Before pop music videos were served in bite-sized and readily available portions through streaming, musical acts had to fight for the audience’s attention on MTV. They needed their artistry to shine through, and that involved upping the visual aspect with each release, as highlighted in this column by Rolling Stone. Way before the pop ecosystem revolved around interactivity and online hype – hello, social media – pop artists earned their right to be called legends by producing hits and donning on the most iconic outfits, from cone bras to bright mullets.

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Avant-Garde Looks in David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?”

The song talks about a strange alternate life on the desolate planet Mars. Although, David Bowie’s ice blue suit, metallic tie, bizarre makeup, and fiery scarlet mullet are just as odd. The video features Bowie singing while staring straight at the viewer, shot with a plain white backdrop.

Bowie’s androgynous look soon became a staple and hallmark of that time, especially in the pop art community. This write-up emphasizes how Bowie’s style was always ahead of his time, but it undoubtedly influenced the way a specific subset of people dress and present themselves— especially those who love exploring fashion outside the scope of gender conformity. Today, the freakiest looks inspired by Bowie are on full display since makeup-as-an-artform and mullets are back in full swing.

Grunge Fashion in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

After decades of glitzy disco, dance-pop, and the most vibrant ‘fits, Nirvana was a sobering act. In stark contrast to the flashy visuals of the preceding pop acts, their oversized normcore shirts, raggedy Converse sneakers, and tube socks would go on to redefine the look of the ‘90s.

The music video for Smells Like Teen Spirit didn’t just introduce grunge fashion to the masses, it also popularized grunge subculture in America’s youth. Grunge became synonymous with Nirvana’s devil-may-care attitude and looks— which the video placed alongside cheerleaders in their cheer outfits, further underscoring the divide.

The Bullet Bustier in Madonna’s “Open Your Heart”

We first got a glimpse of the bullet bustier in Open Your Heart. The Angela Dean creation kicked off what would be Madonna’s seminal cone bra and nipple tassels era. In the 1980s where risqué looks and themes were still very uncommon, this music video ruffled a lot of feathers.

Ultimately, however, Madonna’s lingerie look influenced fashion forever. It made lingerie a viable outerwear option, not just for pop stars but for the everyday person, too. As this article highlights, chemise dresses and bustiers are widely used in today’s fashion. Chemise dresses give that sensual edge to the wearer while still being extremely comfortable and none too revealing. Bustiers, on the other hand, help accentuate your best features and give you that added lift, reminiscent of Madonna’s arguably most notable era.

Full Leather Suit and Red Tie in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”

It’s impossible to talk about pop culture without mentioning the king of pop at least once. In the Billie Jean music video, we see Michael Jackson preen and prowl in a full leather suit over a pink-tinted shirt. And the red bow is just the perfect touch to tie it all together.

He would go on to don the getup in a number of stage performances, like in his Super Bowl Halftime Show performance we detailed in a past post. The legendary outfit inspired many celebrities including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, and Mary J. Blige just to name a few.

The Schoolgirl Look in Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”

Britney Spears remains one of the most culturally relevant pop stars. Sure, she’s gone on to create other fashion moments. However, it was her schoolgirl look in Baby One More Time that catapulted her into the spotlight. In a 2009 interview, Director Nigel Dick explains how it was all Britney’s idea, saying “My idea originally was just jeans and T-shirts, and we were at the wardrobe fitting and Britney says, ‘Wouldn’t I wear a schoolgirl outfit?’”

They then proceeded to a K-mart to create the schoolgirl ensemble. Reportedly, not one piece of clothing in the video cost more than $17. The look also sparked a trend for skirts that mimic schoolgirl uniforms, including the 2000’s memorable skater/pleated skirt trend. There are still variations of the schoolgirl look today, especially with the Y2K resurgence.

Fashion and music are inextricably linked to pop culture, that much is evident in these quintessential music videos.

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