Every time Lil Nas X steps out in a bedazzled Balmain crop top or Harry Styles flaunts a pink manicure and pearl necklace, their fans fawn, the Internet erupts with a thousand think pieces about the state of gendered fashion, and no-fun social conservative types clutch their own pearls. This is hardly anything new. If you flip through vintage issues of Rolling Stone or Circus, you’ll realize that all that’s really happened is that our rock stars (a term that, today, has little to do with a musical genre) have returned to dressing like rock stars, with all the sexed-up trimmings.
Fifty years ago, David Bowie introduced his otherworldly, gender-defying Ziggy Stardust persona; 10 years later came Prince’s commercial breakthrough record, 1999, after which he appeared on red carpets with his booty on full display in a way that would make a Kardashian blush. Although recent decades have favored a more aggressively hetero aesthetic, the fact remains that popular music, ever since the days when Little Richard was sporting his perfect perms and Elvis Presley was shaking his hips in his “Jailhouse Rock” outfit, has been one of Western culture’s few mainstream arenas in which men can freely style themselves in fashion that provokes, disregards the gender binary, and treats the male body as an unabashedly sexual object.
“Rock ’n’ roll started out as youth music. It’s obsessed with identity formation. It’s about how teenagers and young adults go about figuring out who they are and where they fit into the world,” says Tim Riley, a music critic and professor at Emerson College who wrote the book Fever: How Rock ’n’ Roll Transformed Gender in America. “People have always been freer in rock ’n’ roll to express their eccentricities than in most other mediums. Places like Hollywood have been playing catch-up for a long time.”
Indeed, there might be no better barometer of an era’s defining sexual mores and gender politics than what’s in the closets of our most esteemed male musicians. Some notable examples of the current moment: At the 2021 VMAs, Lil Nas X commissioned Versace to create a pec-baring homage to Prince. Styles has made a habit of wearing womenswear or genderless designers for his music videos, from the sheer Lazoschmidl blouse in “Lights Up” to the red Arturo Obegero two-piece he chose for “As It Was.” Even Shawn Mendes contrasts his aw-shucks, boy-next-door persona with a tendency to put his chiseled torso on display. Then there’s Bad Bunny, who can get away with just about anything—from a powder blue suit, like the one he wore at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, to a pink puffer vest, as seen in a recent Jacquemus campaign, where he was otherwise nude and on a Jet Ski—and make it feel titillating. Damiano David, the lead singer of the Eurovision-winning Italian rock group Måneskin, often mixes fetish gear with Gucci lingerie. And speaking of lingerie, Troye Sivan has recently revitalized the grand tradition of the rock star thong; his stylist, Gadir Rajab, often gets DMs from fans about which brand the singer wore in his “You” video. (The thong was $10, bought on Hollywood Boulevard.)
“Where fashion’s at right now, everything is so unpredictable,” says Storm Pablo, the stylist who works with Bad Bunny. “I think that’s actually great for us, because the style that we go for is based on feeling. We developed this really unorthodox look.”
In order to make sense of the pendulum swing from Axl Rose in Betsey Johnson leggings to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell vibe of the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s helpful to look at the Reagan years. In 1985, Tipper Gore cofounded her Parents Music Resource Center, after she was left shook by the lyrics one of her daughters was listening to. The group produced a list called the “Filthy Fifteen,” which featured the songs they found most offensive. You can’t help but feel Gore and her pals were particularly uncomfortable with male sexuality: Prince’s “Darling Nikki” was ranked No. 1, but the list also included entries from Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, and Judas Priest, whose lead singer, Rob Halford, would come out as gay years later. Meanwhile, the HIV/AIDS crisis, which decimated queer communities and shattered the sex-positive, gender-redefining spirit these musicians cultivated, raged.
What’s next, now that a man in a sequined jumpsuit ceases to elicit much of a reaction? Likely, we will reach a point at which it will seem outmoded to classify fashion by gender at all.
When Generation X came of age, the look was grungy, oversize, and body agnostic: Kurt Cobain’s occasional fondness for a dress or women’s sunglasses was the exception, and most of his Sub Pop Records compatriots were content with a uniform of thrift store flannels and ill-fitting jeans. Mainstream hip-hop stars like the Notorious B.I.G. wore baggy T-shirts and Timberland work boots. The stylistic shift also coincided with a change in the way music was marketed. Suddenly, rock was aimed primarily at angsty straight guys. No need for flashy fashion—JNCO jeans would do just fine.
