Evolution of Rock Style

We're All Going to Dress Like Rock Stars Again Before You Know It

Artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski, and more are bringing style back to music — just in time for concerts to become a thing again.
By Jael Goldfine
Jun 02, 2021 @ 8:00 am

Phoebe Bridgers' crystal-embroidered Thom Browne skeleton gown was one of GQ's "biggest fits" on the Grammys red carpet this year. The dress was a designer version of the store-bought onesie that she first sported in the music video for "Kyoto," and on the cover of her second album Punisher. A month prior, Bridgers made headlines when, in a Gucci bone suit, she smashed her guitar on Saturday Night Live, reviving a decades-old rock and roll trend while solidifying a new one. 

Rock stars don't start many fashion trends these days. Pop stars and rappers, mostly, decide what the cool kids wear, whether they're imitating ASAP Rocky's satchels or Billie Eilish's slime-green hair. But after seeing several of my favorite rock artists wearing ruffled mini-dresses by New York designer Kelsey Randall, I found myself haunting her website, repeatedly adding a holographic babydoll dress to my cart. Instead, I satisfied my urge to dress like a rock star on Halloween — sporting bike shorts, a white cropped T-shirt, and chopped-up black socks serving as knee pads in an homage to Mitski's Be The Cowboy tour look.

"Lately, it's been all about color," says Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner. One of rock's biggest recent breakouts, she's become known for her jewel-toned looks: ruffles and massive puffy sleeves one day, a Kenzo jersey and a sequined skirt, or a Rodarte two-piece the next. Ambitious, fashionable visuals have also become her calling card. Her recent video for "Savage Good Boy," in which she and The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli play a couple living in a bunker at the end of the world, is full of depravedly bourgeois ensembles. The video previews the sartorial energy she's hoping to bring on tour with her this fall, and echoes the bolder, louder styles that are trending right now as hot vax summer commences and live music returns. 

Bridgers' onesie and Mitski's bike shorts aren't as obviously glamorous as Jimi Hendrix' technicolor sheepskin jacket, Debbie Harry's leather pants or David Bowie's space suits. (Though the bike shorts moment does have a whiff of Jagger in football pants.) But insofar as provocation and novelty make rock artists style icons, it appears we're on the verge of a new era of rock star style, one that's theatrical, weird, and fun.

"I love trying to create a world around me [with fashion]," Zauner continues. "The artists I adore, Kate Bush, Björk, David Bowie — you look back at their careers and you know exactly what era it is based on their clothes." It's only in the last few years that she's become more adventurous. When she started performing a decade ago, it was the norm to dress down. "I'd dress more masc because I felt like I needed to make other people take me seriously," she says. "Now I don't have that to prove." 

Evolution of Rock Style
Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performs in 2019. | Credit: Getty Images

What did she, and others, have to prove? 

Rock star style in the '10s was a hangover from the '00s, divided by those who rejected the grungy glamour of The Strokes and those who attempted to keep it alive. The former camp is best encapsulated by Vampire Weekend's ironic preppiness or Bon Iver's man-of-the-woods mysticism. The latter, by The 1975's Matt Healy's bad boy facade. The result was a decade where jeans-and-a-T-shirt were the uniform for most rock stars both mainstream and indie. 

Evolution of Rock Style
Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend performs in 2019. | Credit: Getty Images

Few have pivoted as decisively as Eva Hendricks, frontwoman of New York City band Charly Bliss, who enjoys dressing in voluminous, all-pink outfits at shows. For years now, she's worked closely with Randall, aforementioned ruffle enthusiast. "We both live for over-the-top rock star aesthetics," Hendricks says of her ensembles, like a mermaid corset paired with a tutu and a loofah-like tulle dress. Like Zauner, it's only in the last few years she's felt free to play around without standing out in the wrong way. "When I began performing, I felt like the best thing I could do was play down that I was a girl as much as possible," she says. 

