On this month’s cover of Vogue, posing in an embellished lace floral Chanel dress, Rihanna looks like a confident symbol of rebirth. The decision to dye her hair a poppy-red is surely no accident, representing a post-war period in her life, where the battleground has cleared and flowers have been allowed to flourish. Rihanna’s journey after a traumatic domestic abuse attack has played out through her fashion choices at a series of public stages including music videos, award show appearances, and magazine covers.
Floral motifs were present at the beginning of Rihanna’s career, where her fashion choices echoed her Barbadian heritage, giving her a genuine distinction from pop and R’n’B singers already on the market. In her first music video ‘Pon De Replay’ she sports a gold bikini top, a floral patterned dress, large gold hoop earrings and numerous chunky bangles. These Caribbean accents were Americanized by pairing them with casual baggy jeans and Converse sneakers to give her a more relatable look for her target audience. This early public image was certainly wholesome, but had less of the exaggerated girl-next-door quality thrust upon other pop stars like Britney Spears, or what I like to call the “Like a virgin (like we’re all stupid!)” persona.
As her career progressed, Rihanna’s style choices became more unpredictable, modeling an ever-changing parade of fashion choices and shorter haircuts. This new, daring fashion style was a considered, intelligent decision to distinguish herself. Rihanna worked closely with producer Jay Z, and therefore suffered from numerous accusations of simply being a clone of Jay Z’s wife Beyoncé.
In the ‘Disturbia’ music video , she had more gothic fashion style, wearing dark colors, chocker necklaces and mesh top barbed wire motifs. This “edgier” phase in a pop star’s lifecycle usually occurs two years or two albums, whichever happens to come first, into a pop singer’s career. This new fashion persona is usually signaled by the release of an edgy or artistic music video. Britney Spears, exhibited a more gothic look in the ‘Stronger’ video where she sang the infamous line “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more”, a reference to her first single. Christina Aguilera’s ‘Fighter’ was a kind of experimental art video with a convoluted butterfly theme. Whether true of not, these videos gives the impression of a pop star’s increased creative freedom or adult status, and a familiar cry from every entertainment magazine heralds, “[insert pop starlet here] is all grown-up!”
Next along the pop star lifecycle trajectory is an extremely provocative phase which is often the result of a slump in sales or a massive rebellion against their constructed virginal image. Throughout her career Rihanna wore her sexuality on her sleeve – or rather on her hips – using provocative, tight-fitted clothes to accentuate her curves. Animal prints were a reoccurring motif alluding to an animal and instinctive sexual nature. While many mothers of teenage fans may not approve of this highly sexual demeanor, it is certainly a more honest, if not healthier, attitude towards sex. There was never any doubt that Rihanna and her then-boyfriend Chris Brown were having a sexual relationship, refusing to do the usual “oh we’re just good friends” routine followed by a disingenuous giggle.
The next dramatic change in Rihanna’s fashion sense was brought on by tragic event, when she was viciously attacked by Chris Brown. The night of the attack she was wearing a flowing, pastel watercolor Gucci gown; a feminine style that almost completely disappeared in the years following the attack.
Although Rihanna refused to speak publicly about the incident, she spoke through her fashion choices, shifting to an androgynous but still highly sexualized look, alternating between re-appropriated masculine suits and army styles. Rihanna used fashion to cope, building a protective wall of harsher materials including leather, spikes and structural material. Large shoulder pads were her assertion of power during a difficult time, much like how women in the workforce chose them during the 1990s and Reagan-era.
Hairstyles and tattoos also played a huge part in her new look. She shaved the side of her hair, a poignant symbol of entering the army and now possesses no less than thirteen tattoos, including one on her chest “Never a failure, always a lesson” backwards so that she can read it in the mirror.
But Rihanna’s cries through her fashion choices and lyrics, “I, I, I, I’m so hard. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, I’m so hard. So hard, So hard, So hard, So hard.” are reminiscent of “the lady doth protest too much. ”, an over compensation indicating that perhaps she was struggling more than she would allow herself to admit in public. Her music videos for ‘Russian Roulette’ and ‘Hard’ were flooded with war imagery and she wore aggressive artifacts revealing top made of bullets, shields and army jackets. There is also a knowingness to her fashion choices; her army helmet is shaped with Mickey Mouse ears possibly making statements about pop star’s constructed identity.
It’s important to note that a pop star can often have little power over what they wear, so there is always the concern that these public personas could be forced upon Rihanna. But I’ll finish with her own words about her personality, and hope for her sake that it isn’t purely constructed by other people: “Brilliant, resilient, fan mail from 27 million”.