Culture/Style

Miley Cyrus is reimagining the country music uniform

September 29, 2017

Her style evolution finds the sweet spot between pasties and paisley.

Miley Cyrus’ style is in a constant state of flux. Her look has shifted from that of a G-rated Disney ingenue to reflecting her phase as the posterchild for problematic experimentation. But most recently, she’s used her fashion to mark a transition into newfound maturity. “Malibu,” a celebration of her rekindled romance with Liam Hemsworth, delivered a video in which she was clad in a simple white dress, while the video for “Younger Now” returned her to the country roots from which she came.

Arguably, her new aesthetic signals a full-circle moment, and implies that she’s finally come home. Country is where Cyrus feels best.

Which makes sense. The singer was bred from a country music dynasty: her father, Billy Ray, gave us the line-dancing staple “Achy Breaky Heart” and Dolly Parton, Miley’s godmother, is a legend of the genre, the industry, the world (and is arguably acting as Cyrus’ current influence). On top of crediting Parton with making country music “sexual,” the two recently collaborated on “Rainbowland,” which features on Cyrus’ new album, Younger Now. Plus, Dolly’s aesthetic sensibilities are being echoed by her goddaughter. At this year’s iHeartRadio Music Festival, Cyrus took to the red carpet in bright red heart prints before performing in fringe and sequins, complemented by a pompadour. Like Dolly, Miley has embraced a sensational, over-the-top answer to the genre’s former aesthetic staples. But uniquely, she’s executing it at a time where country’s look has been notably toned down. Which prompts the question, is she helping country artists stage a reclamation?

As we know, country (as a genre) is having a time. Where young talent like Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and Kelsea Ballerini graduated from the school of T-Swift by marrying catchy pop hooks with country staples (guitar, sentiment, a solid dose of twang), we’ve watched as country stars like Dierks Bentley align with Trump nation and justify the President’s messages, which tends to eclipse the progress made by the genre’s younger generation. And in that vein, nostalgia has gotten tricky: knowing what we know about how the world works, to over-romanticize country music’s old guard (from when the genre was defined by heteronormativity and whiteness) can be a misstep, even if we’re just talking about their clothes.

Plus, the country music uniform has remained static over the last few decades, outside up-and-coming artists or those who’ve expanded their careers into the top 40 landscape. Separate from the traditional garb of country hats, button-ups, jeans, dresses, and cowboy boots, country-turned-pop stars (like Faith Hill, The Dixie Chicks, and Shania Twain) have gone on to exercise their individual take on classic pieces (think dark tones, sequins, or everything we’ve seen Swift in since 2015). Or, in the case of Musgraves and Morris, have erred on the side of preppy. (Think Abercrombie/AE jeans, t-shirts, and A-line skirts which tend to connote aesthetic neutrality.)

And then there’s Miley. Instead of transitioning into pop from country, she’s returned to her roots, and with her country homecoming has begun interpreting traditional pieces and/or embellishments (fringe, button-ups, boots) in a pop-centric way. After all, she may have worn a printed heart two-piece, but it was sheer and bared her midriff (which is #daring), while her button-up in “Younger Now” was bright and vibrant, just like her makeup. And while both were fine and relatively trendy and par for the course in terms of pop norms, they served as proof that country doesn’t need to look a certain way.

This isn’t to say she’s the first person to challenge the genre’s aesthetic standards, or that she’s the only one who can do it. Once upon a time, a young Leann Rimes wore a pantsuit in her video for “How Do I Live?” adding years to her teen vibe. Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” saw her channel the actors in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” before she abandoned her denim vest once and for all for cheetah print in “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”  Risks have been taken and also subsequently celebrated — but then we seem to return to the basics, making Musgraves’ floral prints and pussycat bows seem noteworthy in 2017.

The thing is, it’s not that country’s existing aesthetic is bad or even boring; it’s that over the course of the last few decades, it’s lacked the changes exhibited by almost every other genre. Even Billy Ray Cyrus—whose mullet and t-shirt with jeans helped usher in the current era of basic casual attire—has rooted himself in pieces similar to what he wore when we first met him. And fittingly, his daughter is shaking it up by merging country’s past (its over-the-top embellishments, the rhinestones, the sparkles) with what it is now (simple, basic, like her white dress in “Malibu”), which you can’t really go wrong with. By presenting more style options, artists simply have more ways of aesthetically expressing themselves alongside their music. And should Kacey, Maren, and Kelsea feel best expressed in florals or pastels, that’s fine — similar to the way Tim McGraw always seems to feel his best in a traditional cowboy hat.

The point is, Cyrus is presenting new options. And, with the blessing of her godmother, she’s also establishing herself as an artist who can exist in the country and pop worlds — both musically and aesthetically.

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