Five interpretations of Lady Gaga's meat dress

By Denise Winterman and Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine


Pop star Lady Gaga has made the headlines again for wearing a dress made of slabs of meat to the MTV Video Music Awards in LA. So what is she trying to say with her latest creation?

It could be art, it could be fashion, it might even be just an attention-grabbing stunt.

When pop star Lady Gaga turned up to the MTV Music Video Awards ceremony wearing a dress apparently made of meat - with matching bag, fascinator and shoes - millions were left baffled and intrigued in equal measure.

The dress has invoked the fury of animal rights group Peta, as well as accusations that it could not surely have been made of real meat (Gaga insists it was).

But the garment has also provoked a flurry of head-scratching from pundits attempting to work out what it means. Is it a defiant feminist gesture? An artistic statement? A commentary on the fashion world? All of these, or none of them?

Speaking after the awards, Gaga said the dress was open to "many interpretations" - including, she said, a statement about the US military's attitude to homosexuals. Here, a range of experts offer their thoughts.

An anti-fashion statement

"It's anti-fashion," says Andrew Groves, course director of the BA in fashion design at the University of Westminster.

"What she's doing is quite subversive - it's a commentary on the fashion and the music industries and I think it's very clever. It's like when Bjork turned up to the Oscars in a swan dress designed by Marjan Pejoski. What Lady Gaga is really saying is: 'I'm above all this, but I'll accept your award.'"

She is also subverting the whole idea of wearing a red dress on a red carpet to get noticed, he says.

"Lady Gaga takes fashion very seriously, she has her own stylist and she understands that she has to keep evolving and updating her image.

"I think it's also a commentary on the music industry - no-one buys music anymore, everyone downloads these days, so the only thing about her that has any value is her appearance and what she's wearing.

"She's very, very smart. She understands that it's possible to be popular but not populist. Lots of people really, really, dislike her, but lots love her as well - the dress taps into that because she'll get lots of flak for it, but plenty of praise too."

And of course, it's about getting noticed, which is massively important for any pop star.

"It's Lady Gaga's dress we're talking about, not anyone else's," says Mr Grove.

This is a women in control of her own image and turning the tables on society, says Laurie Penny, a feminist writer and blogger. As Gaga herself said at the awards: "If we don't stand up for our rights soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones. And I am not a piece of meat."

"It's a clever play on women being viewed as chunks of flesh, as pieces of meat, as things to be consumed," says Ms Penny.

"It's a sly wink at that aspect of society and the joke is on us. Just take her quip about asking Cher to hold her meat purse. She is the one laughing."

It's a bold statement, but definitely not a silly stunt, says Ms Penny. The dress has been very carefully made and is not just slabs of meat thrown together - it is like a "beautiful couture dress". This attention to detail shows it is something Gaga has thought through.

"People will say it's mad or crazy and, of course, there is a shock factor to it. But it is all very cleverly done and very calculated. This is a women in control of herself and her image. I think it's brilliant."

Image caption,
Plates of meat... literally

"I think it's very clever," says Dr Richard Noble, head of art department, Goldsmiths College, University of London. "She appears to be referencing the Canadian artist Jana Sterbak, who exhibited a 'flesh dress' made of meat.

"It taps into the artistic tradition of the memento mori or the still life. The still life, after all, is a meditation on mortality and the state of decay. You have the flowers and the vegetables, but all the corrupting elements as well."

Sterbak's dress was presented as sculpture, he says. When it was exhibited, it was pre-salted to mimic the ageing of the body. When it was in an exhibition space for six weeks or so, it didn't decay as such but it hardened.

"So it was also a commentary on vanity, which I suppose is quite relevant for Lady Gaga. If Lady Gaga really is referencing Sterbak then it's quite a smart thing to do.

"I don't know whether she knew about Sterbak beforehand. I suppose she could have come across the dress, but she's got a big staff who would have alerted her.

"But I have to admit I was quite surprised when I saw it on the front of the newspaper."

Animal rights campaigners were quick to criticise Gaga's decision to appear on the cover of Vogue wearing a meat bikini earlier this month. Her latest outfit has angered them all over again.

Image caption,
Beach wear as you've never seen it before - Gaga's meat bikini

But could she actually be making a bold statement about something animal rights campaigners themselves often argue - society's often hypocritical attitude to meat. The same people who are horrified by a raw-meat dress, may be wearing leather shoes which are themselves the product of dead flesh.

Chef Fergus Henderson, author of Nose To Tail Eating and someone who is noted for his use of offal and all cuts of meat, sees a similar hypocrisy in attitudes to eating meat.

"People often don't want meat to look like meat. They want to neatly wrapped in plastic from a supermarket."

There is nothing pretty about Gaga's dress, only the diamond accessories add some glamour. But love the outfit or loathe it, it's what raw meat really looks like.

So what does Henderson think when he looks at it? Is she a new recruit to his way of thinking?

"I look at the pictures and think it would have been better if that meat had been cooked lovingly and eaten with a nice glass of red wine," he says.

Lady Gaga is one female pop singer among many thousands - it's not her music that is distinctive so much as her iconoclastic attitude to style. It's an approach which has earned her as much exposure in magazines, on TV and on news websites, as on the radio.

As someone who has sported a lobster on her head and sunglasses framed by cigarettes, Gaga has become a fashion icon of the surreal - a Salvador Dali to Kate Moss's Toulouse Lautrec.

"I'm just trying to change the world, one sequin at a time," Gaga once said.

It could all add up to the most disturbing theory of all - that the joke is on us; her meat ensemble means nothing at all. It is fashion for fashion's sake. End of.