What Makes Someone a Fashion Icon?

We’re asking because times they are a-changing


In response to the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit featuring “iconic” Beyoncé costumes, New York Times critic Vanessa Friedman argues that although Beyoncé may be a pop culture icon, she doesn’t actually merit the title of “fashion icon.”

Friedman admits that at first this may seem like a “blasphemous” statement. NO ONE challenges the Beygency — she should sleep with one eye open from now on. But as much as you may want to disagree with her, Friedman does make some interesting points. She goes on to say that Beyoncé lacks CFDA accolades (unlike Rihanna), she has yet to “spark” any trends and the products she endorses (which are few) don’t fly off shelves. Furthermore, her own brand, House of Deréon, is practically defunct.

The Cut‘s rebuttal: “Why Would Fashion’s Biggest Critic Slam Beyoncé?” points out that Beyoncé has, in fact, had commercial fashion success, and the “freakum dress” should never be forgotten. I would also add that I have a burning desire for a “NO ANGEL” sweatshirt from the Beyoncé shop. At the end of the day, while she may not be a fashion “icon” per se, Beyoncé has no doubt projected a strong, admirable sense of style.

Before taking any sides though, we first have to ask what makes someone a style icon? The Cut posits:

The definition of “fashion icon” should stop being so narrow and as inaccessible as it is these days. It should be about more than just wearing the most avant-garde or fresh-off-the-runway looks. 

We agree that the term “fashion icon” should extend beyond the realm of celebrity. It is important to remember that at its root, the word “icon”  refers to the representation of a common symbol. Reverence is implied, but if someone’s style embodies any cultural zeitgeist, then they can be considered an icon.

That being said, amazing personal style doesn’t automatically make your next door neighbor an “icon,” since he/she isn’t publicly known. (Unless, of course, your neighbor is Jenna Lyons.)

While celebrities make a conscious effort to shape our culture, it is also possible to be what we call an “accidental” style icon: someone whose personal style is effortlessly enviable. Take someone like Amelia Earhart, whose style remains iconic, yet she had other things on her mind besides getting dressed in the morning. Gloria Steinem is another perfect example.

Contemporary fashion icons are a different breed though — social media and the Internet make it much easier to have just 15 minutes of icon fame. And behind every celebrity is a celebrity stylist, so is it possible to be a truly authentic style icon anymore?

The same way that the rise of secularism birthed an alternative to iconographic art, one could argue that the elite title of fashion icon faces the same fate. Do we really invest emotionally in icons anymore? Do we need them? If Beyoncé — the untouchable demigodess of popular culture — is subject to a deposition of icon status, then perhaps there’s room in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for us mere mortals.

Image via the New York Times 

  • Mariah

    These are all really great points. I think the women behind Style Like U (a YouTube series) should be style icons. Or at least some of the people they interview.

  • Bonnie Garner

    Beyoncé as an icon, I agree. But as a “fashion icon”, I’m not so sure…
    The terrible dresses made by Mama Knowles are still in my fashion nightmares.

    • dlazell78

      YES! And I also think Bey follows trends whereas other celebs SET the trends.

  • Artemis Grey

    I agree wholeheartedly with Friedman. I feel that there is a huge difference between being a fashion icon, and being very stylish. Beyonce is very stylish, but I don’t consider her an icon. Amelia Earhart, Katherine Hepburn, etc. yes, those are fashion icons. In our modern world, I feel like the closes thing (in recent years) we have would be Princess Diana, or Elton John. Even someone less like Norman Reedus, to me, is more of a fashion icon than Beyonce, because no matter what you dress Reedus in, black tie to cruising on his bike, it will still scream Reedus, and somehow radiate his rebellious self-confident nature.

  • anncates

    All of these points definitely make sense!
    Much Love, AnnCates xx

  • GapToothedGirl

    I totally agree with Bonnie…her mama dresses were like nightmares!!

    XOX, Gap.


  • ee_by_cc

    On the subject of Gloria Steinem, have you guys checked out ladypockets.com? Icons, all of ’em!


