Radical taming of Lady Gaga

Singer has been dressing more conventionally, but is still challenging convention

NEW YORK • What is going on with Lady Gaga?

I have been wondering about this ever since fashion's erstwhile most outrageous influencer - the woman who accepted her Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Icon award in a spiked Thierry Mugler bustier, thong and sheer bodysuit (with a train so heavy it led to a peekaboo wardrobe malfunction) - decided to celebrate her 30th birthday in a gold Saint Laurent mini-dress pretty much straight off the runway of the label's most recent is-it-couture- or-is-it-not Paris collection.

And not just the dress, but the entire look, from the red lipstick to the upswept hair.

Gaga, whose real name is Stefani Germanotta, has been dressing straight from the pages of Vogue for a while now, from her Balenciaga at the Met Ball to her black velvet Versace bombshell gown at the Golden Globes, her red sequinned Gucci pantsuit at the Super Bowl and her royal blue Marc Jacobs embroidered David Bowie "tribute" at the Grammys.

But placed in context, over the trajectory of her career, the Saint Laurent look was nevertheless a shock. It is about as far from the meat dress of the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards as one celebrity can get. (You remember... the frock made of raw beef, complete with matching boots, by designer Franc Fernandez that was chosen as Time's fashion statement of the year.)

Think of this way: from flank steak to Saint Laurent in six years. That is quite a trajectory.

Gaga's journey from adolescent rebel in armadillo shoes and latex - forcing viewers and fans to wrestle with their own ideas about beauty and received ideas - to designer doppelganger has been one of the more striking transformations.

Lady Gaga at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles last year.
Lady Gaga at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles last year. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

She still has her moments of wardrobe extremis, it is true, sporting a see-through net dress on a trip to London, and wearing a bra and panties over ripped tights to the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction and awards last year, but the critical mass of her recent public appearances and even the pictures on her Instagram feed have been awfully polished and apropos.

Though her peers, including Rihanna, Beyonce and Adele, have all worked with various designers at different points (Adele, for example, is being dressed by Burberry for her 25 world tour), I cannot think of another who has gone from outre to establishment with quite the same level of commitment - and without using her appearance as a vehicle to introduce her own fashion brand, or at least a collaboration with a fashion brand, but rather as an instrument for other fashion brands.

On the one hand, you could see this as simply assuming a new costume for a new career stage, playing another role, especially since it can be traced to the roll-out of her fourth album, Cheek To Cheek, a compilation of jazz standards made in collaboration with Tony Bennett, or even as yet another example of the way fashion co-opts its own theoretic antitheses, be they ripped jeans or down jackets, and adapts them into its own version of the same.

But I think something more subversive is going on. Rather than suddenly becoming conventional, Gaga is, in fact, turning a certain convention on its head.

Because in hewing so closely to the industry line, she is actually doing something kind of radical - potentially even more radical than the early-career look-at-me stuff of hatching from an egg in yolk- coloured latex at the 2011 Grammys or playing the piano in a coat made of plastic bubbles.

She is challenging a dearly held convention of celebrity that says that whatever you wear, you must be the dominant brand in the relationship: Your look must trump anyone else's look.

It is not insignificant that despite all the hoo-ha about her appearance on Marc Jacobs' runway during New York Fashion Week in February and the expectation that something major was about to happen, all that did occur was that she walked the room like every other model in the show. If she had not been so much shorter than the rest of the cast, it would have been impossible to pick her out of the line-up. (As it was, most of the guests were left scratching their heads and whispering to one another, "Was that her?" She was not saying.)

The point was pretty clear - that designers are legitimate artists with their own specific aesthetic and it would be disrespectful to try to do what they do or to alter it.

It is, in a sense, a continuation of her campaign to elevate the outcast - believe it or not.

For while fashion may be famous for its elitism, it has long been seen and often sees itself as the stepchild of the art world; the less worthy creative form. We all have our complexes.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2016, with the headline 'Radical taming of Lady Gaga'. Print Edition | Subscribe