What Exactly Is a Fashion Icon?


Photography via Getty. Graphic by Kayleen Dicuangco

It’s fashion’s favourite buzzword.

Ever since the first fawning profile of her appeared in 1994 in The New Yorker, when she was all of 19 years old, Chloë Sevigny has been considered a fashion icon. The icy blond from Darien, Conn., has maintained an edgy, chameleonic mystique, looking as at home in microscopic gym shorts as she does in a matronly tweed Chanel suit. Sevigny falls into the category of fashion icon that confounds expectations rather than confirming them: think wearing jelly shoes when everyone else is sporting Doc Martens as opposed to Lynn Yaeger’s unchanging baby-doll makeup or Anna Wintour’s omnipresent razor-sharp bob. The baby-blue ringer tee she wore in Kids is now on display in the Museum of the City of New York. Nineties-era bleached eyebrows like those she has in the film Gummo are currently experiencing a mini-revival. And an upscale garage sale of her clothing archive in NoHo drew a lineup that wrapped around multiple New York City blocks and was called the “Sale of the Century.”

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If the decisive word of the 2010s was “epic” (think epic win, Epic Meal Time, epic bacon), then the mot du jour of our current day may well be “iconic.” A vocabulary staple uttered everywhere from runways to RuPaul’s Drag Race, the word is now used to describe everything from candid photographs of celebrities to a fictional character’s wardrobe (cough, Shiv from Succession). No longer reserved for those who have reached the apotheosis of celebrity (or at least in their professional field), “iconic” has become ubiquitous, casually tossed off to express a baseline level of esteem or admiration. So what does it really mean to be iconic? And if everything from Harry Styles to platform Crocs can be considered iconic, has the designation officially lost its lustre?

In The Star as Icon, academic Daniel Herwitz strives to understand the phenomenon — “that endlessly talked about and little understood persona, object of adulation, fantasy and cult.” He suggests that iconicity is defined by a fizzy chemical reaction that happens when beauty, charisma and fame collide. An icon is a supernova of fame — a distillation of pure desire. If everyone contains some degree of allure, then icons have been blessed with a heavily concentrated version of it: a gallon of eye-watering 192-proof rocket-fuel vodka compared to the average person’s one-ounce cocktail.

Depending on who you are, an icon might be an assemblage of qualities you strive for but never quite reach — your stylistic North Star.

But rewind to the eighth century and an icon wasn’t the Middle Ages equivalent of Zendaya; it was a religious painting. Derived from the ancient-Greek word “eikṓn,” meaning “image” or “likeness,” an icon was a Modigliani-esque portrait of a biblical figure like Saint Peter, the archangel Gabriel and, of course, Jesus Christ. According to Brisbane Catholic Education’s Catholic Identity page, “it is prayer to just look attentively at an icon and let God speak.” Each icon was usually depicted with a halo of light encircling their head to denote a saintly aura.

Modern icons may be missing their halos, but, arguably, a whiff of spiritual ascendance still clings to the moniker. If ancient icons were meant to be a portal to all things holy, then our current icons tread familiar terrain. Icons are usually women we want to look at, be in close proximity to and develop a parasocial relationship with, like Addison Rae or Emma Chamberlain. We crane our necks to look up at them, creating a natural hierarchy that places them on top. They may not be sacrosanct, but icons give us something to worship.

And similar to saints, each icon represents something different. Icons are unique and irreplaceable. No star has come close to Sevigny’s singular proclivity for risk taking when it comes to both acting roles and outfit choices. And there’s an air of mystery behind the familiar facade that allows us to project our own fantasies onto her as well. Could we be just like Sevigny if we purchased her old Depeche Mode T-shirt or Versace mini-dress? A true icon leaves us with more questions than answers.

That everything is iconic now speaks to the overall widening of our cultural gaze. The people who command our attention are no longer a select group of movie stars and musicians but are relatively regular, yet undeniably attractive, people who happen to be somewhat entertaining, good at dancing or great at selling products. But the most important quality of an icon is that they have a lasting impact — something that can only be assessed in hindsight.

Calling something or someone iconic is perhaps the highest compliment a person can bestow. It’s not something to be taken lightly. Depending on who you are, an icon might be an assemblage of qualities you strive for but never quite reach — your stylistic North Star. For a certain type of fashion-obsessed person who fetishizes the cultural era of downtown New York in the ’90s (a.k.a. me), Sevigny is definitely one. It’s natural and human to want to claim some of that stardust for ourselves. So perhaps it’s ironic that as society moves toward greater inclusivity, the biggest compliment is undergirded by exclusivity. But so what? Aren’t we all, in our own way, a little bit iconic?

This article first appeared in FASHION’s September 2023 issue. Find out more here.





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