The Queer Legacy Behind Chappell Roan’s Fashion Choices

Chappell Roan

Photo by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images

In the early 1980s, New Romanticism was sweeping the globe. A flamboyant style previously exclusive to androgynous clubbers, this gothic glamour had now reached the summit of MTV, with pop stars decking themselves out in big bows, vampire makeup, and punk pageantry on both sides of the Atlantic. As with many trends, though, appetites soon soured as the style became over-commercialised and, by the end of the decade, New Romanticism had been dumped in the fashion graveyard next to shoulder pads and rolodexes. That was until recently, when it was predicted a revival by Dazed Magazine.

Thanks to the Girlhood aesthetic devouring every other trend in its wake, the weathervane of fashion forecasts is currently predicting a rise in “bold colours like Barbie pink, Regencycore corsets, over-the-top bows, and romantic trims,” all of which mimic New Romanticism, utilising historical references as well as hyper-femininity and exaggeration (the 80s would have loved the word yassified).

While the recent bow stacking trend is heavily reminiscent of looks from icons of that era like Strawberry Switchblade and Boy George, Girlhood differs from its predecessor by being — as it stands — largely conformist. The New Romantics, by contrast (having been in utero during the glam rock era) were always genre and gender-bending. Formed out of David Bowie-themed club nights (where Boy George ran the cloakroom dressed as a nun), this scene created bands like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran who then took to the world stage in full makeup and frills. In a movement that also saw the likes of Annie Lennox and Grace Jones sporting haircuts as sharp as their suits, individuality and playful gender expression were always the heart and soul.

Whatever lies on the fashion horizon, a figurehead matching this heart and soul might already have arrived in the form of Chappell Roan. Known for her queer pop anthems as much as for her drag-inspired looks, this past year has seen the musician evolve her style with a decidedly 80s twang. Now adorning herself in ribbons, lace, and heavy neon makeup that juts out to her eyebrows, it seems the synth-songstress is ready to hatch from her New Romantic egg.

Previously decked out in western gear in shades of alien-goo green or Pepto Bismol pink, this year has seen Roan instead favouring the gothic monochrome and soft pastels of vintage Vivienne Westwood, luminous prom frocks and Lady Di-style meringue wedding dresses, each paired with hair in perm-style ringlets or electrified crimps. Considering how heavily her debut album references 80s synth pop, perhaps it isn’t surprising this influence has bled into her appearance. These, however, aren’t generic looks of the era.

Where it hits the capital ‘R’ Romantic note is the congealing of 80s references with the 18th century. Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Pirate’ collection was key to shaping the historical references that gave the New Romantics their name (and flouncy shirts), with many enjoying the playfulness and decadence that came from borrowing wardrobe from yesteryear, whether it be in the style of buccaneers, Bonnie Prince Charlie, or 1930s cabaret.

Now a melting pot of corsets, ruffs, pannier hoop skirts, medieval headdresses, and epaulettes, Roan’s looks are often seen alongside (what is becoming a more and more common component of her look) a startlingly white-painted face, like a goth Elizabeth I. Recalling the visage of clowns and vampires as well as 16th century nobility, white stage makeup has been described by makeup artist Julian Stoller as the “perfect example” of New Romantic style because it “marries circus with glamour.”

Despite the movement’s eventual entwining with New Wave music, it was this cabaret-meets-regency look that was the driving force behind the New Romantics. Decadence was key to reviving a jaundiced Britain burnt out by riots and rubbish in the Winter of Discontent. Nicknamed “peacock punk” for a reason, the movement was also born out of disillusionment with a punk scene that had become increasingly violent and homophobic. Here, flamboyance was a weapon.

Having spoken frequently about her Bible Belt upbringing and suppressed queer sexuality, Roan also describes her exaggerated look as reactionary, saying “because I was not allowed to express that kind of showmanship in Missouri where I’m from, the pendulum has swung so far the other way”, which makes this particular style an interesting reference for her.

In both cases, frills have been used not only as battle armour, but as a vehicle to create community. “Futuristic space cadet, ghostly silver screen siren, big-quiffed alien, yesteryear Hollywood drag icon, camped-up leather biker, [and] swashbuckling peacock” are descriptions of the heartland of the New Romantics — the Blitz club, Billy’s and the Kings Road in London — at their prime, but could just as easily be a portrait of a Chappell concert on any given night. Flanked by drag queen opening acts, Roan builds a bejewelled and collaged crowd through selected dress-up themes for each show, inspiring an array of slumber party cowgirls and aliens in bondage gear. The result, Roan says, is that “the show is not only on stage, it’s also in line, at the merch table, next to you, [in the] front row. It just builds such community. I love it so much.”

At a time where record numbers of young people are identifying as queer, we are concurrently seeing a wave of anti-LGBT+ laws that seem frighteningly similar to those of the 80s. And much as it was then, our economic and political state are as dreary as a bowl of mushed up Weetabix. All of which indicate that this community, this freedom and fantasy, are more needed than ever.

And maybe they’re already here. Yes, in the emulated white visages of Roan fans, but also in Pat McGrath’s viral porcelain makeup looks, the plethora of lace and bloomers found on runways and Tiktoks and even the gothic corsets favoured by The Last Dinner Party. So, as the cogs of the trend cycle turn once more, are we ready for something New?

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Freya Robinson

Freya Robinson is culture writer and the 2004 champion of a longest runner bean competition. She likes bad Halloween makeup, coats and being published in magazines. You can find her work in The Rally, Lithium, and Ramona Magazine among others, or find her personally, horsing around on Instagram @tigerlilyrob.

Freya has written 1 article for us.

2 Comments

  1. Would love to have more capital-F Fashion and beauty writing like this on the site! I was exposed to the New Romantics in English Lit classes growing up and I’ve always had a soft spot for these aesthetics. This was a fun read.

  2. Interesting article, thank you.

    My question is seperate, but this post brings it up – I have been wondering about what is the reason behind the dearth of images on AutoS’s articles. An article like this could have had at least a dozen images showing examples of what it’s talking about. Most of the time when you’re on the homepage, the image headers you see for the articles don’t even appear in those articles. There’s an exception for advertising posts and posts filled with twitter/instagram links – but in general, things that could benefit from images, like this post, or a tv recap, are very bare.

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