Influential Figures in Style of the 20th & 21st Centuries

Innumerable approaches can be used to scrutinise the matter of an individual’s personal style. It may be used as a key to the divination of character traits, political affiliations, popular culture movements related to musical, filmic or literary genres, religious or spiritual beliefs and so on. Internationally-acclaimed figures in the realms of politics and the arts appeal to the general public in terms of their style for different things: because of their sense of the aesthetic, because of their daring attitude, (some) for their mass appeal, for their ruthless capacity for self-promotion and so on. Here is my own selection of personages from the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries who I feel managed, in some way, to shatter boundaries and break new ground with their manifestation of a curious kind of aesthetic.

  1. Mae West – remembered for her husky drawl, elaborate costumes, and above all the risqué characters she portrayed in a puritanical 1930s Hollywood, West presented a rather controversial image when she first graduated from the stage to the silver screen for two main reasons – her corpulence and her age. Who could believe that one of the top three highest earners in Hollywood at the time was already middle-aged? In a time when being young, sylph-like, ethereal and demure was de rigeur in films (think of Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard) West created her own demi-caricature of the movie goddess – shimmering, but earthy; pretty, but solid; gracious, but bawdy. Her golden hair gleamed like a beacon, her eyebrows arched dutifully, but her screen persona resonated with charming repartee and sexual banter. Oozing confidence, and contrary to other screen deities, she would think nothing of asserting herself sexually in order to capture her latest beau. She was also an early expert operator of today’s airbrushing, using special body-contouring fabric illusions (a seam placed between the waist and hips in a curve to fashion the impression of a slender shape) to create the deception of an hour-glass silhouette. She also wore massively stacked shoes hidden by long mermaid-style evening gowns to mask her petite stature (she stood at a mere 5 feet in her stockings.) The awe-inspiring footwear, which is, today, rather reminiscent of a pair of shoes from a 1990s Vivienne Westwood show, forced her to move around on set with a Morticia-style shuffle, which became her signature walk. Added to all of these, her lasting legacy is indubitably the fact of having her crimson pout immortalised in Dali’s eponymous sofa.
  2. Elsa Schiaparelli – apart from being contemporaries, both Schiaparelli and West possessed an inextricable link with Surrealism, which was, in the 1930s, new enough to be regarded as current and relevant, but still shocking in its Freudian themes. Unlike Coco Chanel, considered her greatest rival at the time (and who dismissed what she referred to as Schiaparelli’s dilettantism), the Italian designer had no formal training in sewing or pattern-making. She is considered to be one of the most outstanding fashion artists of the twentieth century, even though her business was short-lived, for a number of reasons:- (a) Firstly, she rejected the structured look, opting for easy-flowing patterns and styles. To this end, she was one of the first clothing influencers to use the wrap dress style, one which would become celebrated some 40 years later, in the designs of Diane Von Furstenberg. (b) As is well-known, Schiaparelli was not only inspired by, but also collaborated with, superstars of the art world at the time, amongst whom no less a figure than Dali himself appears. Other work partners included Jean Cocteau and Alberto Giacometti. Her best-known piece of work was the “lobster dress”, a plain white evening silk gown adorned with a dark cerise waistband and a sizable lobster on the skirt. (3) The innovations to dress creations at the time included the playful appearance of accessories which drew attention to themselves, rather than being obscured, such as visible zips, fasteners, and buttons in the shape of candles or insects. The latter became a work of art in themselves, and Schiaparelli commissioned craftsmen who were, later on, to become established jewellers themselves, such as Jean Schlumberger. She was also novel in terms of her tendency to champion new, synthetic materials, as well as being the inventor of a swimming costume with a bold low-cut back incorporating an interior bra with hidden straps, which intersected in the back and wrapped around the waist. Sadly, her refusal to change the direction of her designs in favour of more practical World War II austerity meant that her business folded in 1954, only to be revived sixty years later, but the sheer audacity of her clothing ensures her a place in the fashion hall of notoriety.
  3. Jim Morrison – better-known as a singer, songwriter and poet (and for his on-stage antics while inebriated, or under the influence of narcotics), the lead singer of famed quartet The Doors also delivered plenty to write home about in the style stakes. His insistence that his hair be cut in the shape of a bird’s wing, and modelled on the hairstyle seen in illustrations of the ancient Macedonian leader Alexander the Great, certainly sent shockwaves in a still-conservative showbusiness industry, even though Jim, who was originally a Southerner, had moved to the more laid-back California. His so-called ‘Jesus Christ pose’, complete with beads, was also sure to have ruffled more than a few feathers. Matched with tight black leather trousers, form-fitting shirts and a concho belt (the latter being one of the many Native American features that he was obsessed with incorporating into his image and performances), Morrison cut a dandy figure on the rock music circuit. More sharply dressed than his contemporaries, who favoured a more colourful, bohemian approach (in the nature-inspired, flower-power style), Morrison’s early image reflected the stark themes of many Doors songs: sex, rejection of social conventions, power and death. Notwithstanding the transition from this sense of style to the later, much more careless ‘unkempt artist’ appearance, Morrison stands out as a style influencer in the decade that propelled him to fame, impacting the future sartorial and song-motif choices of artists such as Ian Astbury of The Cult, Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy and even Bono, at one point in the latter’s career.
  4. David Bowie – not since Regency England’s Beau Brummell has a male figure fascinated in terms of his appearance to the extent that Bowie has, and been so synonymous with the two words “chameleon” and “style”. The former, of course, can be extended to his artistic vision as a whole, rather than the mere selection of his garb and image. Bowie once said that he considered himself to be a ‘remodeller’ of ideas and concepts, rather than an innovator, however many would disagree. Forever pushing the envelope in terms of what were considered to be desirable fashion elements (though at certain points in his career he approached conventionality), Bowie redefined people’s notions of what it meant to be beautiful, to be masculine, to inhabit an indeterminate sexuality, to be a performer and, above all, to be an all-round artist. From the beautifully-coiffed mid-length hair coupled with the perfect symmetry of his Italian suits in his mod phase to the fragile long locks and frocks of his folk phase; from the otherworldly carrot mullet hairstyle complemented by sequined playsuits and enormous op-art embellished Kansai Yamamoto jumpsuits to the adaptation of 1930s cabaret-singer sophistication, Bowie owned each style like a capricious, deliberately-crafted mood. The master of different faces showed how make-up could be used by males as well as females to enhance a stage character, rather than for clownish or schlock-horror effects (think The New York Dolls and Alice Cooper). The implementation of his various stage personae owed as much to his voracious appetite for and apparently limitless ability to absorb influences ranging from Buddhism, mime, sci-fi, the occult, black soul music, fascism, musicals, contemporary and interpretive dance to various musical genres such as experimental electronic music, jungle, industrial and contemporary jazz as to his relentlessly creative drive. Bowie forged a mammoth, exhaustive influence on later artists in several fields pertaining to the performing arts, and lives on in our consciousness as he continues to do so.
  5. Freddie Mercury – though perhaps not as much of a chameleon as his contemporary and one-time collaborator, Bowie, Mercury deserves his place in a list of influential figures as far as style is concerned, mostly because he loved it, lived it and promoted it through his flawless stage performances, as well as shattering some norms relating to the portrayal and celebration of sexuality. It has been twenty-seven years since the man with one of the most beautiful, crystal-clear voices in rock music has left us. When he made his first tentative steps into the world of music and showbusiness, he entered the sphere with a background in both art and fashion, having been a student at art school in Ealing and working on a clothes stall in Kensington market with his then partner, Mary Austin. The latter, herself, was working at trendsetter boutique Biba when she met Freddie. Austin, in fact, encouraged Mercury to indulge his elegant, glamorous style, replete with fur coats and black nail polish. Although the fashion choices of the band members seen in some of the videos for the seventies songs are mostly in-keeping with the style elements of the time, the flamboyance present in Freddie’s own manner of dressing is always turned up a notch, even when he was not wearing sequined catsuits and harlequin-patterned full-length leotards. Like Bowie and Morrison before him, Mercury took very deliberate style decisions, from the employment of Zandra Rhodes (whose own contribution to the fashion world is discussed below) to design the band’s stage costumes in the seventies, to the incorporation of homocentric motifs that paid homage to the gay BDSM fetish scene in his head-to-toe black pvc look. The latter look, popularised both by Mercury and another stalwart of the harder-edged New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, was adopted by a great section of the rock and metal scene. Both artists and fans donned leather outfits or added studs to their leather or denim jackets and jeans, blissfully ignorant of the provenance of this look. The enormity of this cannot be emphasised enough, as both the rock and metal arenas were, unfortunately, notorious for their levels of machismo, rampant sexism and homophobia, particularly in the AIDS-aware 1980s, prompting both Mercury and Halford to keep mum about their sexual preferences. After the early eighties, Mercury moved on to a more colourful, playfully masculine military style, but royal theatrics were never far behind, as he strutted about on stage bare-chested and clad in an ermine-studded mantle, with a a sizable coronet for a hat. He also challenged notions of queerness, depictions of sexuality and performativity when he elected to appear, together with the rest of the band members, in drag in the video for 1984’s “I Want To Break Free. As has been well-documented, post-1985, the AIDs virus tragically held Mercury in its terrible grip. His public appearances became less frequent, and his choice of costumes more conservative, but it is the brilliantly theatrical showman with largely unrivalled pipes that we all remember, the artist who was not afraid to question, deride or poke fun at issues while simultaneously entertaining huge crowds of fans.
