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Bowie to Billie: Gender, fashion and the music industry

Maya Barber and Emily Harvie discuss the blurring of gender in fashion and Billie Eilish's body positivity journey

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Image Credit: Crommelincklars

Throughout music history, androgynous fashion has been at the core of artists’ individuality, branding and self-expression. I would even argue that fashion and music walk hand in hand. From Elton John and David Bowie, to Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X, their androgyny makes these artists stand out from their peers.

It is said that Elvis Presley, the King of Rock, first introduced androgynous fashion to the mainstream music scene complete with his garish Las Vegas jumpsuits, and consequently reformed the Rockstar image. However, it was actually some African American, female artists in the 1920s who really brought androgynous fashion to music. Names like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley sang in tuxedos and occasionally wrote songs surrounding homosexuality. They may not have been as renowned as Elvis, but their bold attitudes contributed to a new era of fashion.

In her song ‘Prove It On Me Blues’ Ma Rainey writes, “it’s true I wear a collar and a tie” and her bold writing outlines her rejection of the femininity expected of her contemporary female artists. Unafraid to outline her relationships with other women in her songs, Ma Rainey was a black, queer, female who was also a singer, songwriter, venue-owner, and all-round badass. The ownership of her queerness in her public life truly paved the way for her fellow artists for generations to come.

Although Ma Rainey and her peers brought us a blend of gendered clothing, it was David Bowie who truly revolutionised the style. Known for his exaggerated makeup, notably the electric blue and orange lightning bolt from his album Aladdin Sane (since imitated by artist and androgynous fashion icon, Lady Gaga), and eccentric outfits, Bowie set the trend for artists in the 70s. Commonly designed by Japanese designer, Kansai Yamamoto, the outfits for his androgynous alterego, Ziggy Stardust, rocked the world and broke countless social taboos. With full-glam makeup, bright and tight jumpsuits, and wild rocker hair, his style was most definitely unforgettable.

From Freddie Mercury and Elton John, to Annie Lennox and Grace Jones, androgynous fashion is unparalleled in its ability to make these artists stand out; their visionary styles make their clothes almost as renowned as their music. Androgyny in the music industry has since blossomed and grown through time from the iconic guy-liner of 90s and 00s punk music, to the late 10s and early 20s now bringing us a further blurring of gender boundaries in fashion. I could name so many empowering artists from recent years who use fashion to blur gender boundaries or reject the constraints of public opinions: King Princess, P!nk, Machine Gun Kelly, Haim, and Lil Nas X, to name but a few.

In recent years, renowned artist Billie Eilish has re-established this androgynous style. When thinking of Eilish, there is a high chance that you will picture a talented young woman in baggy clothes, sporting her signature black and green hairstyle. This is largely due to the majority of her online presence, whether that be put forth by herself or the media, presenting Eilish in this specific look. This oversized style, many of whom believed to be reminiscent of 90s male rappers, was a breath of fresh air when considered alongside her retrospective female artists. Eilish’s fashion became so popular it started a new clothing trend among her younger fans, with many high street and online labels, namely Boohoo and Urban Outfitters, mimicking her style in their own designs. However, this styling choice was not solely a fashion statement. In the 2019 Calvin Klein campaign named “I Speak My Truth in #MyCalvins”, Eilish revealed why she chooses to wear baggy clothes: “Nobody can have an opinion, because they haven’t seen what’s underneath.”

One Twitter user described this choice as “empowering and incredibly sad all at once”, and this tweet encapsulates my personal feelings in regards to Eilish’s justification. Eilish used this campaign not only to reveal her own reasoning behind her clothing choices, but also to fight back against the media and music industry’s larger hyper-sexualisation of young women. However, though this empowering sentiment lies at the core of the campaign, and there is undoubtedly progress as she has agency over her own public perception, Eilish, 17 at the time of the shoot, should not have to monitor her appearance to avoid sexualisation and body shaming.

Yet, the internet always has to have its say; from scrutinising paparazzi pictures of her wearing tank tops, to a viral tour video where she questions people’s desire to judge what she puts on her own body. Though, as her British Vogue shoot admirably demonstrates, Eilish was not prepared to succumb to the flaws within her industry and the judgements of the media. Her agency over her appearance is reasserted in the British Vogue June cover, in which she is pictured wearing vintage couture lingerie.

Through this cover, Eilish quite literally curated her own image, as she impressively came up with the concept for the shoot. Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele collaborated with Eilish to provide the custom corset and skirt featured in the cover. Eilish specifically chose the corset as she wanted to accentuate her figure (namely her stomach, which has been an insecurity of hers), provoke the public and play with their originally restrictive function. In the brainstorming process for the shoot, Eilish remarked that the corset surely goes against messages of body positivity as it conceals the body’s ‘natural’ shape and presents a unified female form. However, this inspired Eilish to fight against this and instead prove that she can “do whatever I [she] wants”. She is appropraiting a garment associated with female suppression and instead using it as a vessel for her own self-expression.

However, once again the public could not be won over. In a since altered headline, the Daily Mail argued that Eilish was “selling out” by wearing more promiscuous clothing. In response, a viral Instagram post shared by Eilish herself, highlighted the clear issues with the headline. The post was circulated widely online with people continuing to pass judgement on her clothes and body. However, Eilish is no longer choosing to conceal her features to cater to media perceptions. Despite the criticism of certain media outlets, her shoot was a record breaking sensation. Her reveal of the British Vogue cover on Instagram became the post that reached one million likes the fastest. Presenting herself in lingerie exhibits that Eilish is, and most importantly sees herself as, both a successful musician and a sexy young woman.

The tension between her identity as both a young woman and a respected musician are addressed through Eilish’s British Vogue cover and interview. Eilish herself conveyed her apprehension to display a more sexual side of herself, as “suddenly you’re a hypocrite if you want to show your skin, and you’re easy and you’re a slut and you’re a whore”. However, Eilish goes on to prove that showing her body and being ‘respected’ are not mutually exclusive from one another. She can proudly accentuate her womanhood while also advocating for body positivity and women’s rights in the music industry. This is powerfully stated by Eilish, who declares that if she is seen as a “slut” or a “whore” then “I’m proud. Me and all the girls are hoes, and f**k it, y’know? Let's turn it around and be empowered by that. Showing your body and showing your skin – or not – should not take any respect away from you”. This highlights the true brilliance and importance of this British Vogue cover; it addresses female growth, sexuality and empowerment. Clothes don’t have a gender and Eilish’s progression towards more “feminine” attire should not be equated to her worth and abilities as either an artist or a woman.

Music has always been about self-expression. Artists write lyrics and melodies to portray an idea or an emotion. Fashion is an ally of this self-expression. A particular colour or style of garment can make waves and impact someone’s perception of themselves. Fashion is about exploring what makes you feel good and comfortable and confident. These artists demonstrate and celebrate fashion’s fluidity in terms of gender expression. I want to end this article with a simple but impactful quote from Billie’s British Vogue interview, and one I feel captures the sentiment at the heart of this iconic cover: “My thing is that I can do whatever I want...if you feel like you look good, you look good”.

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