In 1997, Mariah Carey found herself at a crossroads. Having just announced her separation from husband Tommy Mottola, CEO of her then-label Sony, would she repeat the winning formula behind five multi-platinum albums or risk it all by shattering the girl-next-door image?
She chose the latter, embracing a new R&B- and hip-hop-influenced sound and reinventing her image in the process. Leaving behind ballgowns and maxi dresses, she started dressing in miniskirts, midriff-baring tops and beige bikinis.
But if there was a single outfit that symbolized a newly liberated Mariah Carey — a pop diva stepping out from the shadow of a marriage that had “nearly smothered me to death,” as she wrote in her recent autobiography — it was the elegant yet risque two-piece she wore to the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs). With this years awards taking place Sunday night, her outfit remains one of the most iconic looks to ever grace the event’s red carpet.
Mariah Carey arriving at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards wearing a two-piece black outfit. Credit: Ron Davis/Getty Images
Her ensemble comprised a sleek black bandeau top and a skirt with a dramatic thigh slit. Though no designer has ever taken credit for the outfit, it remains a quintessential ’90s Mariah look and, as her first post-separation red carpet outfit, a masterclass in revenge dressing.
Fashion as emancipation
Carey’s VMAs outfit was depicted as a symbol of victory against both her ex-husband and his label’s control over her image. In her autobiography, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” the singer said Sony had been “resistant” to attempts to change her sound. Carey claimed she had been controlled to the extent that she was discouraged from wearing her hair straight, as it didn’t look like her natural hair, so she used her next album “Butterfly” (released shortly after the VMAs) as an opportunity to metamorphose.
Models on the runway at Calvin Klein’s 1999 F/W show. Credit: Trevor Gillespie/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In his 2013 memoir “Hitmaker,” Mottola dismissed claims that he had been controlling as “simply bulls***,” though he admitted it had been “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” for him to become involved with Carey in the first place. “There have been so many stories in the press about Mariah and me, with me being described as a Svengali, restrictive, controlling, and on and on,” he wrote. “Lots of crap. But I had to continue to take the hits because I was the chairman of Sony Music, so I remained above the fray and never responded.”
Mariah Carey a month after her VMAs appearance, attending the VH1 Vogue Fashion Awards in October 1997. Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images
But perhaps Carey’s embrace of a new daring, minimal wardrobe was less to do with vengeance, and more to do with self-love. It was a joyful celebration of independence as she reintroduced herself to the world on her own terms. And, looking back, she remains a shining example that life might not only be OK after a split — it might be better.