nothing compares to sinéad o'connor's early 90s style
In 1990, Sinéad O'Connor headlined Glastonbury wearing a leather jacket, a “Fat Slags” tee tucked into her jeans, and round sunglasses. It's Noah Johnson's favorite look from the Irish superstar, but he'll never attempt to recreate it.
Photography Mick Hutson via Getty Images
Our favorite writers muse on their muses as we bring back the "My i-Con" essay series for the third year in a row.
I can’t think of any rules of style that are worth a damn, but if you put a gun to my head I’d say: be original, be yourself, and never wear a costume. Other rules are too hard to follow, too expensive, or just too stupid.
How I know this to be true: The best style icons — from Keith Richards to Kurt Cobain, Edie Sedgwick to Tilda Swinton — remind us that style comes entirely from within. It is like a fortifying secretion, one that only your body can produce, from a small gland tucked deep inside of your gut. Try as you might, there’s no way to fake it. It can’t be bought, borrowed, or stolen, and in fact the only sure way to blow it entirely, is to try to copy it from someone else. Other people’s style is toxic to your system. You can’t support it and it will eventually ruin you. Which is why the best style icons don’t necessarily have anything to do with you or your look. They are a notion, not a template.
I will never attempt to dress like Sinéad O’Connor circa 1990-1991. I could try. Shaved head, black leather jacket, washed-out jeans, teashades. It’s a solid look. And it wouldn’t be so unusual. I’d look maybe a bit like Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers, if I were lucky. But it would be deadly.
Sinéad is as great a style icon as we’ve seen in the past 30 years. Her style is graceful, unadorned, ethereal, free of extraneous effort. She’s the example for understated style that makes an outsized impact, style that’s a distinct and memorable thing without being a thing. Sinéad wasn’t interested in being a star of the fashion scene during those years when she first broke out with her mighty voice, buzzed head, and that Prince cover, but she has absolutely influenced it since. We don’t talk about normcore anymore, but she is the patron saint of high-waisted jeans, tucked-in tees, and black lace-up boots. Every 90s revival moodboard — and surely there are many looming in design studios right now, each one more vile than the last — ought to be replaced with a shrine to Sinéad.
I was just a kid at the start of the 90s, finding my way with the help of a few embarrassingly obvious punk, grunge, and hip-hop CDs. Sinéad’s first album — a near masterpiece called I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got — wasn’t in the rotation, but I still remember seeing her bushy eyebrows and floating head in the stark video for “Nothing Compares 2U” for the first time. I remember the outrage when she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live as a protest against child abuse in the Catholic church. And her boycott of the Grammy Awards because of the music industry’s "false and destructive materialistic values.” It was then that I realized she was more punk as any of my idols. I was in awe, not just of her startling beauty, but of her fearlessness. If there was one thing about someone’s style worth replicating, it would be only that.
My favorite image of Sinéad is from the Glastonbury Music Festival in 1990. She’s wearing a black leather perfecto with the sleeves pushed up, a “Fat Slags” tee tucked into her jeans, and round sunglasses. “The Fat Slags” was a raunchy British comic strip that debuted in 1989 featuring Sandra Burke and Tracey Tunstall, a couple of corpulent hedonists who were constantly getting tanked, eating copious amounts of chips, and screwing random men. Sinéad has said in interviews that she shaved her head because record executives were pressuring her to appear sexier and more feminine. They wanted her to wear miniskirts. “I didn’t want to be sold on that,” she said. “If I was going to be successful, I wanted it to be because I was a good musician.” So she fashioned an exterior for herself that was a more honest representation of her interior. The result was, of course, far more powerful than what convention would have dictated.
Style icons are important. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a new drop of Kanye, Shia, or Jonah pap shots to hit the wires right now. My Getty Images search history is all Christian Slater, Winona Ryder, Harry Dean Stanton, and others, sorted oldest to newest. There’s a painting on my desk of Sinéad by the artist Steve Keene that I got because of her style (and because Keene painted the cover of my favorite Pavement album). But I don’t want to dress like her, or anyone else. She reminds me to dress like me. That’s what makes her a style icon to begin with. Nothing, you might say, compares to you, or me, or Sinéad.