It’s Sunday 12 September 2010, and the MTV Video Music Awards are in full swing. Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre is full to the rafters with the famous and fabulous: Kerry Perry, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj. Camera bulbs are flashing, diamonds are dazzling, champagne is flowing. Lady Gaga, who has been nominated for a record 13 awards, has just won the Video of the Year trophy for Bad Romance. Cher, dressed in bejewelled body stocking, waits on stage to present the award. Gaga appears. Jaws drop. The pop star is wearing a dress made entirely from raw meat.
Created by designer Franc Fernandez and featuring a cowl neckline, a slashed-to-thigh hem and matching beef clutch bag, the “meat dress”, as it quickly became known, was an overnight sensation. Dominating the event’s headlines, it knocked every other attendee’s outfit sideways, even eclipsing Gaga’s other two looks: an Alexander McQueen dress with plume feather headdress, and a black leather gown by Giorgio Armani.
Global press dedicated column inches to speculating over what the dress stood for, whether it smelt dodgy, and was it in fact real meat? (The answer was yes, it comprised 50 pounds of rib and steak purchased from Fernandez’s butcher.) Replicas were made and sold for up to $100,000 (£80,000), while the original dress was preserved and put on exhibition. Hailed as the biggest fashion moment of the year, Gaga’s meat dress was nothing short of a sartorial phenomenon, and a decade later, it’s impact on red carpet dressing is still being felt.
The red carpet has long been an opportunity to throw the fashion gauntlet down. Introduced to Hollywood in the 1920s, the crimson strip is not simply a carpet but a showcase for glorious gowns, extravagant jewels and perfectly coiffed up-dos. Attracting the world’s gaze, it has become as much of a spectacle as the awards ceremonies themselves and a chance for career-boosting – and breaking – headlines to be made.
It is also no stranger to maverick moments. Remember when Bjork turned up at the Oscars dressed as a swan? Or how about when Celine Dion topped every worst dressed list following her red carpet appearance in a back-to-front tuxedo? Then there was Lil’ Kim’s breast-baring purple jumpsuit, and who could forget J Lo’s navel-flashing Versace? Julia Roberts’ hairy armpits at the 1999 Notting Hill premiere are still discussed 21 years later. The red carpet is as much known for its glamour-factor as its shock-value. Or at least it was.
In recent years, the red carpet has been accused of becoming boring, as sartorial eyebrow raisers are seemingly switched for a polite precession of oh-so-pretty fairytale frocks. “Has the art of ridiculous dressing died?” fashion editors have asked, as we’ve scrolled through paparazzi shot after paparazzi shot of off-the-shoulder numbers in universally flattering shades of blush with not even a whiff of charcuterie in sight.
But has the red carpet really lost its bite? Or is it more that we’ve lost the ability to feel it?
Though Gaga’s steaky slip might not have been the first headline-grabbing outfit to hit the red carpet, it was undoubtedly a watershed moment. Disrupting the red carpet like never before, it has upped our threshold for outrageous dressing, and subsequent attempts to outdo it have felt somewhat tame by comparison. Rihanna’s 2018 Papal Met gala outfit, Beyonce’s 2015 ‘naked’ dress, Angelina Jolie’s leg-revealing 2012 Oscars frock – sorry all, Gaga’s meat feast raised the bar for shock-factor irrevocably, and an exposed bum cheek or blinged-up Mitre simply doesn’t match it.
The apex of wild it surely was, however the meat dress has had another lasting effect on red carpet style; it paved the way for protest dressing.
When Gaga stepped onto the VMA’s stage cloaked in flank, it wasn’t purely for scandalous effect. It was a political move. A public advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, the dress was the precursor to “The Prime Rib of America” speech she gave ten days later in Maine, lobbying against the United States military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, an act that prohibited homosexual and bisexual service people from disclosing their sexual orientation. "If we don't stand up for what we believe in, if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones," the pop star told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres after the awards ceremony, by way of explanation.
Granted it wasn’t the most straightforward of protest outfits; much of the media coverage centred around the outcry from animal rights and vegan organisations, while controversy swirled over whether the concept had been copied from an artist – both of which detracted from Gaga’s intended message. However it did reposition the role of the red carpet as a place not just for sartorial peacocking but as a platform for activism. (Arguably it worked, President Barack Obama signed a repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy into law two months later.)
