The Sugarland frontwoman, 45, took the red carpet at ABC’s 53rd annual CMA Awards wearing an outfit that was part pantsuit, part gown, featuring a long, pink cape attached to the bodice of the suit jacket.
The back of the cape was printed with a drawing of a woman’s face affixed with the female gender symbol, and the words “equal play,” while the statement “Play our f*@#!g records please & thank you” is scrawled on the inside, visible only when Nettles lifts up the fabric.
The singer chose the dress — which was designed in collaborated with Christian Siriano, with art by Alice Mizrachi — to fit the theme of this year’s awards: a celebration of country music’s legendary women.
“When I found out the CMAs were going to celebrate women this year and that we had three fantastic hostesses this year, I thought, what a fantastic opportunity to take this conversation beyond the applause and to talk about what is needed to be said for a number of years now — that we’ve heard rumblings that women are supremely underrepresented on country radio and country play listings,” she told reporters in the press room.
Nettles continued: “I thought what is more womanly than to send a subversive message through fashion? So I called my friends and collaborated with Christian Siriano, who did the piece, and a wonderful artists out of New York named Alice Mizrachi. I just wanted to send a message that said, ‘Hey listen up. It’s time. Let’s go beyond lip service.'”
She also joked to Entertainment Tonight that the words “please” and “thank you” were added to the statement “because I’m mannerly.”
Check out PEOPLE’s full CMA Awards coverage to get the latest news on country music’s biggest night.
Nettles says that she hopes the dress will act as both a celebration of women and as a way to send a message to country radio — an industry that is largely male-dominated. She argues that female artists deserve more radio time, and that not playing their songs only continues to oppress them further as artists.
A 2019 study from Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that only 16 percent of the top 500 country songs from 2014 to 2018 were sung by women. Another recent study found that, between 2000 to 2018, women got increasingly less airtime than men on country radio. To put it in numbers, in 2000, women held 33.3 percent of the top 150 songs of the year, but by 2018, they held only 11.3 percent — a shocking decline of 66 percent.
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“There’s something called the bias of familiarity. If you play it enough times, people will like it,” Nettles recently told Country Living. “No one cares if it’s really good… the truth is if you play something over and over again people have a bias toward it just because they’ve heard it numerous times. So just hit the button.”
The mother of one has also said that becoming a mom has made her an even stronger activist for causes she believes in, including closing this gender gap.
“I’ve brought another human being into this world, I’ll try anything,” she told Country Living. “Nothing can be harder than this. Or scarier than this.”
In March, the Grammy-winner shared the visuals for her song “I Can Do Hard Things” with PEOPLE, a music video which focused on celebrating female empowerment.
The music video — which featured several women discussing their personal stories over Nettles’ soaring vocals — was meant to serve as an “inspiration and call to action,” Nettles explained to PEOPLE.
In addition to the powerful words shared by the singer and other women in the video, the song itself features a passage that touches on the lessons she’s learned about motherhood.
“In the second verse, I talk about becoming a mother and what a major learning curve that was,” Nettles, who is mom to 6-year-old son Magnus, told PEOPLE. “I say in that verse, ‘I’ve gained joy that I’ve never learned but lost the lightness of when I was a girl,’ and that is because you have two hearts. You’re heavier when you are carrying around an extra heart that you are responsible for.”
The 2019 CMA Awards are airing live from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. ET.