From Michael Kors' Davy Crockett-inspired fur hat to Versace's beaded black lariat, this fall's must-haves are a cowboy bonanza. Nowhere was this less apparent, however, than at the 38th Annual Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 9. Couture may have gone country, but countrypolitan divas looked more Rodeo Drive than rodeo. Shania Twain performed in a midriff-baring Missoni, Martina McBride accepted Female Vocalist of the Year honors wearing a Prada sheath, and Alison Krauss sang in a sparkly St. John.
Blame at least some of the country-star-as-supermodel syndrome on Country Music Television and the cadre of image-obsessed video stylists and stars the channel has spawned. ''Miranda Lambert, Julie Roberts they're overstylized,'' says Girls' Guide to Country author Kim Adelman about two of Nashville's newer talents. ''The Faith Hill clones are everywhere!''
With 18.4 million viewers tuning in to the CMA Awards (compared with 26.3 million for the Grammys), and stars like Shania Twain selling 65 million albums, country artists ''are competing with pop stars now,'' says Nashville-based stylist Renee Layher. And that means looking the part. Layher, who dressed Krauss, also got the Dixie Chicks to trade in their checkered cowgirl outfits for designers like Cynthia Rowley for which she caught a heap of flak. ''The country-music magazines [said] I was taking the country out of country,'' says Layher. But a lot of fans don't seem to care. Adelman, who calls Twain ''the Cher of country music,'' notes, ''Her fans certainly don't expect her in some outdated Western getup.''
On the other hand, there's rising star Gretchen Wilson, who accepted the CMA's Horizon Award (for most promising newcomer) in a simple black tank and jeans. ''What's her 'Redneck Woman' lyric?'' asks Adelman. '''Victoria's Secret...their stuff's real nice/But I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal-Mart shelf half price.' Her fans eat this up.''
Designer Anna Sui is hoping Wilson makes it safe for country stars to work the fringe again; her spring '05 collection is filled with Western touches. ''I'd love to see one of the younger set try a fresh approach,'' says Sui, ''with a nod to the rich history of country-music style.'' Last we heard, Sui was trying to get in touch with Wilson's stylist.