Today's Female Rappers Are Ushering in a New Era of Hip Hop Fashion
From Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion to Ice Spice and GloRilla, these artists continue to push boundaries with their style — not unlike their predecessors.
From Doja Cat stunting in 30,000 Swarovski crystals at Schiaparelli, to GloRilla covering The Cut, to the City Girls' JT sitting front row at Mugler, a new class of women in hip hop is establishing itself front and center in fashion.
Since its birth in the Bronx 50 years ago, hip hop has evolved into so much more than a genre: It's a culture that's as rich musically as it is sartorially. Though it's largely been a male-dominated industry, women have continuously played an important role in it, using fashion as a tool for presence, power and respect. They've worn some of the most fantastic, outlandish looks of the past decades, from Missy Elliott's seminal trash bag suit styled by June Ambrose, to Nicki Minaj's Barbie dream wardrobe, to Cardi B's plucked-from-the-Mugler-archives style, with more memorable moments sure to come at this Sunday's Grammy Awards.
"Rap girls want to take risks. They want that impact Lil' Kim left, that impact Missy Elliott left," Manny Jay, who styles artists like Saweetie and Muni Long, says. "These girls will take risks and commit. They're all looking at past looks that really made an impact. And every girl wants that impact. Every girl wants to leave that type of mark in fashion."
Women in hip-hop have continually stayed relevant through what they wear. The ivory tower that is the fashion industry didn't always give the love back, however: During her 2016 CFDA Fashion Icon Award speech, Beyoncé talked about her mother making costumes for Destiny's Child since high-end labels "didn't want to dress Black, country, curvy girls." Similarly, Ambrose has talked about not being able to get designers on the phone in the early days. But it's a new dawn.
The Cut's latest fashion issue is a love letter to rap girls, with its pages dedicated to artists like Ice Spice and GloRilla. Last fall, Coi Leray walked The Blonds' runway at New York Fashion Week, and Latto dominated the front row.
It's been a long time coming.
Women in hip hop are recognized for their canonical contributions to fashion. But their approach to style, much like the genre, has evolved.
"In the early days, the women dressed very similarly to the men. It was a very androgynous look," Elizabeth Way, assistant curator at the Museum at FIT (which is set to open an exhibit on hip-hop style in February), says. "They dressed this way in order to kind of play on an equal playing field... it's only slowly over time where women start to gain the respect and the confidence that they're able to bring in more of their femininity and amplify what was always there: the jewelry, the hair and the makeup."
Fashion is a tool of assertion, one that helped pave the way for today's female rappers in many ways. The original women in hip hop — Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah — laid the groundwork for a less androgynous, more personality-forward look. Woman artists still face misogyny and misogynoir from the culture, and many still embrace androgyny, but there's a clear shift in aesthetics that goes beyond the general trends of the time.
Credit is due to the stylists who have helped shape the images of their clients over the years, connecting them to new designers and coordinating the stunts that turn into moments or the looks that go down in fashion history.
"I don't think anyone really is who they portray themselves to be in a way, you know?" Emmy-winning costume designer and stylist (including to Beyoncé) Zerina Akers says. "But wardrobe gets to really dictate how people see you, especially when it comes to female rappers, whether you wanna be sexy... but you maybe still want to be respected and seen as an artist, still be appreciated as a woman in a space filled with men."
Stylists are and have been translators, transforming the sonics of an artist's music into visuals. They offer their clients an opportunity to create the most confident version of themself through style, and their attention-catching work can boost an artist's career, leading to brand deals and more recognition.
"The possibilities are endless with these rap girls," says Todd White, who most notably styles Megan Thee Stallion and Latto. "I feel like they have a lot of influence now in fashion. Because of the Cardi Bs and the Doja Cats and the Megs, a lot of publications and people who enjoy fashion are looking forward to what they're wearing more than anyone else."
Dressing female rappers, according to Jay, is so much fun because of the sheer level of creativity involved: After "so many years of them consistently showing personal style and them doing their own stunts," each look is an opportunity for "fantasy."
"Every detail matters — like, these girls are so committed to the look," he says. "The hair is always on point. We've got to make sure the hair tells the story with the look. The nails, the details of the jewelry... With rap girls, something that you think of in your head that's like, 'Oh my God, that's almost just like a drawing,' you're bringing to life."
Since the 1970s, hip hop has only grown in its reach and cultural impact. Of course, it has always touched fashion, in more ways than one.
