Growing up as an Indian girl in the Midwest, I had few South Asian idols in fashion and music to look up to. So as soon as M.I.A's debut album, Arular, dropped in 2005, she instantly became my all-time hero. The "Bad Girls" star appeared on the scene as a strong Sri Lankan woman who sampled songs sung in Tamil (my native tongue) and whose take on pop was shot through with the political and the personal. She also wasn't afraid to throw a cheap tracksuit top over a pair of sheeny leggings while doing her own approximation of boggling against the backdrop of animated spray painted stencil art. (Check the video for "Galang" for evidence.)
Over the past eight years, her outfits have remained as loud as her songs: the clashing prints and bright colors echo her mash-ups of Sanskrit prayers with 505 beats. Fashion has been a huge part of her brand and lifestyle, and in 2008, she released a clothing line through her website filled with digitized tribal prints and brightly colored lamé. Since then she's caught the attention of lots of designers: she's DJed and modeled for Marc Jacobs, served as a muse for Donatella Versace, and most recently created a really sick mixtape for the Kenzo Fall/Winter 2013 show at Paris Fashion Week. There's been some hit and miss efforts over the years, but who wants vanilla? Here's a choice selection of M.I.A's more fashion forward (read: cray) moments.
Here's M.I.A. in 2008 sporting a blue wig and bodycon silver lamé top from her own line. As if the print was not enough of a statement by itself, she accessorized with a patterned military hat for good measure. Some people say when they get dressed in the morning they like to imagine themselves as a character. Here I can only assume M.I.A. is channeling a Manga-drawn aerobics instructor who gave it all up to time travel back to the golden summer of nu-rave (2006). Sure.
Juergen Teller photographed M.I.A. for Marc Jacobs' Spring/Summer 2008 line. Although I love all three parties involved, this collaboration just did not jive. M.I.A. ended up looking drab and down with the flu, but it's those ill-tailored trousers that are unforgivable. I'm all about menswear for women, but it has to at least fit properly.
I don't think anyone who watched the Grammys in 2009 will ever forget M.I.A. performing "Swagga Like Us," on her due date, with Jay-Z, Kanye West, T.I., and Lil Wayne. Homegirl practically gave birth to Benjamin Bronfman's son as soon as she got off the stage (it was a few days later, but still). Henry Holland made sure his polka dot patches landed on her four largest physical assets at the time: her boobs, butt and tum. It's a celebration of the fecund female form that will forever remain etched in our memories.
Performing at a Creators Project event in 2010, M.I.A. sported hair last seen on Rainbow Brite's pony, paired with a camo jacket. Somehow she manages to make over-saturated and garish a weird kind of chic. P.S. Tank Girl called and she wants her shades back.
M.I.A. succeeded in having the most elaborate costume at the Super Bowl in 2010, despite the fact that it was actually Madonna's (never-ending) moment in the spotlight and she was competing for screen time with a gladiatorial cheerleader in a bustier (Nicki Minaj). M.I.A's gold chain crown coupled with a studded leather harness and a neatly situated giant M definitely caught the crowd's attention. Oh, and she also flipped everyone off on national television. There was that.
Here's M.I.A. attending the Versace Fall 2011 presentation. Matching your tangerine clutch with your heels? That's a Fashion 101 faux pas. Also this mitred parakeet is pretty bummed that she's now bald. To be real, I kind of had a hard time distinguishing M.I.A. from Donatella Versace…
"Bad Girls" was easily one of the greatest music videos of last year, and the styling really added to its impact. The amalgamation of Western and Middle Eastern style has always been M.I.A's defining motif and it's applied here, en masse, to her female drifting and drag-racing posse.
In December, M.I.A. appeared on the cover of French magazine Jalouse. Photographed by Romain Gavras—director of "Bad Girls" and "Born Free"—the spread shows her in a more sophisticated light. Resplendent in salmon, gold, and green, M.I.A. looks practically regal.
Wearing a mish-mash of colors, patterns and textures, the 37-year-old singer really hit her stride at the Kenzo show during this year's Paris Fashion Week. This shouldn't work, but nonchalantly resting on that hood, she is werkin' it. Polished, but still unmistakably M.I.A.
My favorite thing about M.I.A. is that despite being so popular in the western world, she hasn't become completely Westernized herself. A lot of people in South Asia are obsessed with the idea of being fair-skinned and mimicking Europeans and Americans, but M.I.A. holds tight to both her Tamil roots and her latter-day London upbringing. Not only is her culture visible in her style, but we hear Tamil and Sanskrit songs mixed in with her own tunes. Represent.
Shriya Samavai dressed up as M.I.A. for two consecutive Halloweens. Follow her on Twitter - @shriekeliene.
Style Stage is an ongoing partnership between Noisey & Garnier Fructis celebrating music, hair, and style.