From Diana Ross’ international influence on 1960s and 70s style to Vogue’s commentary on “The Rihanna Effect” currently permeating the collections of top designers, Black musicians have always had an undeniable impact on the world of fashion. And as the industry continues its evolution towards a more diverse aesthetic, we’re shining a well-deserved spotlight on some of the world’s most underrated tastemakers.
JOSEPHINE BAKER: The Original Sex Symbol
Before Beyoncé’s leotards, before Janet’s bustiers and before Tina’s tiny minis, there was Josephine Baker pushing the envelope with her sexy style. Bold and fearless, Josephine’s barely there ensembles, minimalist hairstyles and penchant for over-accessorizing are still influencing trends nearly 90 years after she first found fame in Paris.
LENNY KRAVITZ: The Quintessential Rock Star
Edgy, eclectic and effortlessly cool, Lenny Kravitz’ style feels just as timeless as his music. A mishmash of eras and influences, Lenny’s style runs the gamut. From tailored suits to tight leather, buzzcuts to full ‘fros, snakeskin boots to classic sneakers, the four-time Grammy award winner’s chicly masculine swag has quietly influenced a number of other male musicians.
JANET JACKSON: The Sexy Tomboy
The ab-revealing crop tops. The “Poetic Justice” braids. The ponytail through the ball cap. Over the years, Janet Jackson has delivered a number of signature looks that the masses have often imitated, but could never quite seem to duplicate. With a fondness for juxtaposing her soft femininity with masculine, tough accents like ripped jeans and motorcycle jackets, Janet’s impact on style continues to permeate pop culture today.
RIHANNA: The Rebel Idol
“Good Girl Gone Bad” is a prophesy Rihanna spoke over her style. From sweet, innocent island girl to rebellious dance diva, Rihanna’s fashion sense is daring, unexpected and in-your-face. But no matter what she’s wearing, she always accessorizes with something that’s not available in stores — a brazen fierceness that allows her to effortlessly pull off any look. For evidence of Rihanna’s global style impact, look no further than the collections of the world’s top fashion designers.
LENA HORNE: The Class Act
The personification of elegance, Lena Horne’s undeniable charm and flawless style helped her become the first Black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio. With her signature one-shoulder gowns, expertly tailored pinstripe suits, perfect makeup and jazzy hairstyles, Lena was the pinnacle of Black, Old Hollywood glam.
KANYE WEST: The Style Innovator
True pioneers enter the game not to imitate, but to elevate. And since his 2004 debut, Kanye West has done nothing but take art — stage shows, music and especially fashion — to the next level. Helping to usher in a more high-end, mature look in hip hop, Yeezus is single-handedly responsible for igniting the ubiquitous leather trend in men’s fashion. No one man should have all that power — unless he’s Kanye — then it’s cool.
MARVIN GAYE: The Eternal Lover
Even when he was telling us what was going on, we still got a little distracted by his smooth style. Opting primarily for smart suits in his early days, Marvin evolved his look to include items that are now thought to be classic Americana: denim shirts and jeans, knit caps and aviator sunglasses.
SALT-N-PEPA: The Queens of Hip Hop Fashion
Flirty and colorful, but presented with a freshness that rivalled their male counterparts, Salt-N-Pepa are the queens of hip hop fashion. The group’s doorknocker earrings, stonewashed denim and stacked hair defined 80s street style, and with a hint of sexy, the ladies drafted the fashion blueprint for female rappers.
JAY Z: The G’d-Up Gent
Shawn Carter went from Brooklyn to the boardroom, and his style is a direct reflection of his evolution. Jay, along with Kanye West, pushed hip hop fashion into more tailored territory, as he traded in the jerseys and du-rags for button-ups and tapered suits. But once in a while, we get a glimpse of that guy we first met back in ’96, as Jay usually rocks urban classics like Timberlands and loose-fitting jeans on stage.
BEYONCÉ: The Worldwide Woman
Heels, legs and hair. Curves for days. Breathtaking beauty. Though some have questioned the impact she has on fashion, women of the millennial generation have wholeheartedly embraced Queen Bey’s eclectic blend of feminine silhouettes, peppered with just the right amount of ‘round-the-way girl fierceness.
JIMI HENDRIX: The Original Rock Star
Before artists had stylists and designers at their beck and call, they were responsible for crafting their own images. And Jimi Hendrix cooked up an image in the 1960s that would be borrowed from, referenced and replicated for decades to come. Bright psychedelic colors, wide shapes and tons of accessories made him appear wild and carefree — key elements of almost every rocker’s image.
MICHAEL JACKSON: The King of Style
Is there a creative field that Michael Jackson hasn’t greatly impacted? Judging by the fedoras, short leather jackets and aviator sunglasses adorning the frames of many a pop/R&B singer, the answer to that question is a definite, “no.” 30+ years after “Thriller,” the signature style MJ cultivated during that era is still the go-to uniform for male artists who want to channel MJ’s classic cool vibe.
