Style Icon: Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson’s style evolution from 1982 to 2002.
Photo: Getty Images

Happy 47th Birthday Janet Jackson! To consecrate this hallowed occasion, MTV Style commemorates the icon’s most legendary style moments.*

As a youngin, Janet Jackson was just the cute baby sister of her superstar brother crew, and her child-style was tethered to their garish-ass ’70s costumes. Her showbiz debut was at the age of seven on the stage of the MGM in Vegas, and by nine she was performing on the CBS variety show The Jacksons, dressed in gossamer pants and lamé vests over turtlenecks, cutesy ensembles chosen specifically to match her bros’ performative bell bottoms. God bless, but GOOD GOD. Soon enough, she ended up as Penny on Good Times and got to bust loose in clothes that didn’t make her look like a tiny genie fresh out the bottle, wearing normal-kid flared ’70s collars and dy-no-mite wool plaids and, on one occasion, a ruffle sleeved overall that looks like it inspired the entire Free People line. She was, for a time, America’s little sis, and America dressed her like it.

But something happened on the way to Diff’rent Strokes, the ’80s sitcom about a rich white guy adopting two young black kids (what?), on which Janet played Charlene Duprey, Todd Bridges’ fine young girlfriend: she emerged as a style icon. As one of the only black women on TV portrayed in a positive light, girls all across the country started cribbing her inimitable style: a demure bob with gilded hoop earrings and a teen version of that ’80 secretary look that was so popular: bow shirts, peter pan collars, embroidered back pockets on jeans.

The early ’80s were a time when you could be ten years old and dress like you were 35, but Janet made it palatable and cute, a little bit preppy as opposed to chained-behind-a-desk schoolmarm. And as she came into her own, she broke out, merging Charlene Duprey’s style into her own.

Janet Jackson in 1982.
Photo: Getty Images

Well, with a little more flair: those kiss socks are the most.

Then came Control. The album that established Janet as a pop star was all about growing up and becoming a woman—she didn’t want us to look at her as Michael’s little sister anymore—so she needed serious rock star estilo to match. The first video from that album was bad-boyfriend dis song “What Have You Done For Me Lately“—and the first time my old ass caught a glimpse of her in full effect. IT WAS A REVELATION. Not only did a mondo-AquaNetted, pre-pop star Paula Abdul play her commiserating homegirl, Janet debuted the new wave menswear look that she’d carry through her life: gigantic hair, shoulder-padded blazer, chambray vest and a reclamation of the gold lamé she was draped in so early in life, in the form of an oxford buttondown and a stack of gilded bangles.

THIS WAS ’80s POWER-DRESSING at its least starchy, and for me and all of the other old-ass people who witnessed it, the Control era was an instruction manual in how to become the badass, no-shorts-taking girl next door. Even when she was going casual, she looked super tough—Cassie’sMe & U” video wanted to be the “Pleasure Principle” video so bad, but it was missing the allover denim, kneepads, and Adidas Sambas.

Also, she sometimes wore a key on her hoop earring and looked like an extra from The Breakfast Club:

Janet Jackson in 1987.
Photo: Getty Images

For her second album Rhythm Nation 1814, she took her menswear even further. It was a concept album about a world in which social disparity is eradicated, so Janet went in for the military hardware and the world flipped. “Rhythm Nation,” the song, was so influential that in my dance classes at the time, the teacher would dedicate hours to teaching us the dance from the video, and everyone wanted to dress like her—black leggings, military jackets, ballcaps. She had her own personal Rhythm Nation hardware and bondage straps; I can’t figure out or remember if she predated the Boy London hardware caps, but both were around the same time, and she was influential enough that it’s not unlikely her steez gave them the idea.

Janet Jackson in 1990.
Photo: Getty Images

This is not to say she didn’t have a softer side. “Love Will Never Do” was one of the biggest singles from Rhythm Nation 1814, and the fleshy video, released in 1991, established her as a bona fide sex symbol. She was all draped up in iconic early ’90s fashion, in an outfit that could have been in a Guess ad with Claudia Schiffer: a simple bustier and jeans playing up the essential Bardotness of her swept-up hair and bandana. Off-set, though, she couldn’t resist pulling together the look with her signature man-jacket (cropped, as they often were) and major belt that probably weighed 42 pounds. Her sexiness always comes with a few rough edges—but that’s part of what makes her an icon. No one dressed like her in the business, but everyone wanted to.

Janet Jackson in 1990.
Photo: Getty Images

In 1993, Janet went back into acting with the era-defining John Singleton movie Poetic Justice, in which she played a Nuyorican-style poetess-slash-love interest for the incredibly fly Tupac and his godforsakenly fine abdominals. (RIP Pac.) Of course she needed a natural look—the film dovetailed with the ’90s African pride movement, in which everyone and their Native Tongues wore a leather necklace depicting the mother continent—so she went with long box braids and a floppy newsboy cap. Translated to the street, it was the same deal—baggy Girbaud jeans, boots (usually Doc Martens, aka “the Jodeci boot”), the everloving giant silver belt, and a baby tee, looking like she just stepped off the pages of Sassy magazine. (Bonus points to the woman behind her in the long floral grunge dress and paparazzi side-eye.)

Janet Jackson in 1992.
Photo: Getty Images

Remember Janet the Sex Symbol? Though she has remained loyal to her signature menswear over the years, when she’s got to gussy up, she takes no prisoners. This gorgeous bias-cut gown at the 2002 Essence Awards is the first example of her wearing gleaming white on the red carpet, and she’s done it ever since. She knows it looks gorgeous with her skin tone, and it’s a nice, formal contrast to her usual uniform of black on black on black (on brown).

Janet Jackson in 2002.
Photo: Getty Images

OOPS, except for when she’s wearing designs by her lifelong friend, Alexander McQueen. (RIP, Lee.) He was the first person to ever invite her to a fashion show in the late 1990s (if the lateness of that timeline seems unusual, recall that back then, runway shows were not the celebrity-pocked s**tshows they are now—the only people who usually attended were fashion editors and buyers). He dressed her through the years, and even got her out of her neutral hues and into this stunning, gradient kimono dress, which she wore to the opening of his Los Angeles retailer in 2008.

Janet Jackson in 2008.
Photo: Getty Images

Janet’s a fashion icon in part because she’s kept it consistent, and made certain styles her own. In 2008, on the “Rock Witchu” tour with Nelly, she kept to her military theme, but updated it for the new Millennium. Beyonce may cop custom, extra-padded Stuart Weitzmans to accommodate all the dancing in her performances, but Janet ain’t got time for all that. Stuart Weitzman, meet Jacob Bloch. No fronting, just a silvery Tin Man dance shoe and a bodysuit that looks like she just ejected herself from a space carrier on Planet Philip K. Dick. (Why didn’t anyone wear this costume to the Met Ball?) The most touching part of this outfit, and the entirety of her fashion archive, is that even after getting away from the matchy-matchy costumes of her brothers, she still hewed close to the style of her brother Michael. They both loved military, menswear, and the color black—and the best example of this is their unforgettable “Scream” video, which cost $7 million to make, at least some of which was spent on matching nubby sweaters and patent leather pants. Its scenes were replicated in videos by everyone from TLC to Missy Elliott to Madonna, underscoring America’s fundamental truth: everybody in pop really just wants to be a Jackson.

Michael and Janet Jackson in ’Scream’ in 1995.
Photo: Courtesy of SONY Music



* Omitting, of course, that one incident at Super Bowl XXXVIII’s halftime show because, well, sartorially, big whoop.

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