When it comes to fashion, the Grammy Awards are a peculiar ceremony. They take place in the middle of awards season, when many editors are taking a break from fashion month coverage to discuss red carpets. But unlike their Hollywood counterparts, the Grammy attendees have different sartorial aims. Part of this might be because many who perform or present at the ceremony opt for outfit changes, and reserve their show-stopping looks for the stage, making the pre-show step-and-repeat kind of inconsequential. But fashion plays a much deeper, more personal role for musicians than it does for actors—actors don costumes to play roles, which change. Musicians play versions of themselves. It’s no coincidence that fashion styles are linked to genres of music (punk, goth, etc).
Clothing is used in the creation of identity for everyday people as much as it is for celebrities. It simply is played out on a bigger scale for stars, as said identities are used to craft their stage persona and connect with the audience.
Take, for example, the sartorial identities of the late David Bowie and Prince, both of whom will be involved in this year’s ceremony, albeit posthumously (Bowie’s final album Blackstar is nominated, and Prince will receive a tribute). They were two of the biggest acts ever to use fashion to shatter preconceived notions of gender and sexuality, crafting characters out of clothing, hair, and makeup as a visual aid to the music.
Modern pop stars are equally tied to appearance in terms of their public personae, but this year (more than ever) it seems fashion, not just clothing, plays a huge role in the identities of some of the nominees.
Rihanna (who is nominated for a bevy of awards, including Record of the Year, Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Best R&B Performance, among others) is the quintessential example of this. RiRi is a darling of the fashion industry, having two well-received collections with Manolo Blahnik and Puma in 2016, and bringing the best game-changing street style brands to the VMA stage. Her use of avant-garde labels lends to her no-fucks-given identity. She is beholden to no single designer (despite having a contract with Dior), she pivots back and forth between haute couture and hoodies, and is a champion of emerging talent. Her use of clothing is the same between paparazzi shots, music videos, and on-stage, making fashion simply fashion, and not a costume. This allows her to pull off looks that would likely be seen as ridiculous on almost anyone else.
Adele, on the other hand, has found success by more or less relying on a “classic” sartorial archetype. Her most iconic looks have been beauty-related. The singer, who is nominated for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Solo Performance, first broke out into the mainstream with a beehive-like bouffant and cat-eye line in a ’60s-stye throwback. Since then, one would not say that her appearance has changed, but evolved. The video for “Hello” re-introduced the diva with a sleek bob and pointed nails, in a vibe that was still vintage, just a little less on-the-nose. The new Adele look was so clear-cut, it was easily parodied by Saturday Night Live. But like her counterparts, fashion has aided her stage persona, with her '25' tour outfitted exclusively by Burberry.
The most-nominated star of this year’s Grammys is, of course, Beyoncé, who is not exactly known as a fashion It girl despite being given the Fashion Icon Award by the CFDA last summer. That’s not a bad thing—she always looks great (don’t come after me, Bey Hive)—but the fashionista mantle is better taken up by her sister Solange (herself nominated for Best R&B Performance for “Cranes in the Sky”). During her CFDA acceptance speech, Bey noted that when her career was just getting started, no high fashion designers wanted to dress her. She instead relied on clothes made by her mother. It’s kind of a testament to the creation of herself as an entertainer that Bey’s signature “look” has remained constant, even now that designers are providing the frocks.
That being said, high fashion played a major role in Bey’s work this year, although it never took center stage. Lemonade (nominated for Album of the Year, Best Music Film, and Best Urban Contemporary Album) featured a bevy of custom fashion looks, including some from her own line, Ivy Park, in the segment for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (which is up for Best Rock Performance with Jack White), and all that Gucci in “Formation” (logging noms for Song of the Year, and Best Music Video). This doesn’t even begin to cover her Formation world tour, which featured custom pieces by Balmain, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, and DSquared2.
But what does this mean for the brands themselves? They also work hard to craft identities to connect with the public, although in different ways. Is there a benefit to being worn by Beyoncé, one of the most famous women in the world? Arguably, no. When discussing what Queen Bey wears, the conversation is not around the brand or designer, it’s about how the clothing works in her narrative. Sure, we care to know who Bey is wearing, but we don’t need to know. The opposite can be said for Rihanna, for whom fashion is very much part of the narrative. When Demna Gvasalia or CDG send something conceptual down the runway, we look to Rih (and her stylist, Mel Ottenberg) to learn how to make the pieces work in the real world—how to style it, how to mix and match. With her identity on the forefront of fashion, who she wears is very important, as it informs followers what’s next.
Adele is much more of a chicken-and-egg scenario: Is she the perfect partner for Burberry, or is Burberry the perfect partner for her? It’s a pretty equal match, as the singer and the fashion house share branding based on ideas of timelessness, quality, and being British.
The idea of partnerships between famous performers and fashion houses is not new—after all, the late Malcolm McLaren not only managed punk band the Sex Pistols, he also co-founded the boutiques that sold punk fashions in the first place, alongside then-wife Vivienne Westwood. What will be interesting to watch is how the fashion industry and the music industry continue to intertwine. With the rise of social media and public consciousness of fashion brand names growing, the “who” of what was worn might become an integral part of the conversation regarding the creation of pop identities.