry box” — an old cardboard Hav-A-Tampa cigar box. Inside is a photo of Willie, along with such costume jewelry as Bakelite earrings, African trade beads and Czechoslovakian glass beads.
She also has a thing for vintage souvenir scarves with scenes from various cities.
“Like, if one was from Denver, it would say, ‘The Mile High City.’ I collect those. I’m real inspired by wherever it is we are,” she said.
And the Squirrel Nut Zippers are in a lot of places these days as they tour the nation. Yet they still cling to home, as witnessed by those who saw them perform at the “Sessions at West 54th” gig.
Between sets, the band members were joking around, and Whalen, who usually seems the demure lady among the six guys, pipes up with an out-of-place, “Where do y’all wanna eat?”
“Chapel Hill!” one answers.
You can take the band out of North Carolina…

Breaking Through, a look at women from outside the fashion industry whose personal style has some influence on today’s fashion, is published as a special supplement three times a year and as a column in WWD six times annually.