It makes sense that the well-documented shifting identities of rock artists are transforming the visual language of a rock star. But rock has always been male-dominated, even in eras when its fashion was loud and colorful. The bland style of 2010s rock stars wasn't just a product of white men's dominance, but rather an outgrowth of a specific, subtly sexist idea of authenticity. Hendricks grew up on this image of a rock musician: a pure, intellectual artist, for whom getting dressed and going on stage were tedious, even agonizing necessities. 

"It was very much about looking like you don't care, like 'Oh, I just happen to be onstage,' she says. "There's always been this conversation about authenticity in music that's often played out in toxic ways. That idea of 'authenticity' took on a very particular aesthetic. What we're finding out now, is that, for many artists, their authentic self is not a flannel or a T-shirt. For me, it's a mermaid outfit with a giant tutu. For Phoebe Bridgers, it's her skeleton pajamas, for Japanese Breakfast it's — oh my god, her outfits," Hendricks says. 

Evolution of Rock Style
Eva Hendricks of Charly Bliss performs in 2019. | Credit: Getty Images

The idea of the flannel-clad, apathetic rock star has crept in and out of rock for decades. "It was like that in the '90s, too," remembers Christian Joy, costume designer for Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O, one of the few '00s rock artists known for her fashion. "Everyone just wore jeans and T-shirts on stage. I distinctly remember being really bored." Joy moved to New York City in 1998 and met Karen. Her costumes, hand-sewn from repurposed vintage clothes, poured punk gore and glam-rock glitz in the blender with '00s neon futurism. "When Karen started dressing up, people were like, 'What the fuck is she doing?" she adds. "It was the whole shoegaze thing, to downplay your performance, not to express yourself physically. Maybe it was a more intellectual time in music. We were like, 'Get the fuck out of here, we want to dance and go crazy!'" 

Now, rock stars aren't rejecting intellectualism or embracing artifice. They've just moved past the idea that playing guitar in a T-shirt is less performative or more interesting than doing so in a tutu. Bridgers articulated this idea in L'Officiel, lambasting an ex who dissed Hayley Williams: "Wearing a stage costume is so weirdly gendered. Even though Kurt Cobain wore a costume too — he thought about what T-shirt he was going to wear on every single red carpet. Bruce Springsteen is also wearing a costume. And metal? Don't even get me started."

As it happens, Joy's favorite Karen O look of all time is a skeleton suit, replete with removable organs. Bridgers' suits are less gory but looking clean and put-together can feel rebellious when the casual, disheveled look is in. It felt that way at Mitski's now-legendary Be the Cowboy shows, where she performed precise, elaborate choreography in her athleticwear. Her immaculate, coordinated moves and outfit — the opposite of too-cool-to-care — were as striking in 2019 as Karen O's chaotic costumes were in 2001. 

Evolution of Rock Style
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs performs in 2004. | Credit: Getty Images

No single modern rock star aesthetic has emerged. Hendricks and Zauner embrace maximalist femininity while a utilitarian whimsicality imbues Bridgers and Mitski's signature looks. Angel Olsen and Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield are two artists who play with retro country aesthetics, with their respective feathery gowns and prairie dresses. Palehound's Ellen Kempner, inspired by rock's tradition of gender-bending, has taken to wearing sequins and drag make-up one day, and baggy, structural pieces the next. It's not clear how we'll describe the new "era" of rock star fashion looking back. What's being worn by even the most stylish rock stars would be an off-day look for Lizzo or Ariana Grande. What's significant is that you can no longer predict what a rock artist might step on stage wearing, something that's been all but guaranteed for years. 

Even some men are relishing the demise of the too-cool-to-care ideal. Alex Rice, frontman of British band Sports Team proudly styles himself after AC/DC's Bon Scott and Iggy Pop. He loves to dance and crowd surf in flowing suits, or sometimes a matador costume. "In the UK, when we were kids, the uniform was skinny jeans, Doc Martens, black T-shirt, what Dave Grohl was," he says. "It's about fabrics for me, things like silk that move with you on stage." His favorite recent look was a purple Gucci suit he wore for a photoshoot. The garment was originally created for Harry Styles, with whom he was elated to find himself sharing clothes. "There used to be this idea of a pure artist, who just needs to communicate their art," he says. "But I see performance as a high art." 

