On March 3, 1989, Madonna released her music video for “Like a Prayer.” Directed by her longtime collaborator Mary Lambert, the clip quickly took on a life of its own, solidifying fashion's pivotal role in music videos. The iconography remains iconic: Madonna’s weighty cross necklace paired with a provocative black lace slip dress was controversial, even sinful. This was intentional, of course: The video addressed topics of institutionalized racism and criminal injustice — a black man is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit —not to mention the cross-burning defacement of religious insignia; the clothes pushed back against those same boundaries.
Three decades later, that lingerie dress is now timeless, a tidy representation of the video's thematic elements as a whole. While Madonna is a strong example, this close association between clothes and content is not unique to the “Material Girl.” One simply can’t talk about pop music without also discussing fashion, and historically, there’s been no greater stage for fashion than in the kind of short film meant to be disseminated to millions of people on platforms like MTV and VH1.
“When we were growing up, MTV was everyone's go-to for fashion, and music videos had such a huge impact on our culture at that time,” says stylist B. Åkerlund, whose list of clientele — including Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and Paul McCartney — reads something like a line of succession in pop royalty. “But music videos have always set such a tone for the song, and when you think of a song, you think of the video. You know what that artist wore.”
As pop music itself has gotten bigger, bolder, and more creative, so have its videos — despite diminished budgets in the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars range — as have the clothes in them that help establish an artist's image. So while fashion in pop videos has evolved in the four decades since the dawn of MTV, the two have also become more interdependent than ever.
Today, the "pop" category spans across genres: The current Top 40 is a reliable cocktail of R&B (SZA), hip-hop (Travis Scott), soft rock (Maroon 5), and even country (Kacey Musgraves). According to British musicologist Simon Frith, pop is that which is produced as a matter of enterprise, not art, and designed to appeal to everyone.
“In musical terms, it is essentially conservative,” Frith wrote in the 2001 book The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. “Pop is not do-it-yourself music, but is professionally produced and packaged.” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video was an interesting nexus of the two: It certainly wasn’t “conservative,” and it wasn’t intended to appeal to everyone. And yet, its five minutes and 37 seconds represented the absolute pinnacle of pop.
By the mid- to late-1990s, we had emerged in a post-Madonna world: Those aesthetic walls Madge had worked to bring down — using a slip dress as a means to expose the more puritanical expectations of women in contemporary society, for example — had inspired other pop musicians to play with fashion in similarly inventive ways and challenge themselves to be more creative with style. (Twenty years later, Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” video may have paid the most literal homage — donning a red latex habit, the pop star swallows a rosary before appearing in nude-toned underwear — and was promptly condemned by the Catholic League.)
Amani Duncan, senior vice president of music at MTV (owned by Viacom), says instances like the above move the needle for the rest of the pool. In order to remain relevant, artists must always stay one step ahead. “No one wants to see what everyone else is already doing,” says Duncan, who began her career in the label business and once served as chief marketing officer for Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment Worldwide. “People want to see something that captures your audience. Because we all know counterculture eventually becomes the norm.”
In fashion, this manifests itself as an overall raising of the volume: louder silhouettes, zanier colors, more unexpected styling. And the look doesn't have to have a religious connotation to make waves. Take Missy Elliott, who in the mid-1990s came to rewrite what it meant to be a hip-hop artist working at the top of the charts.
On June 3, 1997, MTV began airing Elliott’s video for “The Rain,” the debut single off her Supa Dupa Fly LP. With the help of director Hype Williams and costume designer June Ambrose, Elliott used fashion — that big blow-up suit, her futuristic claw headset — to announce her arrival as an artist-to-watch. “She was one to really push the envelope with fashion in her own way,” says Duncan. “She set the tone through her bravery. No one was doing that. And she was breaking the window and saying it's OK to be different.”
By the late 1990s, Elliott was at the forefront of a new era of pop juggernauts whose fashion helped to set them apart from everyone else: a 16-year-old Britney Spears in her suggestive “...Baby One More Time” school-girl getup; Gwen Stefani in “Just a Girl,” playing the part of the still-sexy guy’s girl, fronting an all-male band in tracksuits and baby tanks; glittery R&B princess Aaliyah in “Try Again” with a sequined bikini bra top and coordinating belt and choker.
“The way musicians dress is the way they want their audience to identify them,” says fashion stylist Leah Abbott, who currently works with R&B wunderkind Jorja Smith as well as star rapper DaBaby. “If they're young and fearless and they want to express that through their clothes, fashion definitely tells a narrative in a video.”
But then, in the early turn of the millennium, music videos changed. By 2004, the industry was flush with online streaming, ushering in a new frontier in which artists and their record labels were tasked with relying on other sources of income beyond album sales. Budgets were getting slashed and music videos were among the first to get hit, which meant that artists would have to get resourceful about how they could make that same fashion impact with a fraction of the cost.
“People expect the same level of production they did 10, 15 years ago when the budgets were three times as high and you had three shoot days,” says Åkerlund. “Now, you have just two days to prep it and one day to shoot it. We have to get more creative and the jobs get fewer and farther between because the budgets and rates aren't the same. And when you're an OG like me who’s been around for a while, I can't work for an assistant rate.”
One of Åkerlund’s most iconic wardrobe moments came in the new, post-internet era, where she was able to flex that creativity with some of the biggest brands in the fashion business — and with one of the most powerful creative forces in the history of music. In 2016, she worked on Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” video, styling her in the now-iconic yellow Roberto Cavalli gown replete with cascading tiers of ruffles. Of course, the dress became representative of not just the song itself, but the entire Lemonade album.
“I didn't know I was going to bring the color yellow back, which was actually a coincidence,” remembers Åkerlund. “My husband [Swedish film director Jonas Åkerlund] was the director, and he said she has to wear a yellow dress because we're both really into yellow. Secretly, in every project we’ve ever done, we always get something yellow in there. And then she ended up in a yellow dress with an album called Lemonade, which we had no idea of at the time. It was just good timing.”
By the time YouTube came around in 2005, this had become a catch-22: The appetite for content had never been higher, but it had also never been more challenging for pop artists to fulfill that hunger. By and large, the million-dollar budget of Spears’ “Toxic” video was no longer a reality in a world that now prioritized the instant gratification of views, likes, and comments over Hollywood production value.
There were, of course, the exceptions: those artists whose larger-than-life followings and cults of personalities demanded spectacle videos on the same scale and with fashion to match. In 2009, Lady Gaga was hot on the heels of her debut album when she released her video for “Paparazzi,” which Åkerlund styled. Gaga cited it as "the most amazing creative work [she's] put together so far," per a May 2009 interview with The Canadian Press. It was a breakthrough for Åkerlund, too.
“I'd done work before that people resonated with, but it was the first video I did where the fashion was so important that it went viral,” remembers Åkerlund. You remember the visuals: the circular spectacles care of London-based industrial accessory designer Alexander Tasou, the Thierry Mugler corset, vintage all the way from 1998, the metallic sculptural heels from John Galliano’s Spring 2009 collection.
In and out of the pop bubble, Gaga was and is a true artist. And she was smart from Day 1. No one had ever seen anything like her before, and she knew that was what would continue to set her apart. “It was an interesting take to see how loudly we can speak through our fashion in a video," Åkerlund says.
And one can't discuss fashion-focused music videos without a Taylor Swift mention. The young singer-songwriter first established herself as a video maven with her 2008 video for “Love Story.” The video was lavish, a lush piece of Romeo and Juliet fan-fiction featuring a number of custom-made ball gowns appropriate for a castle tower. In the decade that followed, Swift transitioned from country darling to pop icon, and fashion was her right-hand man through all of it.
Her videos have remained notoriously high-budget. This has been made possible because Swift is one of the most financially lucrative pop stars of all time and not simply because she creates mindbogglingly catchy pop songs. She’s a master storyteller, weaving shrouds of plot lines with nothing but a handful of visual Easter eggs. Fans have learned not to take her wardrobe at face value lest they miss a clue that, say, she and Karlie Kloss are no longer friends.
