Full disclosure: While I was doing my research for this story, my co-worker Amanda periodically glanced over from her computer screen to ask if I was okay. In truth, narrowing down a list of fearless musicians who have redefined modern beauty standards isn't just an infuriatingly daunting task, but it's an impossible one; how could we possibly declare a handful of these icons as "the most important?" That's not even to mention that as someone who was raised on a steady diet of Bowie, Blondie, The Supremes, and Patti Smith (thanks, Mom!), looking through vintage photos of my idols kicked up more emotions than I was prepared to handle at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday.
But nevertheless, here we are with a lineup that is certainly not exhaustive but chock-full of beauty inspiration all the same. And if we missed any of your favorites, let us know by DMing us on Instagram—we'll round up your picks in a future feature.
It takes a certain kind of magic to reinvent your look throughout the decades while still remaining unabashedly yourself—and that's why Cher's look is as iconic today as it was when she burst on the scene. By pairing her long, dark locks with glittery makeup (and head-turning getups to match), she effectively bridged the gap between '60s bohemia and the unadulterated glamour of the '70s.
Every turn of Ross's career has provided ample beauty inspiration: From her Mod-leaning days in The Supremes to her era as reigning disco queen. Her hair evolution alone is one for the ages, and there's no question that Ross didn't just defy antiquated beauty norms but redefined them entirely.
Ch-ch-changes. The man who taught us to reject conformity and proudly face our inner "strange," Bowie deftly utilized his look as an extension of his art. But even as his personas evolved and shifted, his message of inclusivity and acceptance only grew more steadfast. That might be Bowie's most radical legacy, and it's one of the many reasons we miss him.
Parton famously once said that "it costs a lot of money to look this cheap," and that just about sums up her refreshingly unpretentious approach to her high-glamour beauty look. The queen of kitsch made the case for not just wearing what you love but really wearing it—a lot of it, without apology. And she still remains true to that aesthetic to this very day.
Smith subverted the disco-era glamour of the '70s by embracing a look that was edgy in its pared-down androgyny. Just like her seminal 1975 album, Horses, her black shag cut ultimately served as a precursor to the rapidly growing art-punk scene in New York City.
As the inimitable face of Blondie, Harry's DGAF attitude was (is!) as iconic as her peroxide habit. Even the name of her band is brilliantly defiant: When Harry was catcalled "blondie" one too many times, she took the name back as her own.
That she remains piercingly relevant in fashion and beauty spheres speaks to the fact that Jones was lightyears ahead of her time. By embracing an identity that defied gender norms, conventional beauty standards, and really, convention in general, Jones was and is a standard-bearer for the art of fearlessness. (Just two years ago, the now 69-year-old did a series of performances wearing nothing but body paint.)
Like Bowie, Prince was willing to challenge any norms that existed around gender and identity (and race, in his case) during a time when doing so was all but unprecedented in mainstream culture. That he became a voice for many while remaining true to his individuality is an aspirational standard indeed.
Let's be frank: The '80s resurgence is really an homage to Sade, no? I'd say that the vinyl-red lips, thick brows, slicked-back hair and chunky gold hoops have never felt so relevant, but that might be an insult to Sade's era-defying coolness.
Like her punk-era predecessors, Love turned the notion of "traditional" femininity on its head with her dark roots and smeared red lipstick. If Debbie Harry and Joan Jett were fed up with being boxed into a female ideal, Love was downright pissed.
Throughout her three-decade career, we've learned only to expect the unexpected from Björk. And while her avant-garde creations might not be entirely feasible for daily wear, they are a great reminder to let your imagination run wild.
Aside from the fact that her signature glow launched a million spray tans in the early aughts, it's worth noting that J.Lo ushered in a new appreciation for curves (at least by the mainstream media).
The beehive! The eyeliner! Winehouse's uniform was both a retro callback and positively one-of-a-kind—just like the late singer's voice.
Where do we even begin? Rih's confidence alone is worthy of an ovation. She's living proof that if you're down to just own it, you can honestly wear whatever the hell you want. That's not even to mention that in launching Fenty Beauty last year, she effectively demanded a new standard for representation in an industry that has been embarrassingly lacking for far too long.
True story: I remember exactly where I was when I first saw footage of Twigs because I found her that mesmerizing. Consider her proof that taking so-called beauty "risks" is nothing short of captivating.
While it's no surprise that Solange cites aforementioned rule-breakers like Diana Ross and Björk as her style icons, the musician and artist is a modern force all her own. "I'm more attracted to the ideas of something interesting than being 'pretty,'" she told The Telegraph in 2015. ■
It's this unapologetic devotion to the intersection of creativity and individuality that makes Solange such an emblem for rising generations that are embracing authenticity more than ever before while simultaneously rejecting the prejudices and biases that built those old "rules" in the first place.