“Stuck in My Head” is a new essay series that celebrates the highly specific moments in fashion history that we’re pretty sure will stay lodged in our brains forever, from film costumes to runway bloopers to the ad campaigns of our youths. Here, Senior News Editor Kyle Munzenrieder reflects on the underappreciated fashion impact of Irish pop musician Róisín Murphy. Read Maxine Wally’s deep dive into the uncanny St. John ads of the early 2000s, here.
The year is 2007 and André Leon Talley is recorded in the offices of Vogue howling, “It is a famine of beauty!” Looking at what pop stars of the time were wearing, he is not wrong. Fergie would show up places in a Kangol hat and cargo pants and we wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Avril Lavigne’s stylist was sourcing a never-ending supply of plaid mini-skirts, black hoodies and Chucks. Madonna, a woman who counts Donatella Versace and Jean-Paul Gaultier as intimates, was photographed wearing Ed Hardy multiple times, for some reason. It feels mean to even gesture towards what Britney Spears was wearing during this particular year.
Occasionally, we’d get some sliver of glamour, like Beyoncé in those Balenciaga C-3PO leggings or Gwen Stefani in full Dior Couture, but for the most part, pop star style was still in a hangover from the peak of the TRL era. The mandate was not one of imagination or sophistication, but, rather, some form of faux-relatability. It seemed as if anyone with an MTV hit was instructed to look like they walked directly out of suburban mall, then pelted with a spray of Swarovski crystals.
This is the part where an E! News Fashion Police commentator shouts that Lady Gaga came along a few years later and saved us all from the scourge of terrycloth miniskirts and Ugg boots forever, but that’s not exactly correct. The path back to pop music fashion escapism actually begins with the Irish singer Róisín Murphy.
The singer’s debut solo album, 2005’s Ruby Blue, was part of a small wave of releases (including Norwegian singer Annie’s Anniemal and Robyn’s self-titled disc) that got even Pitchfork to unclench and take pop music seriously. (Your Charli XCX-class pop musician is still largely operating from these albums’ playbooks 15 years later.)
Murphy’s album was the most experimental of the lot, but she was in the best position to capitalize with a follow-up. She had some success as the lead singer of the trip-hop act Moloko (they had respectable hits in Murphy’s native UK, but may be best known in the US for their inclusion on the Sex and the City television soundtrack album). Her record label, EMI, was notably eager to reset her solo career towards commercial success.
So with 2007’s Overpowered, Murphy either set out to remake herself as a proper pop star or remake the very notion of a pop star altogether. The effect was the same. The sound itself is sleek, disco-informed pop (that pairs well with Dua Lipa’s recent Future Nostalgia, come to think of it), but the accompanying visuals sent the project over the top.
Murphy teamed with graphic designer Scott King, a former art director at i-D, to conceptualize the music videos and artwork for the era as something of an ongoing art project. Murphy would wear self-styled looks from the some of the era’s most avant-garde designers while going about a normal life in London. It was the kind of fashion that cool kids might rush to view as soon as the runway images hit Style.com, but would rarely ever get to see anywhere else.
“I love the mythology of performance and the magic of it, but I would like to break down some of the myths of what happens when I walk off the stage and who I am, and show the juxtaposition between those two,” she told Clash magazine in 2007.
“The whole thing’s about that humanity. There’s nothing untrue about any of these images because I do walk my dog in the park and I go to the caff in Cricklewood.”
The album cover featured the singer engulfed in a pom pom-festooned knit contraption by Swedish designer Sandra Backlund while enjoying a very democratic lunch in a cafeteria. The single artwork for the title track finds Murphy in one of Viktor & Rolf’s famous scaffolding dresses while running errands, while the “Let Me Know” cover finds her going for a walk in the park in a geometric number by Garreth Pugh. The concept extended to the music videos as well. The video for the later track features Murphy back in the diner, this time in a number form one of the last Margiela collections that Martin Margiela himself actually designed. She enters the eatery and temporarily turns it into a disco, even as the rest of the patrons go about their meals unfazed. The “Overpowered” video finds Murphy exiting the stage in a checkerboard Pugh coat, then catching the bus home.
