Photograph via Getty Images.

Rihanna Is the Ultimate Anime Style Icon—Or Is She?

As fans connect her look to classic anime styles, we look at whether the influence is really there.

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Jun 8 2018, 1:33pm

Photograph via Getty Images.

Once relegated to the fringes of pop culture, anime has become a new frontier for establishing your coolness. Kim Kardashian embraced pink hair (and dropped a specific inspiration on her Instagram) for a trip to Japan, John Boyega touted his anime fan credentials in a Reddit AMA, and Twitter users rifled up Michael B. Jordan’s old tweets about anime, which the Black Panther star then openly affirmed.

But before any of these public figures seemingly “brought” anime’s appeal into the social discourse, and while other famous folks (notably Kanye West) have been vocal about their appreciation for anime before, there’s one celebrity whose look has quietly shown anime influences for years now. I’m speaking, of course, about Rihanna. Yes, Met Gala-co-chairing, lingerie-launching, Ocean’s 8 ensemble member Rihanna.

While watching the 2011 anime Hunter x Hunter last summer, I came across the character Canary and immediately did a double take. From her hairstyle to her outfit, Canary came across as a near perfect doppelganger for Rihanna’s Anti album tour promo.

This didn’t go unnoticed at the time of her album rollout, but throughout that summer, more and more examples of Rihanna’s anime-like style started circulating on social media. There was her delicate, ballerina-esque Valerian red carpet look, which was neatly compared to a style from the magical girl series Cardcaptor Sakura. When Rihanna unveiled her Crop Over Festival look that August, multiple people compared her teal wig and bold aesthetic to Sailor Moon’s glamorous Sailor Neptune. (More of a stretch: a connection between her recent motocross-themed Fenty collection and Sailor Uranus’s canonical motorcycle racing.) And that sheer nightgown she wore to a Vogue Paris party? Pretty damn reminiscent of Princess Serenity’s pale pink gown. In my own research, I stumbled across a since-deleted Tumblr post which linked a few Rihanna looks, including Canary, to more characters from Hunter x Hunter.

Though some of these anime or anime-adjacent comparisons are stronger than others, what’s consistent is the seemingly growing speculation about Rihanna’s style choices and the influence of anime style aesthetics. In 2015, Tumblr user @green-glasses drew a mockup of Rihanna as a Pokémon gym leader based on a street style outfit. Though other celebrities have received gym leader fanart (most notably those done by artist Raven White), Rihanna was seemingly the first to garner that “Oh my god, she looks like an anime character” response outside of the anime community. (Here, let’s pointedly elide Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku girls phase.)

What about Rihanna makes her such a natural avatar of anime fashion? Tom Fitzgerald, one half of the style and pop culture site Tom + Lorenzo, draws a line between Rihanna and non-Western fashion, from her Barbadian heritage to her love of “a silhouette of an under-accentuated bust and a really high waist with a really full skirt. That’s straight out of Korean style; that’s like a hanbok.” Cameron Glover, a freelance writer, sex educator, and anime enthusiast, also points to the to-this-day-enviable styles from Sailor Moon as an example of the cycle of influences between mainstream Western fashion and anime: “A lot of [Sailor Moon creator] Naoko [Takeuchi’s] designs were inspired by runway models during the ’90s.” It is not a stretch to connect this back to the fashion world’s overall ‘90s nostalgia—which, naturally, Rihanna also spearheaded.

But that isn’t quite the way that “anime fashion” has been interpreted by the fashion world since, which Folu, who is a dedicated fan of both Rihanna and anime but declines to give more identifying information, articulates as “the exaggerated, often hyperfeminine or masculine thing. There are so many different styles, moods; your Cowboy Bebop and your Food Wars.” Fitzgerald similarly posits that this intentionally nebulous read of “anime style” could apply to any visual subculture: “It’s reached a point where it’s so saturated and so broad and so beyond its origins, that you can look at anything and track it back to an anime style.”

Rihanna inspires a larger awareness of influences; both she and anime have long and broad enough style histories that it’s possible to randomly connect dots. On a whim, I reverse-engineered my own Rih-anime comparison. Red motorcycle jacket, gold hoops, lightwash denim shorts? That could, through an anime lens, scan as Michiko Malandro from Michiko and Hatchin.

Though Fitzgerald is skeptical that Rihanna’s looks are directly drawn from specific anime characters, he acknowledges that she’s become a flashpoint for aesthetic comparisons: “Nothing about [her 2017 Crop Over look] tracks to Sailor Moon except for the hair. That’s a great example of basic Carnival style; many many women wear outfits like this. But because it’s Rihanna, people layers all sorts of meaning over everything she does and whether or not she’s sending out signals or messages.”

Is there any chance that Rihanna consciously mines the anime aesthetic, in any form? Comics journalist Bianca Xunise points out that age-wise, Rihanna was probably exposed to the same nascent anime influences (such as those carried over by Toonami) common to many kids growing up in the ’90s and ’00s: “The connotations of oh, you have to be a certain type of person to appreciate this style of animation and this culture and storytelling, that’s not true anymore. We grew up seeing this on TV; Pokémon came out when I was seven or eight, Sailor Moon in first grade. Maybe in her downtime, Rihanna’s watching anime.” To her, whether or not Rihanna actually consumes anime is less important than the influence and visibility she brings to the fashion stage: “I know she has a stylist, but I’m sure she isn’t just a fashion horse. She’s as involved in what she’s wearing as she’s involved in her sound and her music.”

To that point, for Rihanna style fans who are also anime fans, the comparisons stand strong not just because of that aforementioned growing awareness and appreciation of a once-ostracized community, but because she reads as a black woman who has an unchallenged style autonomy. Xunise’s appreciation for “ghetto-goth Rihanna” stems from her own experience as a black woman drawn to a strong visual subculture: “I always felt like an outsider because I’m not white, I’m not pasty or whatever. People associate blackness as its own thing; like, you can only be black and not anything else.”

Glover co-signs these sentiments, praising the star’s “style chameleon” status: “There’s something so powerful seeing black femininity celebrated in this way. She inspires me to embrace my own black femininity, and including anime in that [conversation] is really cool and really badass.”

She adds that, given anime’s unsavory history with portraying blackness, Rihanna’s race adds a distinct dimension to the comparisons—and makes the celebration of her potential anime style inspiration more genuine than, say, being a white woman and posting a pink-haired cartoon girl on social media. “There’s this protectiveness about anime, because I love it as this thing, like, exploring fan theories on Tumblr. Don’t just ‘do it for the gram.’ But with Rihanna, part of it is that it’s her adapting these things.”

Likely, Rihanna’s apparent anime style lineage has something to do with our cultural moment too. Fitzgerald, who with his husband Lorenzo Marquez has been blogging and dissecting red carpet and street style for over a decade, additionally credits the ascension of Rihanna-anime comparisons to a larger awareness, appreciation, and vocabulary for black fashion: “This is the year where black celebrities were able to get their Afrofuturism on, their sci-fi/fantasy on, in a really big way with Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time. Culturally, we’re seeing the way black celebrities dress in a broader term. It’s easier now in 2018 to see someone like Rihanna and see anime influences. Ten years ago, no one would’ve made that observation about a celebrity of color.”

Is Rihanna’s style going to “normalize” anytime soon? Extremely unlikely; her style cult is strong on social media shrines like @FENTYLOOK. But if she were to casually reveal that she watches the occasional anime series in her downtime, or walk up the Met Gala stairs in something straight out of a magical girl’s closet, no one, least of all the fandom that’s cropped up around the potential and the potency of the idea, should be surprised.