  • Esther Levy

    I think your point about icons of popular cultures having ‘stylists’ is a good one, and although I respect and admire Beyonce for her talents, I definitely think she falls within that category. Although her outfits never disappoint, in my opinion she doesn’t emanate the same type of ‘style’ that say, Rihanna does.

    • I agree. Rihanna just seems to have a more personal touch to what she wears. No matter how many people are part of her “team,” she always looks significantly less “team-y” than Beyonce.

      • ee_by_cc

        I also concur. Also, although her general behavior may be questionable, Solange is a much more interesting fashion adventuress than ‘Yonce. That said, I still love Bey!!!


  • Androbel

    I wouldnt necessarily crown her a fashion icon but as a stylish celebrity and just a stylish person. A style icon for example would be Olivia Palermo

    Xo, Belen

    A Hint of Life

  • Grace

    Tottally agree with Friedman. I love Bey but i don’t remember a single occasion where i was like ‘that outfit is next level!!’ (like i was with Rihanna- for example -on many occasions). It’s just not happening for everyone, even if you’re Beyonce…

  • I’ve never been a fan of Beyonce, honestly. Her music is so-so, her outfits are horribly tacky. She doesn’t deserve icon status.

    I think the term ‘fashion icon’ is so biased. There are so many components at hand. We have to first analyze who gets to deem the icons, icons: is it us, the plebeians? Or the fashion elite?
    Often times the two groups are on two different wavelengths, no matter how supposedly-accessible fashion has become.

    If some small board of people chooses one person as an icon, there are a million people out there who disagree. It’s simply an exercise in futility at the public level.

  • I’m really glad you mentioned the part about celebrities all having stylists. I always feel funny about saying I admire a celebrity’s style when I know that they’re not really the one putting their outfits together. Beyonce’s image is carefully calculated by a whole team of people–in my mind at least, she’s less an icon and more a product. She an iconic reflection of our culture, yes, but to be a fashion icon you have to inspire and create something new. That’s what’s missing to me.

    Love, Gigi
    Dolce and Gabriella

    • Serine Williams

      I would say the same thing…i think it’s learning to create and invent new things into the world of fashion.

  • Checkthenewhype
  • Ana Lu Garro

    Fashion is very subjective therefore it is very difficult to say someone is or is not a fashion icon. However as you said, new technology is making us mortals decide who’s going to be “our” next fashion icon instead if the media deciding that for us. and that fashion icon is most likely going to be one of us: a mortal as you said.

    Ana Lu from Things&Crowns

  • keta

    For me fashion icon must be someone who isn’t trying to be in trend and get that runaway look , she makes her style by expressing herself and her personality . And unconsciously this very own style becomes a trend afterwards

  • natduco

    When I think of fashion icons one of the first people that pops in my mind is Ruth Ginsburg. Maybe it’s because she’s been in the media lately, but her image really resonates. I think your definition of “accidental icon” describes her perfectly. Her profession doesn’t require her to be fashionable. However, if she attended a public event without that ponytail, I bet it would make headlines. Our generation may not hop on board with her fashion choices, but she definitely has a style that is iconic. That earring game is on point!

    • Leandra Medine

      Mattie Kahn would agree with you on this accord

  • Alyssa

    I believe the role of a fashion icon should be more selective and narrow than it currently is. Between social media avalanches during fashion week, endless streams of #ootd posts, and street style blurps, we are constantly immersed in a barrage of self expression, seasonal styles, and oscillating trends. For someone to be considered a fashion icon, their clothing should surpass the forever fluctuating fashion of the moment. It should stand out as an independently established look in and of itself. This kind of definitive and individual mastery of personal style is rare to find and speaks more about the person wearing the clothes than the brands or trends themselves.

  • Wow, a pretty thought provoking article. I classify Jackie O, Jean Shrimpton, and Stevie Nicks as my fashion icons. Yet, are any of them actually icons? Should we attribute the same praise to their personal stylists and designers? It’s an interesting argument.
    Time and time again, Rihanna has been hailed as the fashion icon of our current moment. But, (correct me if I am wrong) besides her red Azzedine Alaia gown from last year’s Grammy’s, I cannot think of another one of Rihanna’s fashion moments that have been *iconic*. (Hopefully the Rihjency is a bit kinder then the Beyjency.)
    So, is a fashion icon just someone who can wear clothes well? A glorified non-model?

