In Moschino’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection, designer Jeremy Scott had models walk down the runway in lavish, multi-layered cakes and petit-fours. Inspired by Marie Antoinette, The New York Times took up the phrase ‘Let them wear cake!’ and quoted Scott’s concerns about “how stretched and tenuous the idea of democracy has become.” He explained that our times reminded him of pre-revolutionary France, with all its decadence and excessive wastefulness. In order to raise questions about privilege, elites and the distribution of wealth, Scott turned to food. Since the dresses were made of simulations of real cakes and were not edible, his invocation of food to make a point, however, pales in comparison with an outfit that is as memorable as it is provocative: Lady Gaga’s meat dress from the MTV Video Music Awards 2010. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the meat dress and provides the opportunity to take a closer look at the connection of food and fashion.
‘Don’t Play with Your Food’
Singer and songwriter Lady Gaga attended the VMAs initially wearing dresses by designers Alexander McQueen and Giorgio Armani, only to then change into a dress made from raw meat scraps. The outfit was completed by a meat hat, meat purse and meat shoes. The latter were held together by parcel string, roughly wound around bits of red meat and white fat, while the purse was rather refined and studded with jewels.
Lady Gaga’s outfit sparked a lively debate and received a lot of criticism. Unsurprisingly, after years of learning that one shouldn’t play with food at the parental dinner table, such an explicit display of food being used – or abused – as fashion, came as a shock to many, due to its wastefulness. This learned cultural belief was reinforced by social developments, such as the growing support for animal rights movements and the call for more sustainability, both in the food and fashion industry. In its very nature, the meat dress was thus perceived as immensely offensive and collided with people’s eating habits, patterns of appropriate behavior, and values – old and new. The discussion surrounding the meat dress shows that food always holds potential to ignite discussion about controversial social issues such as the distribution of wealth, poverty and access to resources. This holds true even more if food is placed in the context of fashion, which faces criticism for its ephemerality and waste culture.
As part of not only one but two strongly contested spheres, Lady Gaga’s outfit was criticized by individuals and the media for its wastefulness in the face of worldwide poverty and hunger. In addition, Lady Gaga was confronted with animal rights activists, first and foremost the organization PETA. In an official statement they called the dress offensive and unattractive, as “[m]eat is the decomposing flesh of a tormented animal who didn’t want to die, and after a few hours under the TV lights, it would smell like the rotting flesh it is and likely be crawling in maggots.” The dress also became a platform for other celebrities to discuss the issue as well as comment on wider political or social topics, like healthy diets or animal welfare. In a talk show taped right after the VMAs, host Ellen DeGeneres, who is vegan herself, for example presented the meat-wearing Lady Gaga with a bikini made from kale. In doing so she did not only comment on the meat dress, but also the cover of the Japanese edition of the fashion magazine Vogue, on which Lady Gaga was featured the same month, wearing a meat bikini. Ellen suggested using vegetables next time Gaga wanted to make a statement. For that she was praised by many, including PETA, in the same statement that condemned Lady Gaga’s outfit.
The different reactions to Gaga’s meat dress and Ellen DeGeneres’ vegetable bikini highlight not only how food-as-fashion can be used to communicate an agenda. They also demonstrate the social and cultural restrictions on food choices. DeGeneres put her criticism into perspective some time after the interview, stating: “Now, I love Lady Gaga, but as someone who also loves animals, it was really difficult for me to sit next to Lady Gaga while she was wearing that outfit. But it did make me ask myself, what’s the difference between her outfit and an outfit made of leather?” This point, raised by Gaga’s dress, highlights the hypocrisy in the fashion sector, as the industry seeks to turn to a more sustainable and animal-friendly production, while still heavily relying on products such as leather, fur or ivory. Associated with luxury, these products aren’t criticized as fiercely as food used for clothing, although they too reinforce waste and endanger species.
In protesting for animal rights with the veggie bikini, Ellen DeGeneres also violated the rules of not playing with or wasting food. Since her cause appealed to a majority of people however, she did not face much criticism for the nature of her protest. It is a different story when it comes to meat. From the Middle Ages to the emergence of industrialized nations, meat had always been a marker of wealth and prosperity, as only the rich were able to afford regular meat consumption. In the last decades, this exclusivity shifted and in the Western world, eating less or no meat has become a sign of (nutritional) education and affluence, especially in the face of intensive livestock farming, which yields meat at very cheap prices. The violation of contemporary cultural codes surrounding food, such as not to waste food or gorge oneself, then seems to be the more important reason behind the strong criticism of Gaga’s meat dress.
From Raising Eyebrows to Raising Voices
The meat dress however was not just a sign of bad taste; in TheEllenShow, Lady Gaga herself explained the meat dress stating: “[I]t has many interpretations. For me this evening, if we don’t stand up for what we believe in and fight for our rights pretty soon, we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.” She later expanded further on her claims, condemning the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy effective in the American military: “Equality is the prime rib of what we stand for as a nation. And I don’t get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat that my country has to offer. Are you listening? Shouldn’t everyone deserve the right to wear the same meat dress that I did?” For this reason, she was celebrated by many as a supporter of women’s and LGBTQ rights. The dress was seen as a means to an end, in order to shine a light on issues surrounding standardized body image, self-determination and the struggles of not only women, but also LGBTQ communities.
The designers and consumers of food-as-fashion haven’t merely skipped the basic rules of (table) etiquette or are simply lacking manners. Food-as-fashion is a powerful tool to question the social status quo, stimulate innovative ways of economic production, and encourage political discourse about topics such as gender equality, fair working conditions or sustainability. With this knowledge in the back of their heads, designers and consumers do not use food lightly in the realm of fashion, but with a set agenda and purpose. Other examples include the brand Keef Palas, that sells an ephemeral collection of earrings made out of garlic, chili peppers, or wheat, “to be consumed ASAP”, as the website states. Salvatore Feragamo and H&M Conscious have worked together with the brand Orange Fiber, that creates fabrics from orange juice by-product, similar to brands like Circular Systems and Ananas Anam that include food waste such as banana peels or pineapple fibers into their fabrics.
The example of Lady Gaga’s meat dress shows that wearing food puts people off, especially if the foodstuffs worn are as symbolically charged as meat. Outrage and disgust however are just a side effect of food-as-fashion, as the main goal is to communicate a thought-provoking, often social or political message, intended to ignite discussion.