Houston was rarely ever a fashion victim—even though some of these clothes we're showing you, below, may seem pretty out-there in retrospect, remember that she launched her musical career in the mid-1980s, when dress-up pop acts like Culture Club (feat. lead singer, cross-dressing androgynous Boy George), Cyndi Lauper, and even Michael Jackson (in his early days) were all the rage. Houston's styling choices, in comparison, were tame—she wore a lot of monochrome looks in black, white, or red. Her silhouettes were relatively conservative—suits, shoulderpads, prom-dresses, turtlenecks.
Here's my very abridged breakdown of some of Houston's most memorable looks:
1985 - Saving All My Love For You: Whitney Houston put on a stunning red dress to perform her hit single at the Grammys in 1986. I wonder how many girls modeled their prom dresses after Houston's that year?
1985 - The Greatest Love of All: Everybody knew this song in the mid-80s—it was positive, life-affirming, full of hope. We learned this in music class at my elementary school. In the video? Whitney Houston is the ultimate '80s good-girl-with-style in her cropped black moto jacket (a little edgy) and medium gold hoop earrings.
1986 - American Music Awards: Whitney's 1985 album, Whitney Houston, won her seven American Music Awards in 1986 and 1987. Here she is at the 1986 awards show in an oh-so-'80s black-and-teal column dress, complete with giant bow on the shoulder and a rhinestone brooch:
1987 - I Wanna Dance With Somebody: This is sort of the ultimate late-'80s fashion video. Whitney opens the video in a super-conservative grey skirt-suit, then changes to a casual leather bomber-jacket and jeans look. Singing to camera? She's all '80s hypercolor in those candy earrings, multi-hued eyeshadows and purple and orange dresses.
1987 - Portrait: Here she sits for a portrait by photographer Ebet Roberts in a similar look/mood she wears in the I Wanna Dance With Somebody video:
1987 - All At Once: Here's a live performance of her hit song—she's wearing an oversized white suit that's kitted out with gigantic shoulder pads.
And here she is wearing a similarly shoulder-padded outfit in the original official video—shoulderpads and white suits were obviously very big that year:
1988 - At an awards ceremony: This photo was taken in February of 1988, when Michael Jackson was receiving an award in New York City. From left: Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Christie Brinkley. Whitney is wearing what's to become, for a long time, her signature white hat.
1990 - All the Man that I Need: So many of Whitney's earliest videos featured her wearing head-to-toe black—and this video in the early-90s is a sartorial return to her roots. She's wearing a black monogrammed (!) turtleneck, black skinny pants, and black flats. The effect is very classical, very Audrey Hepburn-ish.
1990 - I'm Your Baby Tonight: I hadn't really thought about it until now how Whitney appeared in so many of her music videos looking so casual, but I guess she does. Here she is wearing a super-quintessential early-90s look: a brown leather jacket and jeans. Partway through the video, she changes into a white suit and fedora—which is a signature 90s popstar look—think Madonna in "Vogue," which was released the same year.
1991 - National Anthem at the Super Bowl: Often held up as one of the all-time greatest live performances of the Star-Spangled Banner, Whitney appeared at the 1991 Super Bowl wearing a white headband (sporty!) and a white warm-up suit, which, if you remember the early-90s, was one of the trendiest things ever. I don't consciously remember seeing this performance on television, but I do know that for a good portion of the years 1989 through 1991, myself and many of the other students in my junior high school class wore warm-up suits to school every day. Yeah, the 90s, I have no explanation.
1991 - How Will I Know: Obviously, this video is all about the giant hair bow.
1992 - I Have Nothing: We're getting into 1992, which is The Bodyguard phase of Whitney's career—an amazing, successful, mindblowingly popular phase of Whitney's career. This video cuts clips of the movie together—and, while it is a costume from the film, the Cleopatra-inspired beaded headpiece and jewelry are really stunning—one of the all-time most memorable Whitney Houston looks.
1992 - I Will Always Love You: Obviously, you can't talk about The Bodyguard without mentioning Whitney Houston's remake of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." The video is mostly clips from the movie, but it's haunting and memorable nonetheless.
1994 - And I am Telling You: Two years later, Whitney is doing it at the American Music Awards in a caped black velvet gown with rhinestone sleeves—so 90s! Before Jennifer Hudson, before Dreamgirls, Whitney sang "And I Am Telling You," looking like the ultimate diva she is.
1994 - I Have Nothing (live in South Africa): To me, this is one of Whitney Houston's most stunning live performance looks—probably because she's wearing gold, a surprising color for her, head-to-toe—including a dramatic gold turban!
1995 - Night of 200 Stars: I love Whitney's ladylike look here—a simple V-neck black gown accented with a colorful wrap (wraps = so 90s). While Whitney wasn't always a fashion risk-taker, she would occasionally experiment with color and print:
1995 - Shoop from Waiting to Exhale: One of the my favorite modern style incarnations of Whitney Houston was her Waiting to Exhale period—her wardrobe in the movie was sleek and wearable, all slip-dresses and wrap-dresses. The video for "Shoop" features clips from the film, where Whitney looks beautiful—in control, strong, but something about the styling makes her seem soft and vulnerable at the same time.
1998 - My Love is Your Love: In head-to-toe caramel knits and leather, Whitney Houston looks like the ultimate 1990s R&B singer here—all smooth and trendy. I think she looks beautiful, but sort of indistinguishable from all the other ladies who were rocking a similar style at the time (read: Lauryn Hill).
1998 - Heartbreak Hotel: Here's Whitney in full, major diva mode in a giant white fur coat, ruby red gown, and a giant signature choker.
1999 - It's Not Right But It's OK: In this late-90s video, Whitney wears a sleek strapless leather (!) gown for her hit "It's Not Right But It's OK." Works great for this tough girl-power pop song.
RIP Whitney Houston, you were a great lady.
What were some of your favorite Whitney Houston moments of all time? I feel really sad about her death because she's one of the few celebrities who seem really intertwined with vivid memories from my childhood. Which celebrities are like that for you? Mine are Princess Diana, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Boy George.