“I only smile in the dark,” singer Shirley Manson warned on Garbage’s 1995 breakout hit, “Only Happy When It Rains.” It was a sardonic sentiment that perfectly encapsulated the brooding appeal of the band’s key material, which paired light and dark moods and alchemized sounds from a variety of unlikely sources into pop gold. For all their noir-filtered sonic pioneering, Garbage also quickly developed a reputation for being one of the Nineties’ most visually forward bands, thanks to their innovative video work with directors like Andrea Giacobbe and Stephane Sednaoui. They included kinky twists – sensual statements in rubber, feathers and PVC – in their album packaging.
Throughout all their art-directed hijinx, Garbage’s most potent weapon has always been Manson herself, whose commanding personal aesthetic has mirrored Garbage’s strength for exploring and celebrating dichotomies. Over the years, she’s played with tensions between masculine and feminine, high and low style, morbid and innocent, ultra-modern and classic. As with Madonna and David Bowie, her adopted look for each Garbage record memorably colors each chapter in the Garbage story to this day. As a new generation of pop performers hails her as a music and style heroine, the 45-year-old Manson has re-emerged brightly for Garbage’s recent comeback, more spectacularly herself than ever.
Manson is fiercely independent, and by no means a slave to fashion, yet she’s inspired countless figures within that industry. She’s never helmed a clothing line, but has had one created in her honor. What she wears reflects her general mindset and aesthetic priorities at a given time but, like her music, also reflects her innate ability to precipitate a greater cultural mood. She proved to be an effortless tastemaker from the get-go; when she emerged on the international pop scene in 1995, she managed to dismantle grunge’s strangehold on alternative style by introducing short skirts, fishnets, faux fur and decadent eyeliner. While it was an unspoken credo among indie and alternative musicians at the time to evade overt sex appeal in order to be taken seriously, Manson seized back the power of erotica, canceling out that false conflict.
Like a more poisonous version of The Avengers’ Emma Peel, Manson wasn’t afraid to celebrate her womanly appearance and combined it with shrewd intellect and instinct into one attractively menacing package. The Manson paradigm was sexy but – way more importantly – sharp, befitting her status as an assertive alpha-female. “You can touch me if you want,” she beckoned on the band’s hit “Queer,” before smirking, “but you can’t stop.” Objectify her at your own risk. Then, three years later, she countered, “You can look, but you can’t touch” in “I Think I’m Paranoid.” Her short skirt had nothing to do with you.
In every Garbage video, Shirley Manson is a fearless explorer: sometimes a lover, usually a fighter, and always a compelling actress (fittingly, she ended up starring on the television show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles for two seasons). By the late Nineties, the band’s reputation as video vanguards was well-established and subsequently, her roles in Version 2.0‘s clips grew ever more adventurous. In 1998’s punishingly surreal “Push It” video, she appears as a mysterious “woman in black” surrounded by nefarious assailants (masked The Town-worthy nuns, children, lightbulb-headed men) in a supermarket, a cemetery and a house conjured from The Twilight Zone. Is she a fellow assassin, a captive or an omniscient narrator in the nightmarish dystopia? It isn’t clear, but the very modern video earned eight VMA nominations and comparisons to a sci-fi fashion editorial, a signature of Andrea Giacobbe’s work. Future pop provocateaurs were taking notes.
Watch Garbage’s “Push It”:
From there, Manson continued the futuristic femme theme, navigating otherworldy skies in an intertellar war in the award-winning clip for “Special” a few months later; as she battled her bandmates to the death (and won), she donned plastic lip gloss, a severe bun and a Copperwheat Blundell bomber vest before the look became a pre-Y2K, sporty fashion statement. Her new royal cyborg persona had a nickname: Queen Astarte, an evolved, techno-punk incarnation of Manson’s glam grunge days. Designers took note. As an android hellbent on mass destruction in the cutting-edge clip for “The World Is Not Enough,” Garbage’s theme for the James Bond movie of same name, she committed her crimes in a $20,000 red Valentino gown. Calvin Klein asked her to model around the same time, and Vogue hailed her one of the best-dressed women in the world. It was official: Shirley Manson was fashion’s latest thoroughly modern muse.
However, while Manson had an eye for high fashion, she knew how to mix it with a random find from a vintage store. Her lithesome “Stupid Girl” dress with long, tapered sleeves drew a lot of attention from the press, which amused her. “I bought it for $15 in a teen shop,” she laughed. At the 1997 Grammys, she wore a zebra-print Versace dress paired with a white faux fur jacket. She wore a column of polka-dot fabric and Ann Demeulemeester boots in the minimalist black-and-white clip for “I Think I’m Paranoid,” expertly blending high and low fashion. When she experimented with what could be considered a proto-Lisbeth Salander androgynous fashion phase a decade ago, she juxtaposed a painfully sharp hairdo against trousers with suspenders and fingerless gloves, appearing well-composed but ready to kick ass. Since then, she’s continued to shapeshift across many price points and style notions but always remains unmistakably herself, forever armed with liberal swipes of liner, salty attitude and cracking wit.
Manson’s legacy as a music and style icon lives on, with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Marina and the Diamonds citing her as an inspiration; she’s also considered a forebearer to the mysterious, dark allure of Lana Del Rey. Unlike many of today’s stars, though, Manson takes command over her own image herself – an admirable trait that reflects the self-sufficiency of her generation. She’s never been concerned with selling herself as a product or co-branding her appeal to Garbage fans (dubbed “darklings” by the band). There is no Shirley Manson brand of eyeliner, no special capsule collection of Topshop miniskirts in her name – and for this we should be grateful, as it gives us something left to desire. She has no use for our mimicry; what kind of individualist would she be if she did? She makes us think and she makes us wonder. Ultimately, that is her true victory as an icon: she makes us want to be better versions of ourselves.