Amy Winehouse: In Defense of a Style Icon

July 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Amy Winehouse photographed by Hedi Slimane

Perhaps due to the uncertainty surrounding the cause of Amy Winehouse’s sudden death, another question has emerged in the days following: is she or is she not a style icon? It was a post on New York Magazine’s fashion news blog The Cut that first tipped me off to this debate. They cite an article written by British fashion critic Lisa Armstrong during the height of Winehouse’s popularity, which expressed outrage that publicists in the industry were attempting to make her outfits desirable.

Sure, fashion publicists can be an insufferable bunch, but should we really let that discredit Winehouse’s wholly original look? Many music critics have eulogized her with bombastically written articles claiming that her music was the one thing she had control over. To that I say, really? When you get down to it, her unique look was essentially an extension of her musical aesthetic. It was dirty doo-wop brought to life, a physical manifestation of her cuss words sung over sweet melodies. This dichotomy is what made her such a thoroughly fascinating person. She lived a rock and roll lifestyle whilst emulating the family-friendly sounds of ’50s and ’60s girl groups.

Winehouse’s appearance may have been disheveled, but you’d have to be quite deluded to think that it was anything but calculatedly so. Someone who put no effort into their appearance could never maintain a beehive as mythically perfect as hers. She often wore tennis clothes, an emblem of conservatism if ever there was one, but offset them with a fit that, on her often emaciated frame, suggested a griminess all her own. In the past few years, she had been collaborating with Fred Perry, the British company known for its polo shirts that have become popular with the irony-loving indie crowd.

In today’s tabloid culture, where celebrity worship effectively dominates the mainstream knowledge of fashion, the concept of a style icon is a bit misguided. Many seem to have the impression that, as Armstrong suggested, a style icon is supposed to be some sort of guide of what to wear. However, there is a distinct difference between someone who is perceived as well-dressed and someone possessing an iconic look. “Iconic” is a bold word. It is often applied in inappropriate contexts.

Model Isabeli Fontana as Winehouse in Vogue Paris

Perhaps the best way to determine whether someone is a style icon or not is to imagine their look being worn on another person. Could you tell who they were meant to look like? Throw someone in an audacious minidress and sky-high heels. Does she look like Kim Kardashian? On the other hand, put someone in a slinky white dress with a a carefully coifed blonde bob, red lipstick, and a beauty mark. Congratulations, they’re Marilyn Monroe. The same applies, naturally, to a Fred Perry polo shirt, a miniskirt, a pair of nude ballet flats, a giant black beehive, and winged eyeliner. Numerous fashion spreads circa 2008 can attest to it.

So, in effect, you can’t really be a style icon unless someone can dress up as you for Halloween. The word iconic suggests an immediate resonance. In the worlds of music and film, icons are generally those who we’re on a first name basis with. In terms of style, iconic is a combination of elements that always add up to suggest one person, almost like a mathematical formula. A style icon is distinct, memorable, and original. I’ll be damned if Amy Winehouse didn’t check every box.

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