Taylor Swift and the Sparkling Trap of Constant Reinvention

Taylor Swift and the Sparkling Trap of Constant Reinvention

Oscar de la Renta. Versace. Alberta Ferretti. Roberto Cavalli. Elie Saab. Christian Louboutin. Zuhair Murad. Ashish. The list of the designers who have made looks for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, which began just over a month ago in Arizona and ends in California in August before heading overseas, is like a mini-tour of fashion weeks, replete with sparkles, chiffon and a message tee.

The resulting dress-up extravaganza has been greeted, not surprisingly, with heart-thumping enthusiasm. So many clothes! So much glitter! So fun! There are pages of stories online breathlessly documenting “Every Outfit Taylor Swift Has Worn on Her Eras World Tour” (as Elle Australia put it). And new styles keep emerging, enabling new coverage. As if sheer wardrobe abundance is an achievement unto itself.

It’s possible it is. The logistics alone are daunting: How do you change that much, and that fast, while in the middle of a performance?

Certainly it has raised the bar for the artists who are touring next, as we enter the Summer of the Diva: Madonna, who is embarking on a retrospective tour (just imagine the looks that one could involve), and Beyoncé, who set the bar sky-high in August when she dropped a teaser of sorts via the “I’m That Girl” trailer, which involved at least seven looks compressed into a few minutes, from cyborg goddess to cowboy dominatrix to killer Audrey Hepburn.

But it’s also possible to see in all these Swiftian clothes, all the wardrobe switcheroos, something else. It’s possible that they are, actually, not just a tour down memory lane but a more pointed piece of meta-commentary on the expectation that female pop stars constantly unveil new versions of themselves for our viewing pleasure, one-upping their old image with new wardrobes ad infinitum. And a message that Ms. Swift is, perhaps, calling time on the whole thing.

The promise of reinvention is a core American value: the belief that everyone has the right to a fresh start, that you are limited only by your imagination and abilities. It’s intrinsically linked to the promise of fashion, which likewise dangles the lure of a new you; of allowing you to try on different selves until you settle into one that feels right.

Yet it is also its own kind of prison, as Ms. Swift, who has made a habit of embedding meaning into her wardrobe choices, said in her 2020 documentary, “Miss Americana.”

“The female artists that I know of have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists,” she says in a voice-over toward the end of the film, as various versions of her public personas flash by: teenage Taylor, with her gold ringlets, sparkly blue eye shadow and princess dresses; “1989” Taylor, with her ironed bob and glittery bodysuits; “Reputation” angry Taylor, with snakes crawling up her limbs.

This is necessary, Ms. Swift continues, because otherwise “you’re out of a job.”

At the time she was talking about her newfound political voice as well as her new album, “Lover” (now three albums and at least two Taylors ago: the earth nymph Taylor of “Folklore” and “Evermore,” and the dreamer Taylor of “Midnights”). But in many ways, what she meant is laid bare (so to speak) in her Eras Tour.

Each musical era revisited in the show had — and has — its own look, all 10 or so of them. To watch her go through them in succession is to see not just fabulous clothes worn with purpose, but also the hamster wheel of constant reinvention that has been the model for contemporary female pop stars since Madonna set the tone in the 1980s.

It’s particularly stark in comparison with another musical act now touring to similar response and acclaim: Bruce Springsteen. Mr. Springsteen is 73, and his style hasn’t changed much in 50 years. He’s still in beat-up jeans and a denim shirt, bracelets around his wrist, boots on his feet.

To be fair, there are male rock stars who have made a game out of reinvention: most notably David Bowie but also, to a certain extent, Harry Styles (though he generally dons one statement outfit per night). And there are women — Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith — who bucked the trend.

But it is also true, said Kathy Iandoli, an adjunct professor at the New York University Steinhardt School and the author of “God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop,” that the pressure to dress up and change up falls exponentially on women. “1,000 percent,” Ms. Iandoli said. “There’s a level of costuming that comes with being a female pop star, a way for labels to market creativity. And if you are known as an evolutionary artist you are always held to the standard of ‘what’s the next version of you?’”

Ms. Swift has turned that pressure to her own ends as cannily as anyone. Her makeovers, which coincide with her sonic evolutions, are not the same as the makeover imposed on the main character in the Lady Gaga version of “A Star Is Born,” in which studio bigwigs force their latest discovery into Creamsicle hair, new outfits and new dance moves — a ginned-up version of herself she rejects after her husband’s death.

By contrast, Ms. Swift (with her stylist Joseph Cassell Falconer) has been her own wardrobe mistress, and her fans, many of whom show up dressed as their favorite Taylor, can relate.

But even Gaga, a master of the fashion-music makeover, seemingly rebelled against the imperative at this year’s Oscars when, rather than change into yet another showstopping gown for her performance, she subverted all expectations by donning ripped jeans and a black T-shirt and scrubbing her face bare, as if to say to the watching world: enough.

Fernando Garcia, a creative director of Oscar de la Renta, a brand that been part of the Swiftian circle since dressing her for the Met Gala in 2014 and which made a lavender faux-fur coat with matching crystal-embroidered T-shirt dress and a midnight-blue, crystal-embroidered jumpsuit for the current tour, said that working with Ms. Swift on Eras felt “very much like a full circle moment.” If so, perhaps it’s also a sign that another era is coming to an end.

At one point in the Eras show, when Ms. Swift is singing “Look What You Made Me Do,” all of the old Taylors are embodied by different backup dancers in different outfits in different little glass boxes — all those mini-mes of the past, trapped in their own limited spaces, in their old wardrobes, only to finally break free.

As fashion metaphors go, it’s hard to miss.

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