Most Influential Fashion Icons of All Time

CREDIT: barbie.harris37 via Flickr

By Rowan Davies

The most fascinating characteristic about fashion is that it is always changing, always evolving. Trends come and go within the blink of an eye. I cannot begin to imagine how stressed the contributors of Vogue’s ‘trend’ section must feel every month before publication for having to carefully observe what trends are currently in season. Although, it comes as an advantage that celebrity culture keeps fashion right before us. The genius combination between the fashion and celebrity worlds has created some of the most influential fashion icons of all time, dating back to as early as the 1930s and beyond. From the music industry to Hollywood, fashion icons have always been present and have helped shaped fashion through the decades.

The growth of the film industry in the 1930s helped put rising stars at the forefront of the public and created what we can today categorise as classic celebrity iconography. A pivotal figure in 1930s Hollywood was that of Jean Harlow, the original blonde bombshell. Harlow epitomised traditional 30s glamour and sophistication and served as one of the first stars of classic sex iconography in Hollywood. Anna May Wong was considered the first Chinese Hollywood actress and the first Chinese film star to gain global recognition and was by no surprise a fashion influencer. Through her movies, most famously The Shanghai Express, she brought Chinese culture to America and to every cinema screen around the world, resulting in her being huge inspiration behind the theme of the 2015 Met Gala, China: Through the Looking Glass. In 1939, Gone with The Wind became the highest grossing movie of all time with Vivien Leigh portraying the lead role of Scarlett O’Hara, who was deemed as the most influential literature character in fashion by Anna Wintour herself. The infamous character paved the way for Leigh to rise in both the fashion and the film world.

Stars of the noir films of the 40s introduced attitude and assurance to a woman’s wardrobe, especially actress Joan Crawford. Now, when I think of extreme shoulder pads the 1980s is not the first thing that comes to mind but more so Crawford’s appearance in the 1945 movie Mildred Pierce. Joan almost invented the shoulder pad and was often made fun of because how often she sported them. But, nothing in the world could have possibly gotten in the way of her natural beauty and professionalism, on and off screen. In contrast to Crawford’s classic femininity, Marlene Dietrich expressed her womanhood through her suits and androgyny. It is impressive how Dietrich contributed towards the early movements of feminism through the complete irony of wearing a man’s suit to show female strength and integrity.

It is safe to say that the film industry had a full grasp of the fashion world by now as it kept producing one influential star after another. During the 1950s sex iconography resurfaced and Hollywood brought forth a figure who is still a cultural phenomenon today: Marilyn Monroe. A vamped blonde bombshell, Monroe was at the height of her career in the 50s with roles in many films starring as the comedic ‘dumb blonde’, however, she was a smart ‘dumb blonde’. A modern example of sex symbolism Monroe presented the typical ‘curves and swerves’ styles of the decade and stood out more than any other star of her time. Although Monroe famously sang ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’, Elizabeth Taylor stood out as the ‘Queen of Diamonds’. Taylor was never photographed without wearing them and deemed them as the ultimate fashion accessory. One of the most famous wedding dresses had made its way onto the scene during the 50s, that of Grace Kelly. The high neck and long-sleeved gown complimented Kelly’s gentle and pure style and played a great influential role in the design process for the dress worn by the Duchess of Cambridge during her marriage to Prince William in 2011.

American politics had shifted its way into the fashion industry by the time the 1960s had arrived, with Jacqueline Kennedy playing a significant influencer. Her position as First Lady allowed her to introduce classic American sportswear to the mainstream and use sportswear as a form of formal dress.  In an era of the explicitly of rock ’n’ roll culture, Audrey Hepburn stood out for her simplicity and innocence. The ‘little black dress’ would not have existed if it weren’t for Hepburn’s appearance in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. The music industry was perhaps at its high point in the 60s as it brought new sounds to the ears of the public. Diana Ross was arguably the first lady of soul and Motown. She represented the glamour and confidence that every Black woman should carry themselves with. During an era of extreme racism, Diana Ross lead The Supremes through an industry where Black artists were pulled away from the forefront of the business. Not only was Ross a fashion icon, she was a fighter.