Likely to her record label’s chagrin, the album failed to lift Murphy to superstar status. Critics, however, greeted it as another pop triumph, and the fashion community took notice and quickly adopted Murphy into the fold. There was one fashion month during which she sat front row next to Kanye West at two different shows on two different continents. She walked the runway in two different looks at Alexandre Vauthier’s first ever couture show, and provided live music for a Viktor & Rolf presentation. She once showed up to a Dior Couture show in a Gareth Pugh dress that had debuted on the runway 24 hours earlier.
The story might have ended with Murphy cementing her place as a beloved pop eccentric, but then less than two years later an emerging pop star known as Lady Gaga started to catch certain corners of the internet’s attention. Gaga, too, seemed to have an affinity for avant-garde fashion as a way to communicate her own specific concept of fame. A collage of side-by-sides of the two singer’s images went viral. Long before the drama with Christina Aguilera or Madonna, this was the seed that planted the idea that Gaga was an unrepentant copycat into the general consciousness.
Oddly, Gaga herself has never been asked about the similarities as far as we can tell, but Murphy has.
“She’s copied my style,” she told the Daily Mail at the time. “I met her about a year ago before she got really big and I had no clue that this was all going to happen. She wasn’t wearing shoulder pads at the time, and I was.” The only difference she saw: Gaga didn’t wear pants. In 2018, when a Twitter use asked why, “Overpowered didn’t make you as big as Lady Gaga,” Murphy shot back, “Overpowered made Gaga as big as Gaga.”
Of course, Murphy has mostly taken it in stride, and has never been afraid to fess up to her own influences. The David Bowie video for “DJ” was an influence on the Overpowered era, and Murphy has spent most of her career gushing over the influence of Grace Jones (another artist whom Gaga has been accused of pilfering from).
Nowadays, just about every pop artist is expected to have a stylist scouting the far reaches of the weirdest runways for their next look. But the first visionary who turned the tide away from bedazzled denim and back towards conceptual fashion was Murphy.
An Unofficial Ranking of Róisín Murphy’s Over-the-Top, Avant-Garde Stage Looks
- This Oden Wilson two-piece ensemble, which Murphy wore for the 2009 Life Ball, gets bonus points for originality: an ankle-skimming overcoat layered over a jacket in the same fabric, worn backwards to give the illusion that it’s a dress.
- If you’re going to fascinator, it had better be neon, à la Murphy playing at the Roundhouse in London, May 2015.
- Skip the color entirely and go instead for textures—Murphy couldn’t go wrong at the 2016 Sziget Festival in black-on-black fringe, silk, and a bonnet. The sunglasses certainly don’t hurt—more ’80s Madame Butterfly than Lady Gaga.
- Channel your inner Pierette or Pierot in color-blocked stretch pants and an an extra bold ruff collar. A flying saucer hat never hurt, either, as Murphy demonstrated perfoming in Manchester, England, November 2008.
- A neon cloche pairs well with anything—including pinstripes and a sculptural cloak with one or two arms, depending on your mood. At her Eventim Apollo performance, Murphy wore it both ways.
- A cone-shaped tulle cape makes even more of a statement when paired with jeans and pumps. Murphy stole the show during her performance at Viktor & Rolf’s Spring 2010 ready-to-wear show in Paris, France.
- Róisín Murphy, the literal woman in the moon, added another example of her superb eye for headwear at the BBC 6 Music Festival in Bristol, England, February 2016.
- You never know when an extra claw and an extra head might come in handy—even when the claw’s on your head and the head is that of a dog. Pair with jeans for a more casual, daytime look, à la Murphy at the Mansion, New York, October 2008.
- Though beaked masks were once an ominous accessory worn primarily by doctors treating plague patients circa 1700, Murphy proved during a performance in Berlin, Germany, in November 2015, particularly long-nosed versions of the mask can also make a chic accessory.
- Animal-inspired accessories never go out of style, and work even better when layered. See, for example, Murphy’s feather mask, perched on her forehead, and her capelet of raccoon tails, worn during the Torhout-Werchter Festival in Belgium, March 2004.
- Three times the mask, three times the Pride. This is the ultimate Murphy look to channel for this weekend’s Pride festivities, first worn at her appearance at the Goldea The Roman Night celebration for the new Bulgari fragrance—alongside Bella Hadid—in Rome, Italy, May 2017.