By Amanda Dupell
Photographed by Jill Kliger
This article has been adapted for the web from our Intimacy Issue.
Throughout the generations, we have seen the rise of sex symbols in women’s fashion. The term “sex symbol” was popularized in the mid-1950’s through Marilyn Monroe’s lifestyle and legacy. Although many came before her, she is regarded as the most well-known sex icon in history. But what makes her one? A sex symbol is someone in popular culture that is regarded as sexy, alluring and charming. They sell sex through both their looks and personality. While there are many modern celebrities who fit this description, Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty has gone beyond the standards of a typical sex symbol by using her reputation as a platform for creating successful fashion and makeup lines and even participating in social activism.
Rihanna rose to fame in 2006 when she released her second music album, A Girl Like Me, that included famous singles such as “Pon de Replay” and “SOS.” The album reached the top ten of US Billboard’s Top 100, and Rihanna’s career has been on the rise ever since. Throughout her career, she has been nominated for 653 awards in various categories including fashion, beauty, and music--and has won 166. She was also named the “Sexiest Woman Alive” by Esquire Magazine in 2011. All of these awards are not the only reasons that Rihanna is regarded as a modern sex symbol; her personal style, successful apparel line, and personality contribute to her reputation.
The saying, “It’s not sexy until Rihanna wears it” appeared in a viral tweet late last year and is a testament to Rihanna’s ability to transform a simple look into one that radiates sex appeal. This can be said for several of her outfits—the most famous being her transformation of the sheer turquoise dress in DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” music video. Rihanna amps up the outfit by letting the fabric fall off of her shoulders, exposing her collarbones and chest. Her red lipstick and bold green eye shadow add a bewitching effect to the look, as does her lightly tousled, loosely curled hair. Another famous Rihanna outfit was at the CFDA awards show, when she wore the iconic Adam Selman all-Swarovski crystal, see-through dress. This outfit can be analyzed in many different ways, from the diamond do-rag and sparkling gloves to the fur shawl and smokey eye makeup. Regarded as one of her most daring red carpet outfits, Rihanna simply tweeted that she took the risk of wearing the dress because “I took advantage of my titties before they go south. I saw my window, and I took it.”
Growing up, Rihanna was always a fan of fashion and style. “I grew up on a really small island, and I didn’t have a lot of access to fashion,” she said in an acceptance speech during the CFDA awards show. “But as far as I can remember, fashion has always been my defense mechanism. Even as a child, I remember thinking ‘She can beat me, but she cannot beat my outfit.’” Rihanna went on to say in her speech that what she loves most about style is the ability to see a person’s attitude in their look. In terms of her own fashion sense, she said, “I just have fun with it. Fashion is fun.” Her casual philosophy on trendsetting adds to her overall charming reputation as a sex icon. In 2016, Rihanna released the Fenty x Puma clothing and shoe line. In an interview with Vogue, she described the line as “super regal and a perfect mix of street and sportswear.” It features various textures of cloth: soft velvet, silk, fishnet and leather. The pop singer is known for her dangerous looks and risk-taking tendencies, so it’s no surprise that her collection features looks that test the bounds of fashion trends. Fenty x Puma encourages wearers to feel confident in what they wear, and to feel sexy even in a pair of fashionable sweats.
Undeniably, Rihanna’s alluring style and personality are able to captivate an audience’s attention. However, Rihanna does not feel like her image is one that simply sells sex. In an interview with Oprah, Rihanna mentioned how little she thinks about herself as a sex icon. “That’s not my goal, it’s not my label,” she said. After being named the “Sexiest Woman Alive” in 2011, she said that the title was flattering, but not accurate or an accomplishment. Outside of the pop culture world, she views herself as a normal human being trying to help make a change in any way she can. Last year, she was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year award by Harvard University. In her acceptance speech, Rihanna outlined the importance of aiding those less fortunate than ourselves. “Anyone can be a humanitarian,” she said. “You don’t need to be famous or rich.” Through her Fenty makeup line, she established herself as a leader in diversity by including foundation and concealer tones for all ranges of skin color. Her clothing line advocates self-confidence by combining comfort and sexiness for a variety of body types. In the music and fashion industry, Rihanna is regarded as one of the biggest sex symbols of our time. While her confidence, poise and character emulate sex appeal, her influence on pop culture has deeper roots that make her more than just someone who enthralls millions with her looks.