Folks like Dapper Dan helped tailor the hip-hop aesthetic in its early days; he became known for his ability to remix luxury brands (in a time when they were not exactly welcoming to all customers) into custom, logo-manic looks loved by artists. April Walker shaped hip-hop fashion in the '90, creating pieces for Tupac, LL Cool J and Jay-Z. The Shirt Kings — who would take art and well-known cartoons and imbue them with contemporary meaning — pioneered the graffiti-style T-shirt.
When celebrities overtook models on magazines in the 1990s and early 2000s and MTV embraced more hip hop in its programming, the genre reached new heights. "Hip-hop artists became some of the biggest celebrities in the world," Way says.
With more visibility and people looking at "who these artists are and how they dress," the door opened for appropriation, according to Elena Romero, the Fashion Institute of Technology's assistant professor and assistant chair. "Of course, the best form of flattery is imitation."
Hip hop helped boost the popularity of Timberland boots, Nike Air Force 1's and Polo Ralph Lauren's teddy bear sweater, but fashion didn't always recognize the genre and its artists for the rewards it reaped, from name drops on hit songs or the sheer influence of someone wearing something. But designers did incorporate hip hop into their work — just not hip hop's people.
Luxury fashion's historical rejection of the mostly Black and brown artists can most simply be explained by blatant racism. (BET reported on the long list of brands and retailers with a racist track record.) Things are changing, albeit slowly. And though today's female rappers may be facing less exclusion from the industry, the same issues linger.
"Lil' Kim put a lot of those brands on the map for our community," Akers says. "Even today, still, a lot of these brands don't respect the female rappers. It's definitely an uphill battle in the beginning to get them to see them and really love them. There's still only a few that really do."
"There's some amazing, amazing talent that I've worked with in the past, and I request pieces from certain designers that these girls have either worn out, on their Instagram... but then you ask the brand, 'Hey, can you loan for this occasion?' And they say 'no,'" Jay says. "It's like, 'Wait, this girl said it in her song, and this song is super popular, and she wears it all the time.'"
Beyond racism, there's also fashion's notorious lack of size inclusivity: If brands only make samples in sizes 0 through 4, for example, there's a limited group of people who can fit into the clothes.
"Fashion has a way of picking and choosing who they allow in, no matter how amazing a rapper she is or how amazing of a stylist this person is," Jay says. "It's still very gate-kept."
The designers that embrace these artists — like Casey Cadwallader's Mugler, Virgil Abloh, Sergio Hudson — are helping elevate the culture to a yet higher level, making way for rap girls' fashion ascendancy. Even though stylists and artists still feel friction, there's also a solid foundation to build upon.
"The relationship between fashion brands and female rappers has a lot of history," Hudson writes in an email. "Those girls became the muses of designers, and the relationship has grown from there. It's contributed to female rappers becoming more and more mainstream, and now a lot of doors are opening for them that traditionally only opened for actors and singers. Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown laid the groundwork."
As fashion's new guard become more diverse — in age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, cultural understanding, gender expression — in front of and behind the scenes, there's renewed hope for brands to become more inclusive and more caught-up with the current moment.
"Fashion companies are reacting to what's happening in the world. You can no longer ignore the fact that there are changing demographics," Romero says. Though, she cautions that it's still difficult to pinpoint intentions: "We have seen some moves in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go."
However it goes, stylists are going to style, and rappers are going to keep dropping hype, chart-topping hits.
"The thing that I love the most is finding designers who are up-and-coming or doing cool, innovative things that are not necessarily being replicated," White says.
If a brand doesn't want to loan his client, Jay might just buy it — "and you're not going to tell us we can't wear that."
Hudson, for his part, says he's "drawn to people that are talented at what they do. I look for someone with a sort of inner beauty or character. They also have to have a sense of personal style... The most exciting thing is bridging the two worlds, connecting urban and high fashion, streetwear and elevated dressing."
Despite having historically been excluded from notions of femininity and subjugated to stereotypes, the (mostly Black and brown) women in hip hop shrug those impositions off. Their fashion is liberated and liberating. Their stunts are fun, hilarious and worth blowing up your group chat. And it's not just fashion: These artists are setting trends in beauty, from acrylic nails to lip gloss. It's impossible to see them without feeling something more than awe or inspiration.
"I feel like there's so much diversity right now in female rap," Jay says. "You got girls like Rico Nasty, who's giving you the grunge-girl fantasy, but she's still a rapper. You got girls like Ice Spice, that's just giving you that round-away girl from the Bronx. The girls are just showing up as their best selves."
Want the latest fashion industry news first? Sign up for our daily newsletter.