  6. Grace Jones – another trailblazer as far as representations of gender are concerned, Jones is perhaps not as well-noted for her music today as for the propagation of a strong, powerful image of black beauty. Forget later pseudo-proclamations of girl power; Grace Jones exuded a sense of potency and vitality, with her lean, athletic physique, her predilection for severe, tailored men’s suits and the matching of her geometrical hairstyle to her razor-sharp cheekbones. In a decade when women needed to prove themselves more than ever in the world of showbusiness, she was not afraid to take on bold choices and eschew soft, conventional depictions of female attractiveness. Whilst her film roles were not exactly renowned for the depth of character portrayed, she tended to be selected for the parts which indicated that she was not a woman to be toyed with: warrior, villain and sexual predator, making a refreshing change from the squeaky-voiced love interest of male protagonists and ditsy heroines who needed rescuing by their knights in shining armour. Her distinctive, contralto singing voice and energetic stage performances right up into her late sixties, complete with exotic paraphernalia and art-inspired props also propound her reputation as a striking, edgy artiste.
  7. Prince – lost to the world, as Bowie was, in the year that stole the music – also known as 2016 – Prince was another figure whose star shone brightly and who made life worth living for untold numbers of music fans. Hailed as a musical genius who had mastered scores of instruments on his own, the artist was, amongst other things, known for his draconian work ethic, scintillating live performances, with leaps, splits, squats and shimmies rivalling Michael Jackson’s most stellar dance moves – all in three-and-a-half to four-inch heels, no less – his courtship of alluring women, and a seemingly endless string of exquisitely-crafted songs, both for himself and other singers. Then there was his wardrobe. From trench coats paired with women’s bikini bottoms and thigh-high stockings to gorgeously decadent rococo velvet suits and ruffled shirts, from form-fitting high-waisted trousers and wide-brimmed hats to titillating lacy jumpsuits and canary-yellow ensembles that exposed his taut buttocks, saying that Prince made waves due to his sartorial choices is nothing short of an understatement. He also did not shy away from sequins, satin, metallic hues, two-tone suits, floral patterns and loud prints, such as massive polka dots. Rather than engulfing his tiny frame, the busy patterns and heavy fabrics were expertly moulded to his form and made to seem like a second skin. Oftentimes referred to as The Purple One or His Purpleness, owing to his great fondness for the colour, Prince frequently had his wardrobe made in myriad shades of the colour, from deep, regal purple to violet, grape, indigo, lilac, plum, amethyst, lavender and so on. The shoes, essential to the artist’s swagger and signature dance moves, were custom-made by a cobbler whose almost historic shop (it was apparently frequented by the likes of Sinatra and the rest of the legendary Rat Pack) is still to be found on Sunset Boulevard today. As Prince did not want to be seen wearing the same pairs of shoes to different events at various times on the same day, it was estimated that he had at least a few thousands of these beauties made, especially reinforced with a stainless steel bar for his punishing dance routines and sometimes embellished with the symbols he publicised, such as the male/female one which was, at one point, used as a substitute for his moniker. Again, as with some of the figures mentioned previously, Prince was not afraid to obfuscate the boundaries between masculine and feminine, bringing a distinctly androgynous feel to his public persona. During his reign, it became permissible to be a proud black man while displaying a more sensitive side, in contrast with the street machismo embraced by a good deal of black artists at the zenith of Prince’s career and shortly afterwards.
