It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment Rihanna went from jobbing pop star to the once-in-a-gen cultural phenomenon she is today. There was Umbrella and that earworm chorus back in 2007, Rude Boy two years later and its steamy patois lilt, and even a couple of Grammys to sweeten the deal. But it was her fifth studio album, Loud, that began a formal ascent to deification. Nothing could have prepared us – especially on these grey UK shores – for the chokehold that red-hair-Ri would have on our unsuspecting nation.
When released in November 2010, Loud was the beginning of Rihanna’s imperial phase. It was a wild time in British pop culture, with hordes of teenagers too young to drive confidently espousing the advantages of sadomasochistic relationships from their under-18 discos (“Sticks and stones may break my bones”, we’d bellow in unison, “but chains and whips excite me!”). And, soon enough, an entire generation of hair follicles and white pillowcases were permanently damaged as gallons of red hair dye were snatched from Superdrug shelves – the resulting looks more Ronald McDonald than Robyn Rihanna.
The Loud era is to British millennials what Sergeant Pepper was to boomers, but with the added bonus of spanking references and a Drake feature.
By the time the record had reached No.1 in the UK Charts in January 2011, the country was at fever pitch. The lasting impact would become apparent in subsequent years: in 2020 the Official Charts reported that Loud was the best-selling album of the 2010s by an international female artist.
But for some of us, the impact runs a little deeper. The greatest reminder of the album’s legacy is the vivid and distinct memory of that t‑shirt. Sold at Topman, the simple white t‑shirt had the album cover printed on the front, and that same t‑shirt would worm its way into 50% of the British male population’s wardrobes (or thereabouts), found in nightclub queues, high streets and sixth form house parties across the country, becoming a defining relic of British fashion history in the 2010s.
Calum from Kilmarnock, Scotland, who owned the t‑shirt in 2011, didn’t think there was a specific reason he wore it, just putting it down to the “fashion back in the day”. But when pressed, he admitted that he’d decided to pick it up mostly because he’d seen other people wearing it. When asked if he’d enjoyed Rihanna’s music at the time, there was a slight snicker. “No”, he replied, “not at all”.
Martin from Belfast was a little more forthright with his intentions. Putting it very bluntly, he said that the t‑shirt was a “good conversation starter with the ladies”. He recalled a specific moment when he managed to get a girl’s number at a local pub. “It caught her eye and she said she liked it. We just started chatting – nothing really came of it, but it was fun all the same”. Interestingly, Martin wasn’t a fan of Rihanna’s music, either. “I didn’t dislike it,” he says, “I just wasn’t into it that much”.
It seems that a big part of this trend was rooted in a burgeoning (hetero)sexuality. Rihanna was the it-girl, the moment, a pin-up for a legion of teenage boys, whether they interacted with her music or not. It was the late Virgil Abloh who, in 2015, said that “graphic t‑shirts are the most important and most expressive format for a designer or a person”, and that’s exactly what was happening here. Not only does the wearer want to communicate that they identify with what Rihanna symbolised, i.e. red hot sex appeal, but in doing so, makes them members of this very specific cultural group.
Belonging to this group wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, though. As quickly as the t‑shirt gained attention from the likely lads up and down the country, it would also attract a similar amount of ire.
A Facebook group hilariously titled “No, that Rihanna T‑shirt won’t get you your hole. You look like a wanker” was created in August 2011, now a time capsule of a bygone era. Pictures of said “wankers” in their Rihanna t‑shirts filled the group’s feed, with a number of sometimes quite fraught comments under them. “If I saw anyone with that top on I’d steer clear”, says one user. “If you go out dressed like that you deserve to be shot”, says another. Blimey.
“That’s quite extreme”, says Daniel from London, when I tell him about the group, “it was never that deep for me”. Daniel also owned the t‑shirt back in 2011, but for different reasons than Calum and Martin. “Being gay, I was obviously never interested in picking up girls – I just wore it because I loved Rihanna. That album was on repeat.”
As an aspiring singer himself, Daniel just wanted to pay homage to one of his fave pop girls. “It was such an iconic era. The music, especially the hair – she really killed it with that. Maybe the straights were fighting each other in the Facebook comments, but I was having a great time.”