Evolution of Rock Style
Laetitia Tamko of Vagabon (left) and Angel Olsen (right). | Credit: Angela Ricciardi

He hints at the line between rock stars and pop stars, which was once militantly policed. Half Waif is the pop project of Nandi Rose Plunkett, formerly a member of the band Pinegrove. (She remembers "wanting to dress up more" on stage and being told by bandmates, "'That's not really the vibe.' I was expected to wear dude clothes.") She emphasizes — as does Zauner — that she often didn't always mind the laid-back culture. Both are clear that what they wear now has less to do with sticking it to the man than fulfilling their meticulous visions.

"I think [my style] is a reaction to a certain amount of earnestness or vulnerability in my music. I like to mask that a bit," Plunkett says, adding: "I'm interested in the contrast between strength and vulnerability in music and fashion. I like to mix soft and hard sounds, feminine silhouettes with pieces that evoke armor." For her, style is also a coping mechanism: "Like,'I feel so small, am I good enough to do this?' Big silhouettes — physically taking up space are a way to lay claim to the stage," she says. Hendricks echoes this: "I always tell Kelsey, 'I want to be gigantic.'" 

In a recent video, Plunkett paired a harness with wind pants and a mesh top that exposes one breast, a Lil' Kim-esque look she plans to reprise on tour this fall. For another visual, she wore a vintage Vivienne Westwood corset that Gwen Stefani wore in her the video for "Spiderwebs." But with fashion, as with composition, rock's references today are much broader than American pop culture. Brooklyn-based Laetitia Tamko, who performs under the name Vagbon, drew on African music icons for for her recent self-titled album. "My main inspiration were African records from the '70s, specifically, the cover of La Condition Masculine by Francis Bebey. I had a lot of African album covers on my moodboards." 

Inventive style is becoming a norm for rock stars again. This is slightly bittersweet for Las Vegas-born artist Shamir. As a Black, nonbinary artist, he felt that toning down his bold look and pop sound hurt his career. "I wasn't allowed to be the pure, serious artist," he says. "People thought I was being lazy." He also links rock's increasingly colorful fashion to the need to brand or promote, something he sees as an added burden for marginalized artists. "Having strong visuals or fashion used to be extra," he says. "Now it's required."

Atlanta rock artist Faye Webster is similarly hesitant. She used to create elaborate looks for visuals, hand-sewing feathers onto a vintage gown for 2019's "Kingston." On one tour, she performed in an Atlanta Braves baseball uniform. Over time, the pressure to have a "strong brand" became exhausting. Now, she says, "I like myself more when I'm less performative. I think I felt a pressure to act like a rock star, to wear those dresses or the uniforms."

Most of us can can relate to this feeling. After socializing online for a full year, there's never been more pressure to have a coherent, visible brand. Evidenced by the low-rise denim panic, plenty of people feel exhausted, too, by the flashy Y2K-era glitz that's come into vogue. Still, while fashion feels like a chore, Webster says she feels freer than she ever has to decide how to approach it: "In the past few years, I've realized I don't have to do crazy shit to get people to notice me. I can just be Faye and people will still like me."

As artists plot their first tours in a year, all we have is speculation about how the new era of rock star fashion will play out. Will a Halloween costume or a designer dress become a new inescapable jeans-and-a-T-shirt? Paradigm-shifting events like a pandemic have a way of making people lose patience for expectations altogether. Joy remembers the feeling in the New York City scene after 9/11. "Whenever things like that happen, it breeds a sense of, 'That could happen again, I should just go for it,'" she says. "There's no time to waste pleasing other people."