Rihanna on the March 2014 cover of Vogue

Rihanna on the March 2014 cover of Vogue

When I first saw this Vogue cover I immediately thought about Anna Wintour’s first Vogue cover, featuring Michaela Bercu in a Christian Lacroix sweatshirt.  The most obvious reasons for comparison are that both Rihanna and Bercu are wearing light-colored blue jeans and embellished tops with their midriffs showing. Denim isn’t featured all that frequently on the cover of Vogue, though Jessica Biel memorably wore a denim jacket and waistcoat on the February 2010 cover, and it stands out whenever someone does.

The fact that Rihanna wears the 2014 iteration of the Guess/Lacroix outfit also begs the question of whether “a new era of fashion” is being rung in, much in the vein of the Bercu cover, and whether or not this idea is being forced upon us rather than occurring organically.

Rihanna is wearing clothing from Marc Jacobs’ last collection for Louis Vuitton: Jacobs’ departure and the arrival of Nicolas Ghesquiere certainly signifies that consumers and fashion enthusiasts are in for a new aesthetic but necessarily begs the question of whether this change is more significant than say, Alexander Wang’s replacement of Ghesquiere at Balenciaga or Raf Simons’ replacement of John Galliano at Dior (without mentioning the countless paradigm shifts occurring without designer upheaval in recent years–every other Prada collection, say.)

In her “Letter from the Editor” Anna Wintour reflects on Rihanna’s power to influence fashion and make people excited about seeing what she will wear next. Wintour says, “For the longest time now, the music world has been without a performer whose regular unveilings of new look after new look–often relying on upcoming and unknown designers to help realize her vision–left us waiting for her latest transformation. Madonna was the last one capable of that” (222).

Calling Rihanna the “new Madonna” has the effect of placing everything within a postmodern context and calls to attention Wintour’s own eye in recognizing style influencers and creating relevant fashion imagery. In “Honoring the 120th Anniversary: Anna Wintour Shares Her Vogue Story” she says, “Michaela was wearing an haute couture Christian Lacroix jacket with a beaded cross, all very “Like a Prayer,” and stonewashed Guess jeans”. In this month’s letter she describes that cover as “very Material Girl in its unabashed mix of high and low”. Wintour’s reference to Madonna to describe the 1988 cover as well as the recognition of Rihanna’s influence over designers today calls to attention the Vogue cover as subject since Madonna is not even featured on the 1988 cover in question and the look Rihanna wears is obviously constructed by Wintour and is never really meant to represent Rihanna’s own style. Madonna is the silent reference in both covers, though the allusion in March 2014 is twofold: Rihanna is the new Madonna in terms of a singer creating exciting style and Rihanna literally recreates a cover inspired by Madonna’s 1988 style.

Michaela Bercu on the November 1988 cover of Vogue

Michaela Bercu on the November 1988 cover of Vogue

With his referential look from Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2014 Marc Jacobs places himself in the tradition of couturier (Christian Lacroix, as the creator of the clothing) influential fashion editor (Anna Wintour, as the person who recognizes moments in fashion and immortalizes them) and pop fashion icon (Madonna, in that we are excited to see new look after new look and [he] has us waiting to see [his] latest transformation). The reason that Jacobs must secure his position in the tradition of Lacroix, Wintour and Madonna now is that he will no longer be designer of a French luxury house but of an american house without a long tradition behind it; he will never be able to influence the conversation about fashion more than when he was the creative voice behind Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Marc by Marc Jacobs; Finally, he will not be able to produce as many transformations (Looks or shifts in fashion) as when he had the opportunity to create for many houses and answer himself from one collection to the next leaping ahead of designers who were only responding to or copying the last collections.

In her “Letter from the Editor” Wintour explains, “Marc had mentioned to me before his last show that he had referenced the Christian Lacroix Haute Couture jacket worn with distressed jeans that appeared on my first cover of Vogue in November 1988, an ensemble that was very Material Girl in its unabashed mix of high and low” (222). Perhaps the idea of her own work being referenced in fashion (rather than being referenced through the medium of print, having her look serve as inspiration for fashion or having her advice shape a collection) is the greatest compliment that Wintour could receive. It may also serve to further a message of greater racial diversity in fashion, a subject also touched upon in the editor’s letter.

While Wintour’s 1988 cover is meant to signify a new beginning in fashion brought on by her tenure as editor of Vogue, the March 2014 cover is meant to signify the end of something in fashion brought on by Jacobs leaving Vuitton. But the copying of the 1988 cover first by Jacobs through fashion, then by Wintour through the production of the March 2014 cover signifies change in the broadest sense. (It would be too neat if the two covers could be seen as bookends to a particular era but I can’t think of anything that started in 1988 and ended in 2014.)

Looking at this magazine by looking at Rihanna’s place in it is probably the most difficult thing to do because Rihanna turns out never to be the subject of the magazine but the modern embodiment of a fashion icon, a singer, a fashion influencer. The article about Rihanna is in fact an article about Plum Sykes taking Rihanna’s style advice. Rihanna must share the spotlight with Sykes in the article and with personalities such as Wintour, Jacobs, Lacroix, Madonna and Bercu on the cover. While there is always a degree of this sharing of context on any cover, I would argue that most covers carry only the weight of the cover model  and the magazine title with clothing, editor, designer and message holding a much less important place.

It is also quite interesting to compare this cover to Lena Dunham’s February cover. While I won’t go into the significance of Dunham’s close-up head shot and Rihanna’s almost full body shot or the fact that Dunham’s editorial is surrounded by context in the form of setting and other figures while Rihanna’s is shot without context in from of a blank background, I would like to point out that one of Rihanna’s tattoos is quite visible on the cover of Vogue while Dunham’s tattoos are not. I would posit that placing Dunham’s untraditionally beautiful body on the cover of Vogue is already transgressive to the Vogue cover ideal, an idea that is becoming more and more outdated yet still sticks.

I cannot remember a tattoo previously being visible on the cover of Vogue and I have to wonder about its inclusion. Are the editors making a point about a black woman on the cover of Vogue no longer being seen as something to take notice of, therefore no longer transgressive to the usual all-white and traditionally beautiful cover model ideal; the transgressive part of the cover is the tattoo. (It would be a mistake to forget that it is only in the last few years that black women have begun gracing the cover of Vogue on a regular basis.)

Perhaps Rihanna is allowed to show the transgressive body modification (it doesn’t make her “prettier” in the most superficial way) on the cover of Vogue because she is already challenging so many (outdated) stereotypes about what it means to be a Vogue cover model. This would be extremely disappointing.

I hope that this idea of Vogue and fashion entering a new era extends to ideas about traditional beauty and that is why  tattoos, denim, an exposed midriff and a black cover model are on such a significant cover of Vogue in such a significant issue (March!). Time will tell if this issue really heralds a shift in fashion that is much more inclusive to other models of womanhood.

Cover: 5/5 stars!