I was sitting at my desk, voraciously analyzing a photo of Carly Rae Jepsen performing in a white crop top, white fringed pants, and orange tinted sunglasses, when a pressing question bubbled to the surface: What exactly IS “pop star” style today?
This question wasn’t so hard to answer in prior decades. Think of David Bowie and Elton John in the 70s, who didn’t simply move the needle when it came to gender-fluid dressing, but actually picked it up and placed it on a whole new page. Think of Prince and Madonna in the 80s, who showcased how seamlessly clothes could mirror and enhance the artistic expression of music. Think of Janet Jackson, The Spice Girls, and Mariah Carey in the 90s, giving us endless crop-top-and-paper-bag-pant inspiration (also shoutout to Janet for making me want a beret). Think of Destiny’s Child in the early aughts, imbuing coordinated girl band ensembles with an unprecedented sense of cool.
Each of these stars propagated a sense of style that was somehow uniquely of their era and progressive at the same time, merging notable trends (flared pants, big sunglasses, shoulder pads, low-slung jeans, tube tops) with a personal, forward-thinking spin — and plenty of eye-catching glitter. The word that comes to mind for most of the resulting outfits is iconic. The kind of iconic that shaped a generation of culture, mirroring trends but also creating them. The kind of iconic that will be iterated upon for years to come.
When I consider the most famous young pop stars of today with a strong sense of personal style — Lady Gaga, Solange, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Cardi B, Lorde — it strikes me that while individualism and eye-catching glitter still factor in, the interplay with trends is less obvious. In fact, their most memorable style moment seem to exist outside the realm of trends entirely.
Think of Lady Gaga’s meat dress at the 2010 VMAs, or her four outfit changes on the red carpet at the 2019 Met Gala. Think of Solange’s cropped pink coat reminiscent of cotton candy on her A Seat at the Table cover. Think of Cardi B breastfeeding in a black sequin dress with a chest cut-out in her “Money” music video. Memorable as these fashion statements are, none of them were in explicit conversation with runways or street style.
This shift probably stems from the way the process of trendsetting has evolved over the course of the last decade. Thanks to social media and the internet, trends have a much shorter lifespan. They boom and bust at a rapid pace, saturating our feeds and screens so thoroughly that they already seem “over” when they’ve barely just begun. The upside to this movement is how it effectively blurs the lines between what’s “in” and what’s “out,” thus allowing for personal style to flourish without bumping into arbitrary rules.
The internet has also democratized how and where trends originate. Instead of only starting at the top — on runways, red carpets, and sound stages — and trickling down from there, they now often start at the bottom — on sidewalks, blogs, and Instagram — and make their way upward. Both of these developments have made trends more plentiful, not to mention more fungible.
For pop stars of today, navigating fashion relevance is therefore less about trends and more about trending. It’s less about prescriptive style and more about style that inspires conversation. Different, sure, but still iconic in the way that only a meat dress can be.
Feature photos by Michael Crabtree – PA Images/PA Images and Jim Smeal/WireImage via Getty Images.