Musicians Are in Their Eras Era

Fashion

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There was a time, not so long ago, when the term “era” brought to mind strictly academic concepts: a scale to measure the Earth’s geological time; a system for classifying sweeping events of human history; a theoretical timeline of our known universe.

These days, though, “era” brings to mind different phases in the careers of our most beloved pop stars, distinct album cycles marked by a change in fashion—and for these artists, there’s money to be made in revisiting their sartorial pasts. Madonna recently embarked on her greatest-hits Celebration Tour, and Jennifer Lopez subtly nodded to her own past phases leading up to her epic musical film This Is Me…Now: A Love Story. Missy Elliott recently re-created some of her iconic music video looks on Instagram, to the delight of ’90s kids everywhere. “People cling to nostalgia,” says Ilana Kaplan, a freelance culture writer and editor. “It creates buzz all over again.”

a woman wearing a beaded headdress and bra

Dave Hogan

If this trend has a progenitor, it’s Taylor Swift: The musician’s career-spanning Eras Tour is reportedly the highest-grossing tour of all time. “Branding it as the Eras Tour and doing a greatest-hits run pulled in so many people, because you go to a show and it’s so clear how many fans came from the country years, and how some didn’t become Swifties until Reputation,” says Elana Fishman, Page Six style editor and bona fide Swiftie. And Swift didn’t just revisit those eras musically; she also paid homage to the aesthetics of each album cycle, whether through a Reputation-era snake slithering across a Roberto Cavalli catsuit or a sequined matching set that called back to her 1989 persona.

a group of dancers on a stage

Taylor Hill/TAS23//Getty Images

Swift re-creating the vibe for the Reputation set on the Eras Tour.

Of course, Swift didn’t invent the idea of tying fashion to different album cycles—that would be Madge, the Queen of Pop herself. Madonna committed to changing everything—from hairstyle to makeup to wardrobe—for each new record cycle, as if creating characters, in a way that few have achieved before or since. “Other artists have also had eras, but they may have had the same hair color throughout all of them. It doesn’t really count,” says creative director and stylist Shannon Stokes, who’s worked with Beyoncé, Rihanna, and SZA. “To me, those are great, and those can still be considered eras, but as a true textbook, you always have to go to Madonna.”

a woman in a headdress performing on a stage

Kevin Mazur//WireImage

Madonna on her Celebration Tour in 2023.

For Stokes, creating and revisiting these visually disparate eras isn’t just useful in distinguishing album cycles, it also creates a fuller picture of the artists themselves. Fans feel more connected to a multifaceted musician. “When you’re doing everything properly, people get to see who you are in all different [areas] of your life: your sexual sides, your fun sides, your vulnerable sides, your introspective sides,” he explains. “It creates a stronger bond, because that fan base feels like they know you more, seeing all sides of your personality.”

a woman in a blue bikini sitting on a lawn chair

John Barrett/Zuma Press/Alamy

Lopez in 2002 on the set of her music video “I’m Gonna Be Alright.”

It’s notable that there are very few male artists playing with visual identity in quite the same way. While there are some, like Harry Styles or Lil Nas X, dabbling in tying fashion to album cycles, Paul McCartney isn’t exactly hauling out a Sgt. Pepper jacket on his tours. Maybe female stars feel more pressure to constantly reinvent themselves. Or maybe they’re embarking on a high-stakes version of what we all do when embarking on a makeover. Whether it’s a post-breakup closet cleanse or a big-ticket luxury purchase to celebrate a milestone, our clothes reflect who we are at different moments in time—and revisiting those pieces can be liberating, not to mention a fun way of remembering our former selves.

a woman wearing a silver hat, bodysuit and fringed boots on a stage

Kevin Mazur

Beyoncé performs on the Renaissance World Tour 2023.

“We, as regular people, have had eras too,” Stokes says. “It’s an evolution, but you still can differentiate the time periods when you were living a certain way and therefore dressing a certain way and doing certain things.” While she may not have invented the wheel, Swift has discovered how to put her own spin on it, keeping fans engaged in the process. She’s taught followers to hunt for clues about upcoming album cycles in her clothes, fueling speculation that Reputation (Taylor’s Version) would be her next re-release with a pair of Jimmy Choo x Jean Paul Gaultier boots—or announcing her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department, with a white Schiaparelli gown at the Grammys.

a woman wearing a sheer bodysuit performs in front of a projected target

Kevin Mazur//WireImage

Beyoncé performs at the Billboard Music Awards in 2011.

“A few months before the album rollout really starts, she’ll solidify what her aesthetic is going to be for that era,” Fishman says. “It keeps people hooked, because they’re decoding these clues and zooming in on Getty Images of her paparazzi walks and saying, ‘Is that a snake on her ring, or is it just a vine twisting?’ It becomes a real game.”

And while reinvention may still be all the rage among younger artists, one thing is for sure: There’s no longer a reason to fear history repeating itself.

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of ELLE.

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