Rihanna’s ‘Bazaar’ Arabia Cover Is the Swarovski Dress’s Equal, Not Its Opposite

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World-renowned soccer authority Twitter troll Rihanna’s latest glossy cover is out. It’s not for Vogue, which is currently busy calling out the scourge of lady-centric Facebook groups, or even fellow usual suspects Elle or Vanity Fair. Posted to social media last night, the Ruven Afanador shots are for Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, the Middle Eastern offshoot of a magazine that’s recently taken some flak for continuing to employ Terry Richardson. Given that the cover advertises “Rihanna of Arabia” as a guide to “The New Modesty: Cover Up in Style,” it’s not too surprising that the most revealing outfit in the shoot is the thigh-length Dolce & Gabbana dress Rih’s wearing on the cover.

In a quick soundbite from the standard-issue “behind the scenes” video, Rihanna says she was gunning for “something high fashion, but still something traditional.” Hence the mesh veil on the cover, the sequined headscarf that’s built into a long-sleeved, head-to-toe dress, and the fringe-y piece of face jewelry Rihanna accurately captioned “!!!” The Middle Eastern (and West African, including the head wrap from this shot) influences don’t appear to be par for the course at the magazine, nor does the “new modesty” of the clothes; Naomie Harris’ shoot from February is a standard-issue celebrity spread, as is Alessandra Ambrosio’s cover released a few months later.

Anyway, the immediate reaction to the Bazaar Arabia cover has mostly been to contrast the head-to-toe looks with Rihanna’s previous sartorial choices, which add up to an aesthetic best described as “I don’t give a fuck” chic. The most obvious example is the Swarovski-and-that’s-it gown the pop star wore to the CFDA Awards earlier this month (repeat after me: “She can beat me, but she can’t beat my outfit!”), though the doobie wrap she wore to the American Music Awards last year was arguably a bigger middle finger to red carpet conventions.

A quick read through some write-ups of the shoot reveals a general consensus: that the singer, according to the ever-tactful Daily Mail, “finally cover[ed] up” to pose “as she has never been seen before — clothed.” Then there’s the Huffington Post: “Unlike her sexy Instagram pics [RIP @badgirlriri]… this cover, shot by Ruven Afanador, has Rihanna completely covered up.” And MTV: “While we’re familiar with Rihanna in full-body sequins, they’re typically more, IDK, see-through.” Rihanna=skimpy; if it isn’t skimpy, it’s not Rihanna.

But what strikes me about the Bazaar Arabia shoot isn’t its departure from the guiding ethos that put barely covered boobs and Anna Wintour in the same camera frame. Rather, it’s that the shoot’s styling feels uniquely Rihanna despite its modesty theme, a constraint that past BazaarArabia issues prove was self-imposed or at least voluntary. Nowhere does this come across more than in the all-black, all-sequins getup at the top of the post, which is simultaneously the spread’s least revealing and most provocative shot. The tongue-in-cheek play on modesty, accommodating and subverting its mandates all at once, is as consistent an application of Rihanna’s irreverence as one can get.

Reducing Rihanna’s fashion sense to revealing clothes and nothing else oversimplifies, not to mention discredits, her proven ability to embrace fashion even as she blatantly disregards its unspoken rules. Wearing a dress that practically wasn’t a dress to a Vogue event is a stellar example, of course, but so was the aforementioned doobie wrap, which broadcasted how Over It Rihanna was through what she did wear, not what she didn’t. Ditto wearing a T-shirt that says CUNTLIFE like it’s just another American Apparel V-neck.

The Internet’s right to freak out about the Bazaar Arabia shots — I first found out about them when a friend reposted the spread with the caption, “I CAN’T BREATHE” — but not because they represent a radical break from Rihanna’s fashion persona. Over the years, Rihanna’s done a better job of dressing-as-image-building than virtually any other arena-level pop star. And the persona she’s created isn’t one to commit to anything, let alone a modesty-themed fashion spread, without leaving her mark.