“It wasn’t cool to be seen in anything except basically what you slept in the day before. It was kind of like anti-glam,” says event producer Ileen Sheppard Gallagher, the former director of exhibitions at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s all a persona, let’s face it—even if it’s not flamboyant. Every musician who gets up there adopts some sort of way of thinking about themselves, to put themselves out there. That’s always reflected in their clothes.”
In the early aughts, male style in the Top 40 was bleak. Nickelback scored eight No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts, but precisely zero memorable outfits. (One exception during this era was OutKast’s André 3000, in his dandyish ensembles.) The respectability politics of the Obama years prompted a fixation on tailored suiting, culminating in Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s 2013 metrosexual anthem, “Suit & Tie.” Suddenly, the biggest rock stars on the planet were adopting the same dress code as 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy—great for burnishing their images as multihyphenate moguls, but not so much for exciting the public imagination. Wasn’t music supposed to provide relief from uptight corporate culture?
Which brings us back to the return of sequins, ruffles, and glitter. As a new generation reestablishes the sweeping gestures of rock star style, it’s looking to the past. Harry Styles has patterned much of his image on the well-established tradition of England’s music royalty: His green faux fur boa over a leather blazer (sans shirt, of course) at the 2021 Grammy Awards was a knowing homage to glam rock pioneer Marc Bolan, of the band T. Rex. The Burberry skirt dress Bad Bunny rocked that same night had echoes of the scandalous Michael Fish–designed “man dress” that Mick Jagger made famous in 1969. Lil Nas X’s best looks recall not only Prince, but hip-hop pioneers like Fab 5 Freddy—never one to shy away from a full leather look.
The previous generation skirted questions about its identity by embracing the comforting vagueness of androgyny. “You’ve got your mother in a whirl. She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” Bowie sang in “Rebel Rebel.” “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I’m something that you’ll never understand,” echoed Prince 10 years later. In 2022, after LGBTQ+ communities have been fighting for decades to be themselves, such sly displays would run the risk of falling flat. Today’s audiences demand more clarity and more authenticity: Lil Nas X, Sivan, and Olly Alexander of the British chart-topper Years & Years are openly queer. Styles brandishes pride flags at his concerts, and on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Bad Bunny once wore a shirt honoring a murdered trans woman. Still, some cynics posit that their clothing amounts to little more than a style race engineered to capture attention and spark social media discussion. “I definitely see that online all the time. Some people feel he’s just doing things to get certain groups of people excited,” says Pablo, about reactions to Bad Bunny. “It’s not that. We definitely move with purpose.” Rajab points out that, unlike Hollywood stars, who often appear on red carpets to promote projects that aren’t their own, musicians are selling themselves as a product. “Musicians try to align their styling with the music they’re releasing—and really that phase in their life,” he says.
Personal narratives aside, the real power of all this costuming is evident in the ripple effect it has on the fans. “Once audiences saw rock stars wearing these things onstage, they felt freer to embrace those fashions themselves,” notes Gallagher. Rajab, for one, had his eyes opened when he started working with Sivan after a career spent mostly in magazines and advertising. “It’s now always in the back of my mind, how just expressing yourself and being more confident can have such an impact,” he says, of the response he sees from Sivan’s fans. “They can’t afford these designer brands, so they’re making their own versions. They’re picking up whatever they can at the thrift store and creating their own characters.”
Riley sees a direct line from Elton John to Lil Nas X, but also wonders what’s next, now that a man in a sequined jumpsuit ceases to elicit much of a reaction. Are we doomed to a return to men in T-shirts and ratty jeans? Perhaps. More likely, we will reach a point at which it will seem outmoded to classify fashion by gender at all.
There’s no question that rock ’n’ roll helped reshape our postwar views of sex and channeled ideas about free love and queer liberation directly into the mainstream. Today’s young musicians are growing up in an environment in which sex is no longer taboo. The Rolling Stones were the music of their grandparents. Gen Z is increasingly questioning the gender binary, and that old catchall, androgyny, is no longer enough. “All of this is really culture grappling with, ‘Who am I? How do I fit in?’ ” Riley says. “Now the question is, What is culture going to see as the dominant forms, not only for male and female, but for new identities as well?”