The Vanguard Stars Redefining Country Music Fashion

And how to make their looks your own.

Timothy Norris/FilmMagic/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 05: (FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Kacey Musgraves performs during the ...

Take a stroll through Nashville’s Lower Broadway, the famous stretch of honky-tonks where countless country music artists have gotten their start, and you’ll find a sea of cowboy boots, wide-brim hats, and more bootcut-style denim than a season of Yellowstone. Heat in the South can be relentless, but even when the temperature tops 95 degrees, dedicated fans will lurch from one bar to the next in full-on ’fits.

Nashville, otherwise known as Music City, serves as a mecca for a certain set of music fans — those who can ramble off deep cuts of Dolly Parton and marvel at the street where Chris Stapleton first strummed his now infamous tunes. It is also a destination for tourists to dress up in their “country” garb: Heavens-skimming hair. Bandannas. Something (anything) emblazoned with the American flag. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this (if you can’t pony up in Nashville like this, then where?), it can inadvertently bolster a fixed stereotype often applied to the music genre, and the lifestyle that goes along with it. After all, country music, just like the style that’s commonly associated with it, is divisive. Some can’t stand the sound; others abhor the politics. Many people, understandably, don’t give it a chance to begin with, as the overall genre historically hasn’t done much to diversify its appeal.

But all that is changing. Today, there’s a class of country music artists who are breaking with tradition in just about every possible way — from their songwriting to their values and definitely their personal style. While the ripped-jean wearing, beer-swiggin’, pickup-driving crew remains present, a new generation of performers like Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves, Sierra Ferrell, and Kassi Ashton are subverting the norm and inviting new fans into the country music fold while they’re at it.

Brandi CarlileGary Miller/Getty Images Entertainment
Kacey MusgravesTim Mosenfelder/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Sierra FerrellErika Goldring/WireImage/Getty Images

It requires a certain amount of conviction to sing your heart out on stage, and accordingly, it should be no surprise that these artists are eager to tussle with trends to make them singularly their own. Take, for example, country music’s deep-seated cowboy look: The trend will look different on each of these performers, and always feel personal and specific to their brand — see Musgraves pink spangly rodeo star set or Carlile’s dapper Western-inflicted suiting.

Below, hear from the stylists of Musgraves, Carlile, and Ferrell, plus Ashton, who dresses herself for appearances, about how to channel their looks and how to infuse your own wardrobe with a little Grand Ole Opry stage glamour.

Follow Your Arrow

Musgraves burst onto the scene with her velvet voice singing songs that carry tough-as-nails truths. Her star — and style — was already on the rise when Erica Cloud, a stylist to other country acts like Little Big Town, began working with her in preparation for the release of her 2018 album, Golden Hour. The singer, who had been leaning into pumped-up country looks before working with Cloud, was ready to switch things up sartorially.

“She was looking to change the country kitsch that she had been doing for her previous albums,” Cloud recalls. “She was describing the album to me and just saying it’s called Golden Hour, and describing the songs on it, and just feeling a ’70 aesthetic went with it visually.” To that end, Cloud played with a mix of texture and proportion — think denim but paired with elements of romantic whimsy, like butterflies and rich colors to mirror the song “Rainbow.”

Musgrave’s subsequent Star-Crossed release in 2021 was totally different in sound and style. But Cloud was sure to include staples in Musgraves’ looks to avoid anything feeling costume-y, or, for lack of a better description, random. Jean fabric remained a crucial material, she says, though for this album’s performances and appearances, it was used in the shape of Y2K throwbacks.

“People have such a specific idea of [country music style], but it actually has a broad range,” Cloud points out. “But I don’t think that they’ve necessarily experienced all of the different genres inside of it.” Cloud dressed Musgraves in Vivienne Westwood, for example, a punk-infused label that unexpectedly leans country.

Musgraves continues to serenade fans with her music and is presenting her type of country music in a way that sounds — and looks — different, but relatable. Each album marks a new chapter in an artist’s career (and, in many cases, life). And though growth is laudable, it usually doesn’t mean changing entirely. Kacey is still Kacey, and her wardrobe, Cloud says, reflects that.

Musgraves’ Staples: Reach for modern retro suits, Canadian (or Texan) tuxedos (prime for translating into the cowboy look), and monochromatic separates.

Styling Notes: Cloud recommends leaning into vintage shopping or trying a jumpsuit, another Musgraves go-to. From there, you need to identify a “wildcard” piece that’ll add personality to your outfits (for her, it’s Celine cowboy boots, yee-flipping-haw), and find multiple ways to style it.

Stay Gentle

Brandi CarlileGary Miller/Getty Images Entertainment

For Maryam Malakpour, working and building trust with Brandi Carlile was trial by fire, in the best possible way. The two connected in early 2019, and within the first month of meeting, Malakpour dressed Carlile for two cover photo shoots, three performances, and the Grammy’s, for which the singer was nominated for six awards and walked away with three, including Best Americana Album. Many would blanch at the tall order. Malakpour rose to the occasion, fostering a collaborative dynamic in their working relationship.

Regardless of the occasion, Malakpour will present ideas to Carlile that consist of mood boards, sketches, and swatches for the singer to get an idea of how the outfit will look and feel. Over time, the two have also defined fundamentals of Carlile’s now-trademark tailored look. This serves as the springboard for experimentation and growth while remaining consistent in her overall tone.

“In order to deliver great style, we have to constantly evolve and tweak, but always stick to the fundamentals, the base,” Malakpour says. “She loves tailoring and we translate a suit in so many different ways.”

Malakpour and Carlile have even flirted with the cowboy look, says the stylist. For a recent performance with The Highwomen, the all-women country supergroup to which Carlile belongs, Malakpour relied on Carlile’s go-to tailored look, but rodeo’d it up with a lilac silk vest, floral-embroidered, flared trousers, and a classic black Stetson hat.

Carlile’s Staples: Pick up your best suit but know when to exit your comfort zone. Malakpour says that, while Carlile will always reach for a tailored style, she’s been pleased with moments when she struck out from the norm. For instance, she recently opted for an Affair haute couture gown paired with lemon yellow Christian Louboutin boots for a cover shoot.

Styling Notes: If you’ve ever wanted to channel your buttoned-up tomboy side, now’s the time. Consider opting for well-made separates that can be invigorated with unexpected details, like embellishments. Make the most of the ’fit by wearing each piece on its own or go full-throttle Brandi and suit up for a night at the honky-tonk.

Made Like That

Presley Ann/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Since her 2021 album, Long Time Coming, Sierra Ferrell has captured country insiders’ attention. Her songs evoke the earliest days of country music, when it was a vehicle for storytelling; her look, often a mix of vintage pinup spun with Appalachian edge, feels immediately fresh and timeless. When the opportunity to perform at Stagecoach surfaced, the singer tapped stylist and costume designer Chenoa Faun to assist.

Faun, a former dancer, had a unique perspective on how to design and source the look. To get started, Faun asked Ferrell about her intentions for the show — Was she going to require more than one look? What instruments did she plan to play? — in order to ensure that the outfit could easily be put on and off, and enable comfortable strumming and singing without too much constriction. The result? A reworked burlesque look worn with glitter ankle booties that grounded the overall appearance, while still enabling Ferrell to comfortably move around the stage.

Ferrell’s Staples: Picture a vintage boudoir blended with cowboy signatures like bolo ties and, yep, cowboy hats.

Styling Notes: Faun recommends focusing on what makes you unique — and playing it up. Scoop up affordable thrifted pieces, and don’t be afraid to cut them up or DIY them in other ways to find the look or fit you’re going for, she added. To avoid looking contrived, she adds that it’s best to contrast more classic country silhouettes with modern elements.

Pretty Shiny Things

Steve Jennings/WireImage/Getty Images

Singer Kassi Ashton, whose music could be described as akin to gunning a hot rod right before careening around a curve, knows how difficult it is to stand out in a crowd of aspiring country performers. She’s a powerhouse who understands when to dole out restraint to reap maximum impact. Her clothes, naturally, follow suit.

“I would describe my style as undone motorcycle-rustic glamour,” she explains via email (she is currently resting her voice). “I love leather, denim, and heavy silver. I want to look like I rolled out of bed, threw on some grunge organic texture, ass-kicking boots, and heavy jewelry.”

Being a female country singer today can often consist of sporting denim shorts and a mix of rhinestones. But Ashton hasn’t thought twice about do-si-do’ing around convention.

“I’m just drawn to aesthetics and looks whether it’s the norm or not. Also, I’m a pants girl. You see a lot of shorts on females in country. I’d rather have my stomach out because that’s where I sweat most [performing],” she writes. “I’ve never been a rhinestone girl, either, and rhinestones are arguably the number one accoutrement for fabric in country music. I’d rather have studs and laces.”

A rite of passage for many country artists includes performing at the Grand Ole Opry, the longest running radio show in the United States, which has welcomed performances by legends like Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton, and just about everyone else you’ll find on a country music playlist. Recently, Ashton made her Opry debut. For the event, Ashton got sewing. That’s right, she made her look.

“I actually made my Opry look from scratch,” she shares. “I hand dyed the fabric in a partnership with RIT dye then sewed the dress. I make most of my own stage clothes that way. I wanted to honor the looks of classic Opry queens: the midi length, the petticoat, the bows, but I wanted to make it weepy in my grunge way.”

Ashton arguably doesn’t follow popular looks so much as sparks them. When I asked for her tips on how to wear the cowboy trend, she responded with red-hot reason. “Incorporate ‘cowboy’ staples like boots, buckles, hats into your personal style one or two at a time. Please not all three,” she advises. “You don’t have to wear them the way the ‘cowboy’ style says you do. Wear the cowboy boots with some rolled boxer shorts and your favorite band rock tee. Keep in mind, ‘cowboy’ is organic. It’s not polyester. It’s not pleather. It’s workwear thick denim. It’s cotton. It’s vintage leather. The textures are important to the style.”

Ashton’s Staples: Ashton’s sources of style inspiration include Gilda Ambrosio, co-founder of Italian brand The Attico, the entire Coyote Ugly wardrobe, forever cool-girl Erin Wasson, and Cher — always. Rough up your edges with a devil-may-care attitude and bedhead hair.

Styling Notes: “The way you pull something off is by putting it on and walking down the damn street like you own it. Experiment! Don’t be afraid to look dumb! Get to know yourself at the deepest possible level and play with proportions,” Ashton encourages. “Stop looking at sizes. Look at how it hangs or doesn’t hang on your body. That’s what’s important. There are no rules. Stop shopping at three stores, you’re going to look like everyone else if you do that. New clothes aren’t the only clothes. Thrift! eBay! Learn to hem a pair of pants! Take things to a seamstress to modify! No one who is known for their style has a closet full of untouched new clothes. Mood board for your life!”

Now that, folks, is what we call a mic drop.