Illustrations: Rihanna’s Style Evolution By Shane Ballard

Rihanna was once one pop princess among many, but she’s now evolved into a true diva and style icon. Like predecessors such as Beyonce and Madonna, Rihanna has mastered the art of transformation, cultivating multiple public images that enhance her celebrity mystique. With the release of her book Rihanna: Last Girl On Earth in October, a heavily played new album and regular cover girl status in top international glossies, it’s clear that this superstar chameleon is an essential part of the current cultural zeitgeist.

A living example of art imitating life—or rather, fashion imitating life—Rihanna set major style trends in 2009 with her album Rated R, which chronicled her rebellious recovery from a year marred by violence and media scrutiny. She inspired an edgy new aesthetic for women around the globe with black, cropped hair and smokey eyes, while also channeling the aggressive bravado of Grace Jones in military gear, chainmail and bondage wear. These defiant looks were strong, proclaiming a defensive reflection of her battle with the fame monster as well as her own inner demons.

Rihanna has reinvented herself most recently as a phoenix rising from the ashes with long, fiery ringlets. She’s replaced severe silhouettes by Victor & Rolf and dangerous, spike-embellished bustiers from The Blondes with more lady-like looks from Stella McCartney and luxury knits from Missoni. This look is more West Indian dance hall vixen-meets-glamorous Vargas pin-up, and marks a refreshing departure from the queen of darkness she’d seemingly become.

“Only Girl In The World,” the video for the first single off her recent album Loud, is an optimistic, technicolor dream. In it, Rihanna demands that her lover treat her like “the only one that he’ll ever love.” She plays seductively in a field of poppies, her crimson bombshell locks complemented by tulle hair accessories, boudoir corsetry, frothy ballerina skirts and thigh-high hosiery reminiscent of ’80s-era Madonna. Meanwhile, she’s showed her sultrier side in boy shorts and cardigans with playful, vibrant graphics in the video for her second single “What’s My Name” as well as during a recent performance on Saturday Night Live. The combination of extreme pattern and color could easily be described as “loud.”

Rihanna has freed herself from the sartorial armor she chose as protection from the first media onslaught of her career, and is now exposing her more vulnerable and feminine side. Don’t be surprised if you see any girls on the street donning shockingly bright red hair in the year ahead—they, too, just want to feel like the only girl in the world.

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