In the decade since, protest dressing has been the dominant theme on the red carpet – albeit in a less protein-rich form. In 2016, Julia Roberts removed her stilettos to walk barefoot along the Cannes Film Festival red carpet in response to the festival's “heels only” rule for women. A move repeated two years later by Kirsten Stewart, who turned up to the Cannes BlacKkKlansman premiere wearing trainers, before swiftly removing them. 2017 saw actors including Dakota Johnson, Evan Rachel Wood and Noomi Rapace don suits at the Golden Globes and S.A.G. Awards in a statement against patriarchal pressure. The following year, actors exclusively wore black on the Golden Globes red carpet to protest against sexual harassment in Hollywood following allegations against disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was later sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault.
At this month's Venice Film Festival – the first physical red carpet since the global pandemic struck – Cate Blanchett made headlines after rewearing designs by Alexander McQueen and Esteban Cortazar to highlight the need for greater sustainability within the fashion industry.
The prevalence of protest dressing has not just changed how the red carpet looks, but also how it’s talked about. With political and social agendas continuing to be pushed, commentary has been forced to switch focus from the outdated “what are you wearing?”, to the endlessly more interesting “why are you wearing it?”
Would this be the case if Gaga hadn't worn the meat dress? Arguably not. So the next time your favourite actor isn't asked if they're wearing Spanx under their ball gown or not, we know who to thank. And if that's not a legacy to be proud of, I don't know what is.
5 more iconic red carpet moments
Elizabeth Hurley in Versace, 1994
If there has ever been any doubt as to the power of a great dress, Elizabeth Hurley squashed it in 1994, when she walked the red carpet at the Four Weddings and a Funeral premiere in that Versace safety pin gown. Split to the thigh, plunging at the neck and oozing sex appeal, it catapulted the then little known Hurley to stardom overnight, as well as giving the Italian fashion house’s repuation a healthy boost. In fact, such was the media delirium caused, the now-iconic dress eclipsed the film’s cast members and is the only thing widely remembered about the premiere. Poor Hugh.
Rihanna in Guo Pei, 2015
Is it an omelette? A pizza base? Sesame Street’s Big Bird? These were the questions swirling around the meme-sphere following Rihanna’s 2015 Met Gala appearance. The pop superstar caused a social media sensation when she wore a couture cape by Chinese designer Guo Pei, which came complete with a dramatic canary-yellow 16 ft train and was so heavy (reportedly a whooping 25kg), it required several assistants to move.
Celine Dion in Dior by John Galliano, 1999
It might have been condemned as one of the most tasteless outfits to ever grace the red carpet, but Celine Dion’s white satin tuxedo suit worn at the 1999 Academy Awards is an undebatable highlight of awards dressing history. The so-bad-it’s-good two-piece was designed by John Galliano for Dior, and featured a double-breasted jacket worn back-to-front, accessorized with a tilted fedora and diamante sunglasses (this was the ‘90s after all). Call it avant-garde, call it a disaster zone, either way 21 years later it still has us talking.
Cher in Bob Mackie, 1986
Never one to play by the fashion rules, Cher stole the show at the 1986 Oscars when she arrived in an extravagant jewel-encrusted look comprising bralette, matching skirt and enormous feathered headdress. Part showgirl part dominatrix, the outfit was designed by her long-time red carpet collaborator Bob Mackie. “I want it to be so over-the-top that it’s next week”, said the singer about the dazzling red carpet look in a video last year, explaining that it was one of her all time favourites. I couldn’t agree more.
Bjork in Marjan Pejoski, 2001
Icelandic music sensation Bjork caused a stir at the 2001 Oscars when she walked the red carpet in the infamous swan dress, stopping to ‘lay’ six ostrich eggs in front of the panel of bemused photographers. Created by Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski and featuring a wrap around swan neck and feather skirt, it won the “It’s Oh So Quiet” singer top spot on several of the year’s worst dressed lists, but has since been exhibited at New York’s MOMA and cemented itself in red carpet history.