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Musicians Who Defined Nineties Style

From Beastie Boys to Gwen Stefani, the artists who ruled the decade’s fashion

Courtney Love

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Perhaps no one embodied the sudden reactionary shift in Nineties beauty and style ideals better than Courtney Love. She took a cue from the Riot Grrl scene and paired babydoll dresses with smeared eyeliner and torn stockings to create the cynical "kinderwhore" look, an instant obsession of every girl who felt like an outcast in the mid-1990s. Consider it a slightly more politically charged version of grunge; apathy turned into ruinous angst, which soon became high fashion's favorite pose. It was a force of nature that sent shockwaves through mainstream Nineties style.

Gallery by Colleen Nika

Beastie Boys

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Beastie Boys

Given the very sad loss of MCA this year, the time feels right to re-examine the ways in which the Beastie Boys redefined the rules of rock and rap stardom. That very much includes the evolution of their dress code, which started out in the 1980s as a scrappy collision between hip-hop and proto-grunge (appropriate, given the wild potion of genres they were brewing). Then nuances emerged: MCA's predilection for the almighty beer-branded trucker cap became its own style trope, Ad-Rock became the sporty one and Mike D's outfits often brandished strong elements of Run-DMC's DNA immortal shades, fedora, gold chain and all. The group's everyman rawness was balanced out by their willingness to throw it all aside for the truly outre, such as in 1998's outstanding "Intergalactic" video, in which they star as wonky space invaders.

Gwen Stefani

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Gwen Stefani

Much attention has been paid to Gwen Stefani's fantastic rock-steady glam and the clothing lines that it inspired but for the hardcore "Gwen-a-bees," nothing will beat the raw glamour of her original SoCal ska-punk style, as best witnessed in 1995's "Just a Girl" video. With her retro rolled bangs, bindi, cut-off wifebeater tops, plaid bondage pants and ubiquitous Doc Martens, she created a sparky new pop-punk uniform for girls and breathed a little fun into an often dour, testosterone-drenched alternative nation.

Lenny Kravitz

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Lenny Kravitz

Lenny Kravitz, in his "Are You Gonna Go My Way?"-era glory, looked like a Jimi Hendrix figure for Generation X – replete with piercings, dreadlocks, bell bottoms and lot of libido-optimizing apparel of fur and leather. He perfectly mirrored the Nineties obsession with the Seventies that, conversely, means that his 1993 look should be coming into vogue any day now. Though he would go on to mellow his tunes, shave off his hair and streamline his overall look into something less likely to bewilder the adult contemporary crowd, it's hard to deny that at his best, Kraviz once resembled a rock star from another decade.

Shirley Manson

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Shirley Manson

Garbage's Shirley Manson embodied what females miss most about Nineties style. Her name alone brings up fond memories of huge boots, fishnets, eyeliner, short skirts and red lipstick, which was not only what she wore in her mid-1990s breakout years but also what millions of other girls wanted to wear, too. While Courtney Love's style had a destructive energy to it and Gwen Stefani's felt specifically SoCal femme, Manson's look found a unifying middle ground, bringing dark, sexy and intelligent qualities together in one very powerful package.

Manson was also an explorer of the avant-garde and, by 1998's future noir epic Version 2.0, she was wearing custom techno-punk creations by the likes of Martin Margiela, Boudicca and McQueen. She also was arguably the first artist to bring fully immersive live marketing to the red carpet, showing up at the 1999 Grammys in a sheer dress that featured Garbage's orange globe and not-so-subtly celebrated the success of 2.0's Album of the Year nomination.

Jennifer Lopez

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Jennifer Lopez

Before Jennifer Lopez was a superstar who needed to remind us that she was "still Jenny from the Block," that's exactly who she was, and she owned that role spectacularly as a Fly Girl on In Living Color. In simple white tees, gelled-back brunette curls, miniskirts and the occasional huge hoops or necklace, her pre-glam look represents a perfect slice of 1990s urban TV and dance culture.  As "J. Lo," Lopez went on to enjoy many memorable style milestones, such as creating a stir with her infamous 1999 Grammys dress and recently scoring her second Vogue cover, but we have a soft spot for the multi-hyphenate's softer, humbler and still very "fly" roots.

Madonna

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Madonna

Madonna has been a style icon for almost four decades, but the Nineties marked an interesting period of transformation for the pop legend. She kicked off the era in a notorious cone-shaped bra designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and ended it in a heroic red kimono created by the same man. That's a lot of style terrain to cover, but it harmonized intelligently with the evolution of Madonna's musical and lyrical themes. While her Blonde Ambition Tour celebrated sexual exploration and liberation, the singer became more concerned with other forms of identity and social politics by the decade's midpoint. In 1995's "Bedtime Story," Madonna took a sharp turn into the left field, pairing ambient pop production with Mark Romanek's surrealist direction for its video, which remains one of her best. She appeared as an empress from another dimension in the clip, which carried heavy spiritual connotations.

By decade's end, Madonna was a Kabbalah devotee and self-aware 40-year-old who still knew how to set fire to the dance floor. Her Asian-inspired, slightly gothic wardrobe of 1998 and 1999 still represents a unique chapter in the style story of any pop star.

Bjork

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Bjork

Björk may be the most imaginatively dressed performer on the planet, a legacy she's held for nearly 20 years. She also never repeats herself something even Madonna and Gwen Stefani can't say. In 1993's clip for "Big Time Sensuality," Bjork emerges as a Nordic nymph in a bleak cityscape, prancing her way around in an avant-gardist maxi skirt and top combo,  her hair twisted into several soon-to-be-trademark topknots (later mimicked, ironically, by both Madonna and Stefani).

