The secret meaning of Miley Cyrus’ Grammy looks

From the pop star’s extreme bouffant hair to the five sequin-spangled outfits she wore, Miley’s looks were a nod to her famous godmother.

Miley Cyrus has never been known for her retiring looks. This is an artist who likes to make a statement – and the Wrecking Ball singer did exactly that earlier this week, with five different outfits at the 2024 Grammys. The bold looks got people talking: They were smothered with sequins, beads and even feather shawls. And then there was Cyrus’ hair, which was piled sky-high.

If this aesthetic feels familiar, that’s because it’s straight out the playbook of Cyrus’ godmother, Dolly Parton, an 11-time Grammy winner herself and, according to many, the “world’s best-loved celebrity.” 

Parton became close with Cyrus’ father, Billy Ray Cyrus, when they toured together in the early 1990s, “because he’s a Kentucky boy [and] I’m from Tennessee,” Parton said on SiriusXM’s The Howard Stern Show last year. “And he said…We’re having a girl, and you’ve got to be her godmother!’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d be honored.’ So actually, Miley and I took over from there. We just stayed very, very close through the years.”

That closeness is evident in their musical collaborations as well as Cyrus’ Grammy fashion. In fact, two of the outfits Cyrus wore that night were vintage designs of Bob Mackie, who has been creating stage looks for Dolly Parton since 1979 (alongside other entertainment icons like Marilyn Monroe, Cher and Diana Ross).

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

At this year’s ceremony, Cyrus was nominated for six awards and took home two: record of the year for Flowers, as well as best pop solo performance. It’s the first time the singer has won a Grammy. When reflecting on her wins on Instagram, the Tennessee-born artist tagged her godmother, saying, “I felt your fairy dust everywhere (I put a little extra in my hair, could you tell?!).”

Dolly Parton has long been the poster girl of country music – and known for her standout style. Last year she released a book about her fashion choices, which she described in an interview with the Guardian newspaper as ‘bizarre’.

She said, “I’ve worn some of the most bizarre things – my hairdos have always been so out there. At the time you think you look good, then you look back on it, like, what was I thinking?”

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

As is expected with statement looks, the internet reacted to Cyrus’ style, particularly focusing on her hair. Not everyone understood it – some even said it looked like she’d been electrocuted.

Others loved it, including western fashion and lifestyle content creator Shaley Ham, who got the country reference straight away.

“A common saying with women in the south is ‘Tease it to Jesus’, where you style your hair as high as you can,” Ham tells BBC Culture. “Miley’s voluptuous hair instantly reminded me of that.”

Ham explains you wouldn’t see that hairstyle in cities like New York or Los Angeles, but step south into Dallas, Houston or Nashville and it’s more common. “They tend to be an older demographic that are rocking it, but with Miley bringing it back at the Grammy’s, I can see those high curls making a return,” she says.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Although Miley Cyrus’ recent music wouldn’t necessarily be defined as country, she has collaborated with her godmother – most recently on a re-record of Wrecking Ball. Ham says collaborations like these are piquing global interest in cowboy culture.

“Right now, western fashion is very much crossing over to mainstream,” she says. “My friend runs a western fashion store in Fort Worth, Texas, and she describes people being ‘cowboy curious’. When major artists pull inspiration from cowboy culture, like the big hair and the glam, or even Beyonce wearing a cowboy hat to the Grammys, it shows much cowboy culture is taking over the main stage.”

Ashley Jackson is a Western fashion journalist who lives in Idaho. She teaches people about western traditions, from the fashion to the culture – and agrees with Ham that cowboys are having a moment. For Jackson, Cyrus’ looks are not only a nod to her godmother, but also her own heritage.

“She thanked her family and Dolly in her speeches, plus in her Instagram post, and she did it with her outfit too,” Jackson tells BBC Culture. “This is Miley saying, ‘Hey, I’m rooted in Western culture and it doesn’t have to be defined by a horse and jeans. Our culture is classy, feminine and powerful.”

Jackson also notes that, on a personal level, Cyrus has been through a lot – having recently gone through a divorce – and her stage looks were about asserting her strength.

“There’s power in a woman who wears her hair that big,” says Jackson. “Western culture is about true grit and character.”

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