DIANA ROSS: The Original Diva
Diana Ross embodies the term “diva.” Before hitting it big with The Supremes, the icon wanted to become a clothing designer, so it’s no surprise that she was able to leave an indelible imprint on the world of fashion. Her legendary big hair and sparkly gowns helped to not only define an era, but arguably, laid the blueprint for what it meant to be a Black female superstar: glamour, and lots of it.
MISSY ELLIOTT: The Rule Breaker
Serious, sexy or seriously sexy. Before Missy Elliott, those were the primary lanes occupied by women in hip hop. But with her 1997 music video “The Rain,” Missy proved that she wouldn’t be confined by any industry limitations. The garbage bag suit, the bald head from “She’s a B****,”and her affinity for retro Adidas gear turned street fashion on its head.
SAMMY DAVIS, JR.: The Classic Gentleman
As the first Black man to cover GQ Magazine, Sammy Davis Jr.’s look epitomized gentlemanly cool. With slim-cut suits, narrow ties and Beatle boots, he knew exactly how to flatter his slight 5’3” frame, subsequently cementing his place in style history. For an updated take on Sammy’s classic style, see Ne-Yo.
PRINCE: The Master of Androgyny
“Am I Black or White? Am I straight or gay?” — Prince, “Controversy” From the moment he burst onto the scene in 1979, Prince’s androgynous appearance blurred many a line. The high heels, the midriff-baring tops, the makeup — all screamed “feminine.” But his raw sex appeal, combined with the cocky boldness he oozed as he bucked style norms, drove women crazy. The clothes may make some men, but in Prince’s case, he makes the clothes.
DONNA SUMMER: The Glamour Girl
Emerging in an era when more was more, Donna Summer sparkled as brightly as the disco balls her music blared under. Glamorous, yet never gaudy, Donna’s sequined dresses, fur coats and hair flower were the essence of disco chic.
TUPAC SHAKUR: The Chameleon
From heavy leather vests and bandanas to crisp formal wear accessorized with truckloads of gold, Tupac’s style was as chameleon-like as his personality. But no matter what he was wearing, Pac’s look always perfectly accented his commanding presence.
RUN DMC: The Kings of Hip Hop Fashion
With “My Adidas,” one of rap’s first iconic brand name drops, Run DMC helped define the early days of hip hop fashion. Leather pants, fedoras and super-thick gold chains were the primary accoutrement of choice, and their pioneering look still serves as the foundation of street style.
TINA TURNER: The Ageless Powerhouse
There’s an unwritten rule that says when women reach a certain age, they have to trade their come-hither clothes for moo-moos and boring haircuts. Tina Turner didn’t get that memo. So until she was 69, she rocked her signature style on stage — sky-high heels, miniskirts and wild hair — and inspired women around the world to embrace their beauty at any age. For a modern-day interpretation of Ms. Turner’s timeless style, see Beyoncé.
GRACE JONES: The Trailblazer
Madonna, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj are celebrated for their wild fashion choices. But before any of them could even think of pushing the envelope, Grace Jones had already taken it, ripped it into little pieces and thrown it in the trash. Her sharp, angular beauty, flattop haircut and extreme shoulder pads made her look other-worldly, and took her unique style from the underground to center stage in the 1980s.
JODY WATLEY: The Trendsetter
Before it was globally understood that fashion and music were inextricably linked, Jody Watley got it. She got it before any of her contemporaries, and certainly before any record executive. In fact, her label didn’t even want to send her to New York to shoot her first Harper’s Bazaar spread because they didn’t understand what fashion magazines had to do with selling records. So, she flew herself to NYC — and helped open a door that Rihanna and others are able to breeze through today. Supermodel fierce with a touch of DIY chic, Jody Watley is the eternal pop fashionista.
BIG DADDY KANE: The Granddaddy of Swagger
The four-finger rings. The distinctive high-top fade. The player image. While most of today’s rap heavyweights were still working on nursery rhymes, Big Daddy Kane was busy giving the world one of its first lessons in hip-hop excess. But, he wasn’t all flash — complementing his opulence was some of the best wordsmithing hip hop has ever seen.
MILES DAVIS: The Cool Cat
In Miles Davis’ heyday, “dapper” was a requirement, but looking like everyone else wasn’t. So Miles put his own twist on the day’s fashion trends, incorporating more casual items like scarves and polo shirts into his wardrobe to create a look as unique as his musical stylings.
LAURYN HILL: The Natural Woman
With Motherland-inspired prints, soft earth tones and minimal makeup, Lauryn Hill helped to usher in a new standard of beauty for Black women — one grounded in the richness and authenticity of their African heritage. Never one to overcomplicate her style, Lauryn’s simple-yet-chic approach born in the 90s is still rocked by sisters to this day. In fact, some of the first roots of the natural hair movement can be traced back to Ms. Hill’s luscious locs.
Brannon Smith is a writer from Chicago. Follow him on Twitter, @brannon_smith, and see more of his work at brannon-smith.com.