For celebrities, the way they dress can mean much more than what appears on the surface. It’s the way they present themselves to the world, the way their image is shaped, the way people remember them — there are usually deeper intentions behind their fashion that we might not immediately recognise. Whether this means projecting a certain desired image, distracting from personal problems happening behind the scenes, or turning the public’s attention away from unsavoury events, fashion ultimately has the power to shape the way we interpret celebrities.
Brad Pitt has recently undergone a style evolution as part of promotion for his latest film, Bullet Train, by incorporating pastels and fun designs into many of his outfits. At the premiere in Seoul, he was photographed sporting a bubblegum pink suit, accompanied with a mask of the same shade. He also wore a pastel pink tracksuit when attending a photocall in Berlin, and arrived in Paris wearing a peach-orange linen suit. These looks are a noticeable diversion from his usual attire — while normally he plays it very safe on the red carpet, he appeared in a green suit over a teal shirt with pink stitching and yellow shoes in Los Angeles. His experimentation with fashion and playful colours in this way has earned him a lot of praise. He’s commended for being secure in his masculinity, in a similar way to Harry Styles (who has consistently been praised for his subversive fashion). However, it’s hard to reconcile the Brad Pitt that appears in pastel colours and linen suits, with the Brad Pitt accused of abuse by Angelina Jolie — and this is perhaps the exact intention. In October 2022, Jolie filed a cross complaint against Pitt as part of their legal battle, in which she made allegations of his emotionally and physically abusive behaviour towards herself and their children, specifically on a plane flight they took as a family in 2016. Jolie describes how, during this flight, Pitt choked one child, struck another in the face, grabbed Jolie by the head and shook her, and poured beer and wine over Jolie and the children. This abusive behaviour seems a world away from the family-friendly vibrant fashion Pitt has recently been seen in — it’s very likely this was his exact intention, appearing in bold, modern looks that earn him praise and gain him positive attention to distract from the damaging allegations of Jolie’s court papers.
Using fashion to create a certain image or warrant a certain reaction isn’t a new thing, though. Previous Disney stars like Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus have employed fashion to break away from their Disney image and present themselves more maturely. Miley’s breakaway received a lot of attention in particular, as she went from being Disney-appropriate to embracing an edgier rock style that shocked many in 2012. Her ‘Wrecking Ball’ video was a clear demonstration of her extreme rebellion against the censored Disney style. Selena’s style evolution came about on the red carpet, when she appeared at the 2013 VMAs in a navy Versace dress with a lace bustier and high slit, that was more mature and daring than anything she’d worn before — thus allowing her image to expand away from Disney.
Celebrities also understand that their fashion can cause an impact: Serena Williams, for instance, has become something of a figurehead for female empowerment, especially on the court. She appeared at the 2018 French Open in a Nike catsuit that she said helped prevent blood clots after her pregnancy, but also made her feel like a superhero — she was clearly very comfortable in this look. However, the authorities thought it inappropriate, and banned the catsuit from further tournaments. Public opinion, on the other hand, was firmly in her favour. Whether or not this was her intention is unclear; regardless, she took this in her stride and responded by wearing a Nike tennis tutu to the US Open later that year. This conveyed a strong, resonant message of reclaiming old tropes of femininity while demonstrating her power in her sport. Williams knows well what fashion can mean and cause — for her, it became a means of furthering an agenda of female empowerment, against sexist and outdated rules.
Fashion can be used against celebrities, as well. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 is infamous for the moment Timberlake tore off part of Jackson’s costume, exposing her breast; the incident henceforth became known as ‘Nipplegate’. Whether or not it was planned, the wardrobe incident caused a mass overreaction, and ruined Jackson’s career — the US was already experiencing a cultural war of sorts, and incorporating censorship into its media, therefore the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) used Jackson’s wardrobe incident to symbolise their restoring morality and order to American culture by cracking down on what they deemed inappropriate. Furthermore, the hysteria was harnessed for the 2004 presidential election — Jackson herself thinks that the incident was used as a distraction from the Iraq War, and as a result influenced Bush’s success.
The way celebrities dress often has a greater weight than is immediately evident, and can completely transform their image, whether this is done intentionally or not. It influences public discussion, so can also be used as PR to distract from wider issues or problematic aspects of a celebrity’s character.
Featured image: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash