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THE STORY OF: Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress

Part of an ongoing series of 29Secrets stories, taking a deep dive into the history of legendary beauty products and iconic fashion moments…

By Christopher Turner
Illustration by Michael Hak

By the time she stepped onto the red carpet at the 2010 VMAs, Lady Gaga was already one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, famous for her show-stopping performances, outrageous interviews and catchy bops. Another reason Gaga was almost permanently in the headlines during that time was her outlandish fashion choices, and that year’s Video Music Awards saw her stepping out in what was probably her most memorable outfit to date: the raw meat dress designed by Franc Fernandez.

Here is the story – and the political statement you might have missed – behind one of the most recognizable (and outrageous) celebrity outfits of all time.

The big night
On Sunday, September 12, 2010, Lady Gaga hit the MTV Video Music Awards at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles for one of the biggest nights of her career. She had been nominated for a record 13 awards – a first in VMA history for a single year. At the beginning of the night, she arrived on the red carpet wearing an extravagant Alexander McQueen gown that featured a bejewelled collar and tulle underlay to give it plenty of volume. She also wore those impossible-to-walk-in Alexander McQueen Spring 2010 armadillo heels and a gold-feathered Philip Treacy hat. The look was truly exceptional.

It was the first of three outfits she would wear throughout the night; the second was a Giorgio Armani number. And her third and final outfit of the evening? A dress, hat, boots and purse all made of raw meat.

Lady Gaga didn’t perform that evening, but she was the top winner of the night: “Telephone” won Best Collaboration and “Bad Romance” won seven separate awards including Video of the Year, bringing her total number of moon persons to eight.

Before the nominees were announced for Video of the Year (by the one and only Cher), Gaga slipped backstage and changed into the raw flank steak ensemble, which was designed by Argentinian designer Franc Fernandez and styled by Nicola Formichetti, her long-time stylist. The dress, bag and even the tiny little beret that she slipped into were all made from Argentinian beef, bought from Fernandez’ butcher in Los Angeles.

Formichetti had approached Fernandez with the idea to create a statement dress for the VMAs, and it was planned out in the week prior to the awards. Fernandez specifically chose cuts to ensure that the asymmetrical dress with a cowled neck kept well.

The night of the awards, Gaga’s crew had the meat dress backstage in several coolers, and when Gaga came backstage before the Video of the Year announcement, Fernandez stitched her into the dress for the very first time. “I knew the dress would be one of other amazing pieces Gaga wore that night,” Fernandez said of his design. “It’s very well made and looked great on her, on and off camera. We didn’t get a chance to have a fitting. The only time she had it on was for the VMAs. Only when I saw it on the monitor did I know it would be big.”

MTV News reported that Ernesto Elias, who had accompanied Gaga to the award show, recalled her exiting her dressing room wearing a red dress. He noticed that the people around her began to stare at her and only then realized that the dress was not made out of a normal fabric.

Gaga returned to the audience wearing the dress until she headed up to the stage to collect her Video Of The Year award from Cher, commenting on stage: “I never thought I’d be asking Cher to hold my meat purse.” The audience went wild, and the following day so did the press.

Gaga kept the meat dress on after the awards show for press photos and an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Gaga explained her interpretation of the dress to DeGeneres, stating, “If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones.” DeGeneres, who was vegan at the time, later wrote, “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?’”

Getting political
Speculations about the purpose behind the dress were as varied as they were wild, with a whole host of different people and organizations taking offence and PETA condemning the outlandish attire. However, Lady Gaga’s meat dress wasn’t just another attention-grabbing outfit: it was actually meant as a powerful political statement highlighting her distaste for the US military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. Gaga said the look referred to a speech she made, The Prime Rib of America, which urged the US military not to discriminate against gay men and lesbians who wanted to serve in the army. She said the law prevented the military from enjoying “the greatest cut of meat my country has to offer.”

“You saw the Prime Rib of America speech so you knew it was about equality, but nobody else knew that,” she told Stephen Fry in an interview for the Financial Times. “Everyone just saw pork. It wasn’t pork! It was prime rib and plain steak.”

Gaga’s political statement was mostly missed by the public and the press; they were far too fascinated with the actual meat dress.

Inspiration and appropriation
So what was the inspiration behind the dress? Speaking to Access Hollywood, Gaga revealed that her makeup artist, Val Garland, inspired her. “[Garland] wore meat in the ’70s to go out to parties,” she explained. Earlier this year, Garland herself shared how she created her meat dress in Australia, at a time when punk rock was at its absolute height. “I went to the butchers,” she told 10 Magazine. “I made myself hair out of sausages, I had steaks here [pointing to her chest] and I had them here and put leather through them to make a bra, and I had Viking bacon leggings.… I was dripping blood.”

However, between Garland’s and Gaga’s meat dresses, there was one more, which had been created by Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak in the 1980s. Sterbak designed “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic” in 1987, which looks shockingly similar to Gaga’s meat dress. Sterbak took raw flank steaks (50 pounds worth) and stitched them together for the dress’s debut at the National Gallery of Canada in 1987. “Vanitas” has been recreated since (in 1991 and 2011), and there were accusations that Gaga and her team were appropriating the meat dress, but ultimately Sterbak didn’t sue Gaga.

Outfit wasn’t thrown straight into the food recycling
Lady Gaga lent her meaty ensemble – boots and all – to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, which has had the outfit on display ever since in its “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” exhibition.

“Right after the VMAs, the museum contacted Lady Gaga about the meat dress and the plan for the future,” according to Jun Francisco, the director of collections at the museum. “They agreed to send it to us, but at the time it was still raw meat. So we had to figure out – we went back and forth with ideas – and the thing we decided on was to preserve it like a beef jerky. So it’s taxidermied.”

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame paid $6,000 to taxidermist Sergio Vigilato to preserve the dress. It had been frozen following the VMAs, although Vigilato reportedly discovered signs of decomposition on the dress that had occurred prior to it being frozen, and noted it was emitting an odour once it was defrosted. It was treated with bleach, formaldehyde and detergent to kill any bacteria, and was reconditioned by being dyed dark red once it was preserved, to give it the same appearance as when first worn. However, after the preservation there were several pieces of beef left over and not included in the reworked dress.

And the plan for the future of this famous outfit?

“Nobody has tried anything like this before and so a lot of conservators have never experienced this,” Francisco said. “There was another meat dress in the past, but they actually let it rot. It wasn’t preserved at all. But this one is different since it’s now beef jerky – we’re assuming the lifespan of this dress is the lifespan of beef jerky! We’re looking forward to seeing what that’s like.”

So are we…I think.

Want more? You can read other stories from our THE STORY OF series right here.

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