On the first night of Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour, held in April 1990 in Chiba, Japan, few in the audience could have prepared themselves for the spectacle about to unfold. With its $2 million dollar stage set, explosive choreography by voguing legends from the New York City ballroom scene, and headline-grabbing aesthetic fusion of Catholic imagery and BDSM, the show solidified Madonna’s ascent to the top of the music pantheon—no longer just a pop star, she was now a fully-fledged pop culture icon.
Perhaps they shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, Madonna was coming off a string of controversies following the previous year’s announcement of her latest album, Like a Prayer. A $5 million sponsorship deal with Pepsi was swiftly pulled after she debuted the video for her lead single Like a Prayer, the plot of which implicitly drew a link between racial injustice and organized religion. Featuring Ku Klux Klan-style burning crosses and Madonna receiving the stigmata, it led to a call from the Vatican directly to boycott Pepsi and its subsidiaries. “Art should be controversial, and that’s all there is to it,” Madonna told the New York Times with nonchalance in the lead-up to the album’s release. (This very casual response was likely due to the fact that Pepsi, eager to extricate themselves from the kerfuffle, let Madonna keep the check.)
Yet outside of the pearl-clutching backlash that accompanied the tour’s debut, the image that would come to define it was far more modest, arriving within the first few minutes of the show. Sporting an artfully slashed pinstripe suit, Madonna ascended to the stage via a hydraulic platform. She held a monocle hanging off her necklace up to her eye before launching into Express Yourself. Then, moments later, she and her backup dancers whipped off their jackets to reveal something a little more sexy.
The pink conical bra that Madonna wore underneath is so embedded within the canon of both pop music and fashion that it now requires little introduction. Designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, who Madonna personally requested to create the costumes for the tour (she even handwrote him a letter to express her admiration for his humorous take on fashion), the look was the product of many months of collaboration, with fittings taking place both in New York and Gaultier’s ateliers in Paris.
“When Madonna first called me in 1989, it was two days before my ready-to-wear show, and I thought my assistant was joking,” said Gaultier in a 2001 interview with the New York Times. “I was a big fan. She knew what she wanted—a pinstripe suit, the feminine corsetry. Madonna likes my clothes because they combine the masculine and the feminine.” Indeed, it was this gender-bending spirit that made the tour’s visuals so memorable; just take her male dancers, who threw flamboyant shapes while sporting Tom of Finland-esque leather lace-back tops paired with Bob Fosse bowler hats. (The less glamorous side of which was explored memorably in the 2016 documentary Strike a Pose, where these dancers, many of whom were living with HIV/AIDS, saw their hopes and aspirations either realized or heartbreakingly thwarted.)
What made Madonna’s take on this undergarment truly subversive, though, was its nuances. The cone bra grabbed the public’s attention for the way in which it rebelled against the narrow definition of the beautiful female body that, for so many centuries, had been dictated by corsetry’s body-morphing strictures. Sure, designers like Vivienne Westwood had also spent the ’80s exploring a more freeing, playful take on the corset, but Gaultier’s version—first debuted on the runway in 1987 before being adapted for the Blond Ambition tour—took the piece and made it feel defiant, aggressive even. In place of the soft curves the corset was supposed to shape, the female anatomy became a spiky, phallic weapon, one that Madonna celebrated by exerting her dominance, sexual or otherwise, over the dancers she frolicked with across her one-and-a-half-hour musical extravaganza. This was a pop star in control, and her outfits told the story before she even opened her mouth to sing, or began gyrating wildly across the stage (or simulated masturbation, in a sequence that almost resulted in her Toronto leg of the tour being shut down).
Gaultier would go on to collaborate with Madonna on multiple occasions, including a memorable appearance at Gaultier’s 1992 AIDS fundraising gala in support of amFAR, where she walked the runway in Los Angeles before dropping her jacket to reveal a bondage-inspired harness top that left her breasts fully exposed. “I love Madonna,” Gaultier added in his New York Times interview. “She’s the only woman I ever asked to marry me. She said no, of course, but every time she asks me to work on her shows, I can’t say no.” Thirty years after making its first debut, the cone bra is more than just a part of fashion history, or an artefact hanging in a museum. Its legacy lies in the very real way in which it has encouraged generations of female pop performers in Madonna’s wake to channel their sexuality through the outfits they choose to wear without shame, and on their own terms. To paraphrase Gaultier, who could say no to that?