Madonna Revolutionizes Popular Fashion

Many music fans and cultural critics were outraged when popular singer Madonna started a fashion trend by wearing lacy brassieres and other undergarments as outerwear.

Summary of Event

Even her use of a single name illustrates popular singing star Madonna’s irreverent reaction to the traditional. After recording her debut album Madonna in 1983, she released Like a Virgin
Like a Virgin (Madonna) in 1984, and a string of successful albums followed. Singles from her albums hit the top of the pop music charts regularly, contributing to worldwide sales of more than sixty million albums by 1990, even though many of her songs offended broad segments of the public. Detractors objected to Madonna’s frank statements about such topics as virginity, abortion, out-of-wedlock births, and materialism as well as to her overall image of open sexuality, expressed both through her songs and through her choices of clothing. Fashion;Madonna
[kw]Madonna Revolutionizes Popular Fashion (1980’s)
[kw]Popular Fashion, Madonna Revolutionizes (1980’s)
[kw]Fashion, Madonna Revolutionizes Popular (1980’s)
[g]North America;1980’s: Madonna Revolutionizes Popular Fashion[03840]
[g]United States;1980’s: Madonna Revolutionizes Popular Fashion[03840]
[c]Fashion and design;1980’s: Madonna Revolutionizes Popular Fashion[03840]
Gaultier, Jean-Paul

The “material girl,” as Madonna referred to herself in one song, contributed significantly to the world of fashion through her choices of the clothing she wore onstage during live performances and in her widely popular music videos. She chose clothing that was aggressively provocative, including outfits that featured brassieres and other undergarments worn in plain sight. In many ways, she updated the “blonde bombshell” image projected in the 1950’s by actress Marilyn Monroe, Monroe, Marilyn creating a 1980’s version of a shrewd, calculating, determined, and daring sex symbol. The music video for Madonna’s hit “Material Girl” was, in fact, an homage to Monroe that mimicked Monroe’s performance of the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Madonna’s onstage persona made her a natural to be cast in a starring role in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), Dick Tracy (film) in which she portrayed a glamorous singer who was simultaneously sexy and villainous.

In her stage shows, Madonna dressed in various types of fashions. Some costumes resembled the gear of a female warrior, with bodices that suggested breastplates. Others were outrageously sexual, featuring lingerie. Still others expressed mixed messages, including prominent crucifixes as religious symbols along with rebellious or sexual images.

Part of Madonna’s adult fashion nonconformity can be traced to her Catholic school years as a child, during which she was forced to wear uniforms that she thought were drab, boring, and confining. She maintained high grades in school but rebelled by adding wild kneesocks and small hair bows to her school uniform. It is possible that rebelliousness and flashy clothes were her means of gaining attention in a family that included eight children, two of them stepsiblings.

Madonna sought attention and the spotlight even as a child. She signed up to perform in virtually all her school plays and musicals, was a baton twirler and cheerleader, and took every dance lesson available to her. She won a four-year dance scholarship to the University of Michigan but left that school to study at New York’s Alvin Ailey School, again on a scholarship. The burgeoning punk scene of 1970’s New York contributed a number of influences to Madonna’s fashion sense. In punk style, she dyed her hair bright colors, ripped her leotards and pinned them back together with safety pins, double-pierced her ears, and began collecting and wearing large quantities of beads and dangling earrings. She also began wearing vintage hats and clothing. A young jewelry designer named Maripol (also known as Mary Paul) assisted in developing Madonna’s early look, designing jewelry that included crucifixes and rubber bracelets. The look included ripped leotards, black T-shirts, net tops, massive amounts of jewelry, a bare midriff, and net stockings with lace-up boots.

Madonna poses in a provocative dress at the MTV Video Music Awards at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 1984.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Madonna took up residence with musician Dan Gilroy and began studying guitar, drums, and other instruments, along with voice. Dan and his brother Ed started a band called Breakfast Club, with Madonna on drums and Angie Smit on bass. Madonna soon left that band, however, and founded her own band in Manhattan. At the time, she sported a punk Mohawk haircut with blond ends and black roots, wore white T-shirts with black jumpers, and accented her wardrobe with leather bracelets that featured wide stainless-steel bands and rhinestones.

By the time her Like a Virgin album was released, Madonna was successful enough to hire prominent aides, including manager Freddy DeMann, DeMann, Freddy who had worked with pop singer Michael Jackson, Jackson, Michael and album producer Nile Rodgers, Rodgers, Nile who had worked with David Bowie. Bowie, David The album reached the top position on the charts barely a month after its release.

Madonna’s rise to prominence coincided with the birth and growing popularity of the Music Television (MTV) MTV network. Madonna seemed made for music videos, Music videos with her training as a dancer and her good looks, and she made striking videos to support her tremendously popular music. She dressed for her videos in the types of clothing, including visible undergarments, that she had worn for the cover illustration of Like a Virgin. These videos brought the star’s visual presence and style to the attention of a much larger audience than had seen her in live performances, allowing her fashion statements to reach, directly or indirectly, most of the American public.


Madonna’s sexpot image angered many of the parents of teenagers who watched her music videos, but that was part of the point of her rebelliousness. Her image also angered many feminists, who abhorred Madonna’s seeming retrogression to the status of sex object. Despite—or perhaps because of—such protests, fashion items associated with Madonna’s style became the rage. Lace bras and bodices, lace gloves, microminiskirts, and spiked heels soon were prominent items in the closets of the trendy. One designer was able to sell $25 million worth of lacy strapless dresses in a single season.

