Janelle Monae performing in February 2009FLICKR / MARK J. SEBASTIAN (https://www.flickr.com/photos/markjsebastian/4591433318)

Over the years, I’ve had fashion heroes come and go, reflected in the development of my personal style as it has ebbed and flowed. One icon, however, has been a musical, aesthetic and political constant in my life: Janelle Monáe. I first encountered Monáe’s music at the age of 11, when my Dad downloaded their seminal album, ‘The ArchAndroid’, onto my iPod Nano. The image of Monáe on the album cover, paying homage to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the gilded aesthetic of the 1920s, was revered in my mind’s eye for several years. (Evidence of my love for Monáe? I somehow wrangled this album cover into a supervision essay to evidence the Weimar Republic’s cultural impact.)

“Just like their music, Monáe’s fashion reminds me of the fundamental values of self-love and celebration”

Monáe quickly gained significance in my life, as new concept albums and acting roles soon followed. Most recently, they published The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories From Dirty Computer, an anthology of passionate sci-fi short stories, which focus on “celebrating queerness” and acknowledging “how beautiful it is for people to stand up for you even if they don’t identify the same way as you.”

Monáe’s music has formed a consistent soundtrack to my life; their art is emotional and fortifying, forever entrenched in my musical muscle-memory. The video for ‘Cold War’ is dominated by Monáe’s raw emotion—when I listen to it now, I am reminded of the welcoming communities I have discovered since coming to university.

Just like their music, Monáe’s fashion reminds me of the fundamental values of self-love and celebration. Their innovative and elusive fashion choices encourage their fans to explore their own multi-faceted human natures. Earlier this year, Monáe confirmed that they are non-binary, sharing: “I don’t see myself as a woman, solely. I feel all of my energy.” Monáe has not only been a fashion inspiration, but a role model for me, especially when grappling with my own sexuality and gender identity. Over a decade since the release of ‘The ArchAndroid’, Monáe’s role in my life has transcended music, setting an example I believe we should all follow: “When I see people, I see your energy first—I don’t see how you identify.”

“They refuse to adapt their image or essence to be more palatable for the the cis-heteronormative fashion world”

Monáe’s trademark look is a slick tuxedo, frequently designed by long-time collaborator Ralph Lauren, as demonstrated in the concept video for ‘Many Moons’. They have referenced the ‘deep connection’ they feel with their family’s working-class background, considering the tuxedo as an emblematic homage to their parents’ monochrome uniforms. But the tux isn’t the only way Monáe harnesses fashion to challenge gender norms. To me, the ruffled pink Duran Lantink designs in the music video for ‘Pynk’ represent Monáe’s significance as an icon of inclusivity, highlighting the messages of acceptance and diversity in their music which have helped me to navigate my own identity as an asexual queer person. Monáe emphasised at the time how some women in the video do not wear the so-called ‘vagina trousers’, because “I don’t believe that all women need to possess a vagina to be a woman.”


Mountain View

Style lessons from Tim Burton

This exemplifies the strength of Monáe’s style—its fluidity. They shift from boxy, masculine-coded tuxedos to sleek ball gown silhouettes; sometimes combining both. They refuse to adapt their image or essence to be more palatable for the cis-heteronormative fashion world. I’d need a whole other article to unpack ‘gender non-conforming’ fashion, but following the example of icons like Prince and David Bowie, I believe that Monáe is one of the most authentic and joyous representations of this binary-breaking approach to styling.

To conclude my humble celebration of Janelle Monáe, I have narrowed down my five favourite looks, and invite you to listen to their music if you haven’t yet had the chance.

1. The Grammy Awards, 2018

Wearing a floral Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo.

2. Oscars Afterparty, 2018

This Christian Siriano ensemble effortlessly blends a monochrome tux with a bold red gown, foreshadowing the important role of the crimson hue in the costumes for Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer’ tour.

3. BET Awards, 2018

Monáe celebrated their queer identity wearing a Nicolas Jebran gown.

4. The ‘Make Me Feel’ music video

The ‘Make Me Feel’ music video is a visual feast—take this immaculate ensemble of sequined headpiece, top, trousers and boots, accompanied with a matching guitar strap.

5. The Oscars 2020

Last but not least, wearing Ralph Lauren at the 2020 Oscars, featuring 168,000 Swarovski crystals and produced through over 600 hours of hand embroidery.