Like Madonna and Gaga, Swift's looks (even when shrouded in designer names) are intentional, calculated even. In the video for 2017’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift wears brands like Gucci, Balmain, Balenciaga, and Burberry, but she also importantly wears nothing at all. In one scene, she sinks into a bathtub filled with $10 million worth of diamonds on loan from Neil Lane — something many interpreted as a thinly veiled jab at tabloid nemesis Kim Kardashian West, whose own jewelry collection had been robbed the year before. Even in the absence of clothes, Swift understands that fashion feeds her vision. But perhaps more importantly, she also understands that vision isn’t everything. It has to convert sales.
“Before, I felt like it was driven more by the band's desire to connect with an audience, and now it's by the metrics,” says music video director Vincent Haycock, who’s worked with the likes of Lana Del Rey, Harry Styles, and Florence + the Machine. “Now more than ever, there's more creative freedom, too. Because there's more places to watch it, people are now more in tune with making ‘art,’ quote unquote.”
Pop stars are even becoming the actual, professional faces of the brands they wear in their videos, earning blue-chip spokesperson contracts with some of fashion’s glossiest labels. The Haycock-directed video for Styles’ “Lights Up” was the first off the glam-rock pop prince’s second-ever album as a solo artist. To set the stage for what was to come in this new artistic era, stylist Harry Lambert dressed Styles in an assemblage of pieces from a trusted coterie of designers, including Gucci (see: a navy sequined jumpsuit and a metallic shirt, unbuttoned down-to-there, paired with coordinating suspenders), a house he’s fronted since 2018.
With such a broadened playing field, contemporary pop artists have to be really good at their craft, and really good at storytelling, to rise above the status quo. Fashion helps with that. “Look at Billie Eilish,” says Haycock. “Here's someone who's redefining all the boxes you could put someone in. She's a pop artist, I guess, but to me she's like Marilyn Manson. She does videos where she's getting cigarettes put out on her face. She dresses like no other pop star. She just completely redefines all the other expectations because she's original and she's interesting.”
While 18-year-old Eilish is styled by standout music stylist Samantha Burkhart, she also plays an instrumental role in her own image-molding. For as long as she’s been in the public eye, since her first song, “Ocean Eyes,” became a SoundCloud hit, Eilish has opted to wear oversized clothing from the likes of Gucci, Burberry, and even Chanel to avoid being judged by her body.
Eilish’s video for “All the Good Girls Go to Hell,” released last fall, is objectively terrifying: Eilish falls to Earth, sprouts black wings and emerges from a tar-like substance as her feathers catch fire. It’s not quite the saccharine fizz we’ve come to expect from pop ingenues (think Ariana Grande lolling around a fluffy chaise lounger in lacy lingerie in 2016’s “Dangerous Woman”).
The difference, though, is that Eilish brings the shock factor. With five Grammy Awards under her belt, Eilish is the pop star for today: a little odd and a lot unconventional, with video costuming that complements the most haunting qualities of her music.
Eilish is also a different kind of pop icon than what you may have seen on MTV when it began nearly 39 years ago. But really, she and 1980s-era Madonna aren’t altogether that different. Both have made clothes something to talk about, and both have used clothes to carve out their identities. Together, both represent how the fashion in pop videos has stayed the same all this time.
What’s changed, though, is that fashion has only become a more crucial ingredient in an artist’s visual identity. To stay relevant (and to stay afloat), pop musicians have taken more risks with just about everything they wear, from Elliott’s blow-up suit to Eilish’s fallen dark angel, and that has allowed artists to become braver through their clothing.
This will never change. But as the world gets braver, so will pop music, so will its videos, and so will the fashion in them. Just consider what pop videos will look like the next 40 years. “I don't see anyone treading water anymore, and that's really inspiring to creators and artists and even their fans who are expecting them to be even more creative,” says Duncan. “Because times are changing rapidly, even faster than I can remember. And I feel like that forward trajectory is going to just skyrocket.”