Ariana Grande is frequently compared to young Mariah Carey for her vocal and emotional range, but that's not where the similarities end. Both Carey's debut, Emotions, and Grande's latest, My Everything, depict the vocalists in whimsical generational repose, Carey mid-flip and Grande in reflective-selfie stance, each wearing the look of the day — body-con dress, bralette and hotpants. Early '90s style resurgence aside, they have a spiritual and sartorial symmetry in which 21-year-old Grande reflects the vigor of a then-21-year-old Carey. She is making a name for herself as a strong contender with a long future ahead of her, and someone whose talent is a cut above many of her established peers.
Style is more important today in pop music than it was even in 1991, when Carey dropped Emotions, but like the Elusive Chanteuse did back then, Grande is subverting it with cute, comfortable, and on-trend dresses with a feminine slant. In short, these are looks meant to build confidence, rather than an outrageous brand. Grande knows, as Carey knew, that she's got the talent to let their vocals do the talking.
Many fashion magazines talk about "dressing for one's age," differentiating between what women in their 30s should wear compared to women in their 60s or 20s. It's an ageist dictum that adheres to the concept that fashion has steadfast rules, antithetical to the elements of style. Still, Grande is often described as someone who wears "age appropriate" looks, the inherent judgment beneath it being that all the other 21-year-olds who have grown up in the public eye — Miley Cyrus, for one — are trashy hussies compared to Grande's pristine princess. It also goes along with the insistent portrayal of Grande as doe-eyed pop innocent, a detriment to all young women in the business.
So what do these naysayers do when My Everything positions Grande as an artist who's ready to "break free," complete with press photos in Lolita thigh-high stockings and stilettos? Why must binaries constantly be applied to the sartorial choices of under-25s in popular music? Why does more skin often equal amorality? Can everyone yet these young women live?
Nevertheless, Grande hasn't been straying too far from the look she solidified over her last album cycle, once she started coiffing the high ponytail, crafted with her much-maligned extensions. She is feminine, flirty, often sleek and chic depending on the event. Onstage, she's been consistent with fall 2014 trends from lines like Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton, wearing slick knee-high go-go boots and mod minis to match her pony. It's fun but not cartoonish, less Austin Powers than That Girl, plus it suits Grande's body type — short skirts and crop tops elongate her frame, and lighten the sometimes-serious business of burgeoning pop stardom.
On the red carpet at the VMAs this past week, Grande stunted in all-leather Moschino with Tom Ford stiletto boots, vamping coyly like the Bond girl she alluded to in her performance. At the Much Music Video Awards in June, she showed up in one of her best looks of her new mod avenue: a glimmering bandeau top and a-line skirt in matching mermaid sequins, silver for the star she's become. No label on that look as of yet, though last year tabloids alleged that Grande's stylist, Brigitte Pilla, sometimes picks up her stage costumes in sex shops, which seemed not to bother Grande as much as it did the fishwrap that reported it. (Never mind that any self-respecting outrageous dresser and/or sequin aficionado will tell you that sex shops often have the best flashy separates, which look great paired with toned-down basics. Little tip!) Pilla also custom-designs lots of Grande's looks, including her outstanding black-and-white A-line dress at this year's Billboard Music Awards, with matching boots — very Spring 2013 Vuitton but less stoic in a shiny material that could be some kind of reinforced patent latex.
It's custom for a young pop star to change her look, and in the years since Grande has become a woman, it's only natural that she'd explore different parts of her style — particularly since she spent so much of her youth on Nickelodeon's Victorious with an OD Brenda Starr dyejob (talk about looking your age… the fastest way to accelerate your path to being a 35-year-old woman from the midwest is to plop burgundy hair on an olive-skinned girl. Sorry, Ariana!). On red carpets and on the street, she opts for simplicity, often in monochrome dresses and pumps or wedge sneakers. The hair, much more suitable in a slight natural ombre, tends to do the talking. After a decade of high-concept food looks (Katy Perry), cultural appropriation (Perry again), and meat dresses (you know who), it's somewhat soothing to see a pop star whose style is so laid-back, not quite classic (Taylor Swift) nor a total off-carpet cipher (sorry Lana). Everyone should stop worrying about dressing for one's age, and instead focus on dressing for one's personality. In Grande's case, it's clear that means total confidence.