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A Signature Era


We all wore them -- the black loafers, white ankle socks, rhinestone brooches, cropped military jackets and fedoras. Michael Jackson's sartorial signatures filled our closets in the 1980s. And his passing marks the end of an era when a pop singer's individual style could leave an imprint on the critical mass of a generation.

Just try to think of any singer since the days of Jackson, Madonna, David Bowie and Boy George whose looks were so distinctive that they could take over the street.

"Michael Jackson took something simple that everyone could emulate and turned it into a signature style," says Keanan Duffty, the New York-based musician-turned-menswear designer and co-author of "Rebel, Rebel: Anti-Style," due in September. "It was a genius signature styling detail because any kid from India to the U.K. to Bali could put on a white glove and emulate Michael Jackson."

Jim Moore, creative director of GQ magazine, agrees. "He had a uniform. When I think of him, I think of that leather jacket with the sleeves pushed up that we've been seeing on runway for few seasons, the white socks and loafers that were a bit of an homage to James Dean, and the short pants long before Thom Browne was doing them. Designers are always making reference to him."

In the early 1970s through the 1980s, if you were a pop star, you cultivated an onstage, tour-driven look, says Harold Koda, co-curator of the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, who organized the "Rock Style" exhibit in 1999. "An entertainer's personality was driven by creating a caricature that relied on costume."

So you had Stevie Nicks' bohemian, velvet gypsy-style dresses and high boots, Madonna's bras and vintage-looking crinolines and Adam Ant's New Romantic pirate shirts and white stripe of face paint.

For fans, getting the look was about improvising. Style couldn't be bought right off the rack, even if the pieces could be, so there was an element of fantasy that made it all the more appealing.

What changed in the 1990s was the co-opting of pop music by the fashion industry, and the rise of celebrity clothing lines and celebrity stylists. With celebrities in the media cross hairs like never before, there was a defensive shift from "Stand out!" to "Look unassailable, bland and marketable" -- and stars turned to the taste policing of stylists.

"Stylists have taken the power away from the pop star, creating a look based more on fashion than signature style," Duffty says.

It is now a status symbol for pop stars to be associated with a certain designer or house (not to mention a way to get a ton of freebies). Fashion connoisseurship (a la Kanye West) trumps individual style, says Koda.

It can also be quite lucrative. Luxury fashion houses and cosmetics companies pay pop stars top dollar to appear in ads, Rihanna for Gucci for example, and Beyonce for L'Oreal. Other stars have their own clothing lines, which sell a name but not necessarily a distinct style. It's all about jeans and T-shirts. Interestingly, attaching his name to a line was something that Jackson was just getting into, collaborating on an upcoming collection with Christian Audigier.

For her current "I Am" tour, Beyonce collaborated with French fashion designer Thierry Mugler on futuristic, sculpted leotards. But when you see her on the red carpet, she's more likely to be wearing a diaphanous gown. "There isn't this blurring of onstage and offstage identity the way there used to be," Koda says.

The other reason pop star style is not as potent today is that the sheer number of celebrities and images of celebrities -- from TV, film, the Internet and music -- has exploded. And that has created a smorgasbord of influences to choose from. With the advent of reality TV and paparazzi shots, the fantasy has shifted. Now, many fans would rather emulate the "real" grocery store-going and Coffee Bean-swilling star, the one who's "just like you and me" -- not the staged and styled one.

"It's not that there isn't a following for rock star style, it's that it's just one of a vast menu of styles," Koda says. "Some women may be emulating Katy Perry's Daisy Mae 'Dogpatch glamour puss with gingham' look, but it's lost because there are so many other options. And even if you do follow Katy Perry's look, on the red carpet she may be wearing a lame dress. The multiplicity of personalities and images diffuses things."

Some pop looks do still resonate, just not as loudly.

"You can do a Justin Timberlake by putting on porkpie hat and a vest. It's not quite as iconic, but nostalgia does come into play a lot, and we look at the past through rose-tinted glasses," Duftty says. "I'm sure people were doing that when Elvis came along, saying that gold suit won't be remembered like Frank Sinatra's trilby."

How Jackson would have played to the next generation of fans we'll never know. His style had become even more quirky as the years went on.

"That's what Michael Jackson was facing with this new tour," says Arianne Phillips, a stylist and costume designer who has helped Madonna create her ever-evolving looks. "There is such a rapid turnover and constant reinvention of pop stars today that it's rare when an artist embraces a look that it works for them over and over."


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