Things only got stranger and more fantastical from there. She appeared as a samurai from another galaxy on 1997's Homogenic; fittingly, Alexander McQueen designed the iconic album cover. On this album, she was a warrior, she says: "A warrior who had to fight not with weapons, but with love. I had 10 kilos of hair on my head, and special contact lenses and a manicure that prevented me from eating with my fingers, and gaffer tape around my waist and high clogs so I couldn't walk easily."  She became famous to a whole new demographic only a few years later, when she appeared at the Oscars in a dress resembling a white swan, an incident that went on to inspire its own Wikipedia page.

Marilyn Manson

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Marilyn Manson

For Marilyn Manson, clothes were never just clothes: they were weapons. First showing up as a "Spooky Kid" in the early 1990s Florida scene, Manson's image augmented his band's overall ascent to notoriety. In 1995's "The Beautiful People," he used prosthetics, stilts and white-out contacts to ghoulishly distort his overall appearance, resources he continued to don throughout his career. Manson's most creative incarnation is arguably 1998's "Dope Show" persona, where he embodied a warped resurrection of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust character. At that year's VMAs, he performed in feathers, red hair, prosthetic breasts and "assless" chaps akin to Prince's, equally scarring and fascinating his audience for life.

TLC

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TLC

Before Aaliyah and Monica helped shape what modern urban cool meant, TLC wrote the damn handbook. Chilli, T-Boz and Left-Eye took a few style cues from Salt-n-Pepa and En Vogue but made TLC's look at once both grittier and more visionary. In the classic "Waterfalls" clip, they sported typical 1990s streetwear (midriff-baring tops, roomy denim, tie-around jackets) as they literally walked on water. Personality was paramount; the ordinary could seem extraordinary in this group's hands.

In 1999's Hype Williams-directed "No Scrubs" video, the group underwent a huge image overhaul, now resembling post-ravers from a Japanimation thriller. Their futuristic looks reflected the themes of Fanmail, which itself reflected the technophilic concerns of the Y2K youth. Interestingly, TLC is now at the center of a nostalgic dialogue being excavated by a new generation: highly stimulated kids too young to properly remember when TRL was huge, but who wish they did. Armed with Tumblrs, lurid "future-vintage" mall-rat clothes, and a lot to prove, they are banking on personality carrying them a long way. Here's hoping they have the tunes to back it up.

Tupac Shakur

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Tupac Shakur

To this day, rappers mimic Tupac's relaxed but aggressive style, though he hardly set out to be a fashion icon. He offered many variations on a general theme, but the most famous (and consistent) element of Tupac's look was his trademark bandana, always tied around his head. Sometimes in red, sometimes in blue, it generally accompanied drop-crotch pants, a wifebeater and a gold chain. For Tupac, it was all in a day's wardrobe but, for a generation who loved him, what he wore has become as evocative of a time and mood as every rhyme he ever commanded.

Spice Girls

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Spice Girls

The Spice Girls are back (and better than ever? The Olympics will probably prove otherwise, but no one will hold it against them). Time has taken a cruel toll on Spice World, the swinging 1990s pop-style haven where Buffalo platforms, glitzy minidresses and leopard everything constituted the expected dress code. But what a fabulous place it was while it lasted: what 12-year-old girl (or, let's be honest, drag performer) didn't imagine aping Baby Spice's pigtails, Posh's leer, Scary's brazen exploration of prints, Sporty's spunkiness or Ginger's Union Jack dress?

Taste levels aside, the Spice Girls made pop an exciting place to be between 1995 and 1998 – and for many girls, the idea of five young women taking on the world in a spaceship while chanting about girl power and zig-a-zig-ah was amazing, make no mistake. Looking back, none of it was sophisticated or styled to bland perfection, but that's partly what makes the Spice women so much more fiercely loved than most of the engineered pop starlets who followed in their wake. They were real girls who lived, breathed and sold fantasy to us, who told us it could be ours, too. For just the right amount of time, it was.

Kurt Cobain

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Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain wouldn't want to be considered a style icon, certainly, and yet his impact on how people perceived Nineties style is absolutely crucial. He represented DIY anti-fashion, straight up. He was a beautiful man who didn't want his blond pulchritude to compromise his weight as an artist and thinker, so his deliberate grunginess can be read as a "fuck you" to both others and to his own sense of vanity. Not that this worked as planned: Cobain's ratty flannel, jeans and disheveled hair were hailed as emblematic of an angry Pacific Northwest music community's values and, furthermore, as the new look for a whole generation of disaffected youths. As with Courtney Love's violent kinderwhore look, Cobain's apathetic appearance accidentally became a new aesthetic standard and one of the first visuals that comes to mind during any 1990s discussion.

D'arcy Wretzky

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D’arcy Wretzky

In 1995, for a certain part of the female population, there was no cooler aesthetic icon than Smashing Pumpkins bassist D'Arcy Wretsky. Sure, Billy Corgan had the freshly shaved head, silver pants and a snarl, but D'Arcy had the latter plus blue hair, raccoon eyes and immaculate space-age goth clothing, as witnessed in the "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" video. With her thin frame, slickly modern bobbed hair and inky beestung lips, she looked like an updated version of a sullen silent film star, an apocalyptic Brooksian figure. It wasn't an image for gleaming, healthy youths to mimic, but the most interesting expressions usually aren't. When she added a devil-horned headband to her look, the spell was fully complete. Alongside Shirley Manson, D'Arcy was the most glamorous outsider in the game.