  8. Zandra Rhodes – anyone who has met me will confirm that I have a weakness for colour.  It can be employed in different ways, but it has to be bright in the most eye-catching of manners. My hair is kept short not just because I like it this way, but also due to the fact that it is then easier to maintain when I have it dyed magenta, cerulean, cobalt, tangerine, or my favourite – a mixture of emerald green, peacock blue and azure, which I had done for my fortieth birthday. Even my favourite shades, the so-called jewel hues, are as intense as they are deep. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to learn that I idolise the designs of Zandra Rhodes, who has been livening up the British fashion scene with her multicoloured creations since the 1960s. Regarded as something of an enfant terrible when she first burst onto the scene in the latter decade, Rhodes refined her apparel lines over the decades, incorporating elements of various subcultures – for instance, she added safety-pins to different clothing items at the height of punk itself, long before Versace’s notorious black leather number, made famous when it was worn by Liz Hurley in the wake of Hugh Grant’s indiscretion. In Rhodes’s design, however, the safety-pins were ornamented with beads and incorporated into a manner of embroidery on a silk jersey fabric, thus being transformed into a much richer, more baroque proclamation of themselves. Rhodes presents an intriguing figure in the fashion world in that she is the complete reverse of say, Vivienne Westwood, whose ideas have also long captured my imagination. Whilst Westwood commodifies/ familiarises the bizarre, the tawdry and the underground, Rhodes finds ways of taming her multihued flights of fancy, to the extent that they are made to appeal to a greater ‘establishment’ audience. This is attested by the fact, for instance, that she has created lines for Marks and Spencer’s, a brand-name which has long been synonymous with refined, reined-in creativity. Her achievements also include the setting up of the Fashion and Textile Museum in London in 2003, in order to celebrate her long relationship with her working materials and offer a bird’s eye-view of this fascinating world to the public at large. Notwithstanding the apparent pandering to conventionality, Rhodes’s designs always manage to stand out in their flamboyantly multicultural nod to contemporary style. Her prints are rivalled by few other creators of clothing, and many of her designs skim the figure, revelling in pleats and Regency-style dresses, exhibited in boxy skirts and ornate jackets. Truly a force to be reckoned with in the design world, she shows no sign of slowing down.
  9. Lyn Slater – it is all too easy, almost twenty years after the start of the new millennium and in an increasingly digital world, to talk about social media ‘stars’ – individuals who have reached a stratospheric level of recognisability and who have cashed in on their notoriety, be it due to the legacy of a famous parent/ family member, sexual imprudence caught on tape or just good marketing on their Instagram accounts. Rather than being valued for their achievements, public figures such as the extended members of the Kardashian brood are well-known because of their numerous calculated publicity stunts, and the extent to which they have created actual business ventures out of these.  Lyn Slater, an established social media presence for at least the past three years, is so much more than that. She is a clinical associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Service in Fordham University, and among her achievements can list the former directorship at the Child Sexual Abuse Project, launched by the organisation Lawyers for Children. In addition to her meritorious teaching and administration-steering career, she has also been a vital key in child abuse cases in the five boroughs of New York City, acting as the designated expert in related cases. This is not, however, what Lyn Slater is well-known for – in her particular case, she has become the poster-girl for ageless chic (though she would, perhaps, balk at her style being described thus, since her age is a driving force of her mystique) and a signature style composed of various designer pieces but mostly upcycled, or repurposed, materials and thrift shop items. Slater was first ‘discovered’ outside the Lincoln Center during New York Fashion week in 2013. Clad in a Yohji Yamamoto suit and holding a Chanel bag, sporting what would eventually become one of her trademark symmetrical cuts on glossy silver locks, it is no wonder that photographers mistook her for a fashion blogger, and snapped away furiously at her. This set in motion a chain of events that were to include the setting up of her fashion blog, The Accidental Icon, the offer of a modelling contract and a TEDx talk about her social media success – all at the age of 60. Slater has an impeccable eye for contrasting, choosing the right prints for her build and general aesthetic, mixing and matching designer threads with vintage or thrift accoutrements and vice versa. Her look is complemented by her perfectly coiffed tresses and oversized sunglasses. Slater is incontrovertible proof of the fact that any gender can inhabit their wonderfully idiosyncratic sense of aesthetic at any age.

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