There was a dramatic shift in fashion in the 1970s with movements such as punk and new wave, meaning the music industry had more influence on fashion than ever before. Society had decided that gender exploration was the new trend and people began exploiting conventional regulations regarding gender assignment with David Bowie being a driving force in gender bending. In an era where fashion was not deemed as a masculine territory, Bowie stood out as one of the few men who put himself at the forefront of the fashion industry as well as the music industry. Debbie Harry of the group Blondie supported the punk movement through her fashion as well as her music. She became a fashion staple through her short shorts and cropped tops and was easily recognisable by her platinum blonde hair.

Following the punk movements of the 70s, 1980s fashion revolved around pop and mainstream music. A substantial artist of the era was Grace Jones, known for her enigmatic music and disco-androgynous style. She served as one of the biggest fashion risk-takers and was never afraid to wear clothing of all genders or wear clothing that was considered ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’. This decade in particular saw the rise of modern luxury fashion brands and therefore came the rise of supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford who influenced mainstream fashion trends on and off their runway environments. However, it wasn’t really until the 90s where models were at the height of their popularity with the rise of the Versace name.

By the 1990s fashion had been modified in a way that made casual wear more popular and acceptable even for those of aristocratic levels. I could not write a piece on fashion icons and not include Diana, Princess of Wales and her versatile fashion sense. Diana was a fashion icon in many ways, in that she could sport anything glamorous or casual. She differed from any other royal family member as she was often spotted in her sweatshirts and trainers and still managed to look like royalty. Even 20 years after her death she still has major influence on the way that her daughters-in-law carry themselves and their fashion choices. Television played a significant role in fashion more than ever especially through the character of Rachel Green in Friends, played by Jennifer Aniston. Similar to how Diana introduced the sportswear trend, Aniston used the character of Rachel to impose the trend further into mainstream society and also set the ultimate 90s hair trend with the ‘Rachel hair cut’, a style which many women now regret although I still think it was a fashion staple. Following from the influence of supermodels during the 80s, Gianni Versace paved the way for models to emerge in popular culture and practically invented the term ‘supermodel’. Versace changed the fashion world entirely, particularly through red carpet events with his infamous safety pin dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley (referred to as THAT dress).

As the 20th century ended, the 21st century provided the fashion world with the opportunity to experiment and explore. The early years of the 2000s brought back sophistication through the influence of television again, this time through Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Sex and the City: Carrie Bradshaw. It is quite possible that Bradshaw is the most fashionable character in television and was brought to life through Parker’s portrayal, representing her as the conventional woman-on-the-go and gracing the camera with one fashion forward look after another. Youth culture was stronger than ever before during the 2000s and Christina Aguilera was an inescapable figure in pop culture. She was, inarguably, the person that every girl wanted to be. She presented two sides to her personality by setting a casual ‘tom-boy’ trend but her music allowed her to present herself in a sexy and feminine way and made groin-less chaps a fundamental fashion item. In the later years of the 2000s, Lady Gaga’s career skyrocketed in a matter of months. There’s no doubt that she has had huge influence on fashion. What Gaga did differently compared with other celebrities was that she used unconventional materials in her fashion and made something as basic as a bodysuit so innovated and interesting. At the 2010 VMAs Gaga shocked with the world with what is probably my most favourite moment in fashion ever as she accepted an award wearing a dress entirely constructed from meat. MEAT.

There has never been a more important era for fashion than the present day with the rise of modern feminism and the MeToo movement. Contemporary fashion icons have almost become a necessity in that they reassure people all over the world to feel comfortable with how they dress themselves. It comes as no surprise to why Beyoncé has become one the biggest fashion icons of today. After going solo from Destiny’s Child made her a stronger influence on fashion. Beyoncé has remained one of the biggest fashion icons of the 21st century since her early appearances in the 2000s from her tour costumes to her casual wear with which she flaunts on her flawless Instagram page. Her incredible performance at Coachella 2018 made history and deemed Bey as a cultural icon as well as a fashion influencer, with her becoming the first black woman to headline the festival. Fashion today has lifted Black women and has encouraged Black visibility as we have seen through Beyoncé but also with both Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, and Rihanna. Also referred to as the Queen of the Met Gala, Rihanna has a rare gift of being able to sport any outfit, she would look priceless even in a bin bag. Her contributions to the annual Met Gala have made her a synonymous figure in the fashion world.