  • Not a style icon. An ICON icon, of course, but nobody takes fashion cues from Bey. I’m sure she’s home crying with her 17 Grammys and planning a shopping trip.

  • Jazz

    A fashion icon has to be truly daring and willing to make mistakes. Someone whose confidence in their own identity shines through the clothes and is reflected by them rather than hidden by them. A chameleon but also stays true to who they are. Bold, defiant, elegant, but always with a dose of modesty and humour.

  • diana

    I agree with Bonnie Garner. Beyonce is many things, but a fashion icon she is NOT. She has a very tacky sense of style. Solange has way more fashion sense than her big sis…

  • I agree 100 percent with Bonnie Garner and GaptothedGirl, Beyoncé is all but a fashion icon.
    To me a Fashion Icon should influence and set the trend of the Fashion world, and as such is recognised because she has an edgy sense of Fasion. It’s not about wearing only avant-garde and fresh-off-the-runaway looks (otherwise Gaga would be) but yes rocking effortlessly a style that we would want to wear as a basic or a statement look.
    Rihanna, Solange Knowles, Zendaya Coleman are quiet representing a certain trend; Rihanna being choosen to represent “Balmain” on of the top Fashion Haute Couture Maison is quiet speaking. Lupita Nyong’o is also representing a new face a these Fashion icons. The fashion icon should be praised at some point by the Fashion world.

  • Interesting…she has a valid point. She might be an icon, but not necessarily a fashion icon.


  • Sonia

    Great subject! Yes, I definitely think that who we determine as iconic is subjective. With celebrities it is more difficult because yes, they have personal stylists, though one would hope that a good stylist merely works to ‘fully realise’the individual and their look, bringing forth a stronger marriage between their personality, taste and body type, so that what we see reflected in their style is something authentic and unique to them. I think that someone like our lovely NZ songstress Lorde could be seen as having an iconic style which is true to who she is. Her personality is greatly projected in what she wears and how she wears it. Her influence is such that everyone wants those same signature dark lips and curly mane!

  • Carleton Foxx

    When have celebrities not relied on other people to dress them? Studios always supervised their stars off-camera wardrobe, makeup, and hair. Same with the music industry. But for whatever reason, we like to pretend that stars pick out their own looks…just as we like to make believe that Taylor Swift writes her own songs.

  • pamb

    I think a fashion icon is someone who inspires other people, and designers as well. Because I am OLD, I lived throughout the launch of Madonna in the 80s. Let me tell you, there was not a girl alive who didn’t have an armload of rubber bangles and rhinestone bracelets (the original arm party!) Those of us with wavy, shoulder length hair had bandannas in every color to wear in our hair, and the truly gutsy wore mesh crop tops so you could see their bras underneath.

    While Beyonce has inspired people to do the Single Ladies dance and put it on YouTube (as well as being a role model for young women for her work ethic) I’m just not seeing many fashion trends launched because she wore something.

  • RW

    Beyoncé has no style her sister does xx

  • Jas

    My fashion icons tend to be people I also admire for their careers or work. They are inspiring in more than one way and often have a strong sense of style. I think the issue here is that we all remember the horrible outfits she used to wear when she was in Destiny’s Child and while her style has thankfully evolved it has also been heavily helped by stylists. I love Britney but wouldn’t trust her fashion sense.

  • mercy

    love your post !
    tas ransel wanita

  • Kleidmo

    I don’t care whether Beyonce is a fashion icon or not, as long as she sings. Fell in love with her voice when I first heard her song Listen. Absolutely touching! http://www.kleidmo.com/

  • Love Dream

    Beyoncé is NO icon. Her stylists merely recycle old iconic looks for her. And if you see her in interviews, she is clearly not too bright. I cannot imagine a dull intellect being able to put a look together herself.