Madonna often changed her image in her many music videos, choosing at different times such looks as a black slip, a white wedding dress with a crucifix on a chain around her neck, and a white bra-bodice. In every case, however, the image was one of glamour and sexuality. Many women, especially young ones, wanted to emulate Madonna, in large part because she projected an image of independence and of being unafraid to ask for what she wanted. Many men, of course, appreciated her open displays of sexuality and her “bad girl” image.

In 1985, Madonna played a prominent role in the film Desperately Seeking Susan, directed by Susan Seidelman. Seidelman, Susan
Desperately Seeking Susan (film) Madonna’s character, Susan, was much like Madonna herself in being self-assured, bold, and shameless, and Madonna supplied much of her own wardrobe for the film. Rosanna Arquette Arquette, Rosanna played a staid housewife who attempted to substitute herself into Susan’s life after losing her memory, a plot line that appealed to many women who wanted their own taste of being like Madonna. The film offered reinforcement of that goal and presented more of Madonna’s fashion taste to the public.

By 1987, Madonna was sporting vinyl tops that laced up in the back, polka-dot short skirts, and fingerless black net gloves. She also showed off tattoos, contributing to an increase in the popularity of tattoos for women. Her tour in support of the 1987 Who’s That Girl?
Who’s That Girl? (Madonna)[Whos That Girl?] album was another fashion show, featuring seven costumes and role-playing to accompany them. Dressed in a black bustier that did a world of good for the lingerie industry, Madonna began the show by appearing as a seductress. She later parodied that role, appearing as a clown with a silly hat and glasses. Later, she surrounded herself with images of the pope, the president of the United States, and the White House. Perhaps realizing the influence she had on her public, Madonna also increasingly made her opinions known on social issues such as a woman’s right to control her own body.

The music video for “Like a Prayer” (1989) “Like a Prayer” (Madonna)[Like a Prayer] continued Madonna’s trend toward mixing sexuality with religious symbols. The video offended many viewers, and the PepsiCo soft drink corporation dropped an advertising campaign for Pepsi connected to the song and video after observing the public’s reaction to what many saw as Madonna’s latest outrage. The song itself, however, reached the top position on the pop music charts.

Jean-Paul Gaultier, Fashion designers;Jean-Paul Gaultier[Gaultier] the French couturier who designed Madonna’s clothes for her tour in support of the 1990 Blonde Ambition
Blonde Ambition (Madonna) album, continued Madonna’s theme of using underwear as outerwear. Gaultier created dish bras with points on them that were molded into belted bodysuits. At one point in the show performed on that tour, two men appeared onstage with fake pointed breasts attached to their chests. One of Madonna’s costumes was a man’s pinstriped suit with cutouts for her breasts. This mixture of femininity and masculinity inspired many clothing designers, who began to produce women’s fashions expressing androgyny. Madonna’s movement toward androgyny certainly did not go as far as that of singer Annie Lennox, and Madonna’s continued wearing of visible lingerie left no doubt that she was still sexy, strong, and in control. At one point in the show, while she was dressed as an Amazon warrior, she knocked down a chorus line of men.

Because of her success as a pop music star, Madonna was bound to influence her fans with her fashion choices. Especially at the height of her popularity in the 1980’s, she was able to parlay her success in music to further exposure in music videos and films, both of which displayed her fashion tastes to wide audiences. Her various styles caught on with many women, changing definitions of clothing and allowing freer expression of sexuality for those who dared to emulate her. Fashion;Madonna

Further Reading

  • Cahill, Marie. Madonna. New York: Gallery Books, 1991. Deals extensively with Madonna’s early years as well as her time as a superstar. Largely a photographic appreciation, but the text is informative and to the point. Includes discography (covering dates of recording sessions, concert tours, films, and plays) and index.
  • Christgau, Robert. “Madonnathinking, Madonnabout Madonnamusic.” Village Voice, May 28, 1991, 31-33. Discusses the various academic deconstructions of the Madonna phenomenon, ranging from postmodernist to minimalist to feminist. Notes Madonna’s status as a popular culture symbol and discusses the idea that she transcends popular culture.
  • Conniff, Ruth. “Politics in a Post-feminist Age.” Progressive 55 (July, 1991): 17-18. Argues that Madonna is a postfeminist woman, controlling fashion rather than acting only as a buyer of fashion or as an employee in the fashion industry.
  • Cross, Mary. Madonna: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. Full-scale biography traces Madonna’s life since childhood. Provides comprehensive information on her professional career and discusses her status as a popular culture icon and provocateur. Includes time line and bibliography.
  • Gimelson, Deborah. “Architectural Digest Visits: Madonna.” Architectural Digest 48 (November, 1991): 198-209. Photographic layout presents Madonna’s low-key yet glamorous Art Deco apartment in New York City, highlighting works of art and room arrangements. Provides some context for an understanding of the singer’s fondness for certain colors and textures in her clothes.
  • Madonna. Sex. New York: Warner Books, 1992. Controversial, largely pictorial look at what the author considers to be erotic. Although Madonna describes what appears here as “fantasy,” the volume nevertheless offers a glimpse into the motivations behind her fashion choices. Decried by many as pornographic, but less lurid than its reputation.
  • Matthews, Gordon. Madonna. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985. Relatively early biography was the first serious book-length study of Madonna. Somewhat dated but contains much informative material, including quotations and anecdotes about Madonna’s early years. Features many photographs.
  • Rettenmund, Matthew. Encyclopedia Madonnica: Madonna—The Woman and the Icon from A to Z. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Entertaining volume in encyclopedia format contains brief entries on all aspects of Madonna’s life and career up to the mid-1990’s. Includes discussion of her influence on fashion.
  • Shields, Jody. “Inside Out.” Vogue, November, 1990, 342-347. Examines the provocative look of lingerie worn outside clothing to express hyperfemininity. Discusses Madonna’s role in popularizing the look.

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