I was watching Sahkur Kapur's "Elizabeth". It made me think about what it is that makes someone an icon in our world. Certainly, a good deal of what creates the endless image, the incorruptible face of power, is Attire. Surely, regardless of how much a person errs, (because we all do), there are those vanishingly few who lift upwards to the status of icon. How does that happen? Often, it is Attire that does the biggest part of the job.
Dipping deeply into the recorded past of human history, we find Tutankhamun. We really know little of his short reign. He died a child. Yet he is an Icon. Why? The reason is simple. The image of him created after his death was so profoundly beautiful and compelling, that we impute to him far more than his short reign encompassed. What archaeologists discovered was so amazing, so beguiling, so incontrovertibly lovely, that we could not look away. Attire, asserting its power.
Endless images of the Roman Emperor Hadrian exist. He was elevated to the status of godhood, by his physical beauty. And simple bodily beauty is a part of Attire's communicative range. What we understand of his rule as emperor is lesser to the icon created in his name. Yet endless seeming images of him exist, all attesting to his primacy as a physically lovely human person.
By the 20th century, photography, film, and the media combined to give us a seemingly endless stream of people vying, (knowingly or not), for icon status. What that avalanche of image output has done is actually make it much harder to get to an iconographic position. There are simply too many folk out there, and changes in apparel happen so rapidly, that it's a near impossibility to create a personal image that is at once unique, and also lasting.
Oddly, it is people of fierce individuality who are not famous that are the ones who are creating these kinds of personal images. The famous can no longer sit still, and cleave to the same style consistently, without being labeled as out of step. Only a couple of performers have managed to chart this difficult sea effectively. Diva singers like Cher and Madonna have cemented their place as cultural icons, interestingly, by their constant shifts of image, not their adherence to one way of being.
I wonder if this is indicative of a substantive change in what it means to be an icon? It used to be that it was connected to stability, unchallenged power. Is change becoming the dominant characteristic of being a successful icon? And is the real definition of icon based on longevity of influence? If so, then all these 20th and 21st century people need to wait a while to find out if they make the grade.