I’m old enough to remember a time when a trinity of blonde teenybopper princesses dominated pop music–Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Simpson (with youngin’ Mandy Moore keeping up the rear like Barbie’s kid sister Skipper.) These singers built on the Spice Girl legacy of coy sexual double entendres barely concealed in innocent pop melodies, discarding the Brits’ messages of sisterhood but retaining their cleavage. While it helped that Spears, Aguilera, and Simpson were conventionally pretty, it never seemed to matter what they wore. During the reign of the midriff, as long as pop singers showed an expanse of toned, tanned flesh below their belly buttons, they could cover the rest of their bodies with whatever they pleased. In terms of fashion, they got away with murder. One example stands in for many: Britney Spears attempted to ruin blue jeans for everyone by wearing a full-length denim gown with arm candy Justin Timberlake outfitted to match.
By the end of the last decade, the pop princesses were in retreat; their reputations sullied by vanity movie projects, emotional breakdowns, and failed marriages played out on reality TV. But pop music never stays away for long. The blondes were replaced by an entirely different kind of pop star who’s clothing was not incidental to her persona, but integral to it.
Early in her career, Lady Gaga constructed a persona out of wigs and sunglasses that kept her facial features almost secret. By the time she was ready to reveal her visage she was recognizable the world over for her style, a mélange of conceptual art, haute couture, and early-Madonna New Yorker. Katy Perry managed to finally distance herself from her doppelganger Zooey Deschanel by donning wigs in Marge Simpson blue, dresses that turned into Christmas trees or carousels, and a bra topped with ice cream and cherries. Nicki Minaj popularized a similarly drag queen-anime-warrior aesthetic. In a more subdued form Lana Del Rey, with her crowns of flowers and long red nails, has a style just as contrived. (Both Gaga and Del Rey started their careers with their birth names before ditching them for stage names, a change that may have encouraged a move to theatrical costumes.)
Just consider how Beyonce Knowles’s style has evolved since she escaped Tina Knowles’s matchy-matchy costumes for Destiny’s Child. Beyonce’s clothes have become more outlandish as her private life (wife, mother, Instagram-devotee) has become more traditional. From Beyonce’s thighs to Katy Perry’s cleavage, these pop stars aren’t above using their bodies to get attention, but by pushing the boundaries of fashion they encouraged their fans to similarly experiment with style. I know the fashion designers of tomorrow have posters of these divas on their walls.
So I couldn’t help but feel depressed about Katy Perry’s first ever cover for Vogue. Perry looks beautiful and the photographs by Annie Leibovitz (does the woman never sleep?) are romantic and cinematic. As Charlotte Cowles points out, the cover bares a striking resemblance to Anne Hathaway’s cover from last winter. There’s a red flower motif and I’m pretty sure Perry’s wearing a different version of the floral Valentino dress Adele wore to the Grammys. But it’s not so much the déjÃ vu that bothers me as the sense Vogue could have done something more interesting with Perry. My favourite Vogue photo spreads elevate their subjects to dream-like fantasy. It’s disappointing to see the stylists water down the star’s flamboyant stage style.
I may be the only one to feel this way, though. “She’s wearing Rodarte,” Cowles says, “which is definitely a step up from her cupcake bras and aggressive keyhole cutouts of yore.” Another writer approvingly states that Perry ditched the coloured hair and “crazy” outfits in favour of looking “natural”. Even Vogue claims the singer left “pop novelty behind” for the shoot. Is it surprising to anyone that once you remove the heart headpieces and Elmo t-shirts Katy Perry can look conventionally glamorous? With Vogue‘s stylists, makeup artists, and Photoshop magicians, even I could be pretty in Valentino.
It reminded me of Lady Gaga’s recent adventures in dressing like a normal person. First she attended an old friend’s wedding (as a bridesmaid, no less) dressed in a simple peach dress with side swept blonde hair. She received kudos for not upstaging the bride and wearing a dress that cost only $310. (Can you imagine the PR disaster if she had showed up at the church in some kind of intergalactic-Catholic-martyr body suit, or suffocating in Kermit the Frogs?)
Then Alyssa Toomey reported that Gaga went shopping in the Hamptons wearing a “classy” little black dress, simple pointed-toe heels, and what appears to be a classic Kelly bag. In the past I have accused Lady Gaga of looking not entirely comfortable in her costume-like clothes. She’s allowed a day off from dressing like Lady Gaga if she wants. She does look relaxed and conventionally pretty when not wearing a dress made of meat. But Toomey’s patronizing comments (“looking good” and “keep it up, girl!”) pushed me into the other column. After making a name for herself exploring the outer reaches of style, I find it sad that style writers are encouraging her to play it safe.
It reminds me of what Cintra Wilson wrote about Courtney Love, a singer who pushed boundaries of how women were supposed to look in an earlier era. Heralding Love’s “relentless tenacity,” Wilson said “she started her career by terrorizing us with the fact that she, like so many other millions of American girls, wasn’t ever going to be a supermodel, or even pretty or even cute. She was able to sucker-punch the whole beauty myth, thrash horribly like a half-dead fish through her personal tragedy and rampant displays of public fucked-upness, and still end up on the cover of everything.” Unfortunately later in her career Love got a nose job, a “Republican bob,” and began wearing designer gowns. “Courtney unequivocally proved that all Courtney ever really wanted was to be conventionally pretty,” just like everybody else.
I’m not sure if it’s Katy Perry and Lady Gaga who are tired of the comical costumes or stylists seeking to shake things up by dressing them in traditional looks. Just as the pull to be conventionally pretty was strong enough to suck in Courtney Love, the pressure to look glamorous for Vogue is probably overwhelming. But it’d be a shame if those in the fashion industry, who should be moving style forward, clipped the wings of experimental pop stars just as they were demonstrating how high they could fly.
Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_.