In the morphology of the red carpet, the MTV Video Music Awards, a.k.a. the V.M.A.s, are the wild card.
It is the event over which the fashion and celebrity system, thus far, has had the least edge-smoothing effect, where the men and women who make their entrances largely do so in creations — sometimes you can’t even call them clothes — chosen for their power of extreme self-expression as opposed to, say, luxury brand marketing purposes. (Think, for example, of Lady Gaga in her meat dress in 2010, or Miley Cyrus’s space apron in 2015.)
It is the event that, in its cheerful embrace of sartorial ridiculousness, gives everyone the permission to make mistakes. And that has mostly been a good thing.
But on Sunday, while the game of costumes was fully on display, it turns out it is less compelling than the real-life political game of thrones that has us all agog, as well as the television show, which happened to be showing at the same time. When the world around you is more extreme, or absurd, than any outfit you can imagine, when a natural disaster is sweeping through Texas, it’s hard to be distracted by clothes.
Alessia Cara’s performance of “Scars to Your Beautiful” — in which she appeared onstage in full red goddess gown, bobbed wig, makeup and dangling rhinestone earrings, only to have all the finery and paint stripped off to reveal a black tank top, pants, sneakers and bare face — could have served as a metaphor for the evening.
The host, Katy Perry, did her game best to emphasize the value of escapism by actually floating onstage in an astronaut suit and changing looks for every appearance (there was a sci-fi structural Stéphane Rolland for the carpet; a crystal-strewn movie star gown; a high-slit blue number; a strapless look with what seemed to be an embroidered bird on the waist, among others) but instead of adding up to more than the sum of their sparkle, in the end all the paste brilliance just seemed a bit dull.
The same was true for Demi Lovato’s bead-and-lace embroidered sheer shirt and blouson pants (instead of sexy nurse, think sexy Cossack), Nicki Minaj’s impersonation of a Pepto-Bismol bottle in latex bodysuit, and Cardi B.’s homage to Madonna in her cone-bra period via white Christian Siriano. Ditto Jasmine Sanders’s nod to Raquel Welch in “One Million Years B.C.,” in gold Swarovski chain mail Moschino, and Jared Leto’s technicolor Gucci sequin dreamcoat.
Better was Pink’s choice of a pinstriped three-piece gangster suit with oversize pleated trousers and giant diamond tie pin, her husband and 6-year-old daughter in similar cuts, in part because it underscored the substance of the speech she later made when accepting her Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, which focused on the effort to combat gender stereotypes.
But ultimately, the most striking entrance may have belonged to the six transgender members of the military and veterans who arrived either in jeans and black T-shirts emblazoned with the words “trans military,” or in full uniform. Just as the most affecting onstage moments were owned by Logic, in a black sweatshirt with “Everybody” across the front, performing his suicide awareness song, “1-800-273-8255”, and Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville, Va., who stood up to announce the Best Fight Against the System Award.
There were plenty of pretty gowns and frocks, most notably on Lorde in strapless lilac Monique Lhuillier with an enormous feathered skirt, Julia Michaels in skylit Dior, Millie Bobby Brown in gypsy cool Rodarte, and Gal Gadot in Prabal Gurung. But it was those dress-down moments, when the clothes were simply a quiet frame for a powerful message, that linger in the mind.
Which raises the question — maybe blasphemous for a fashion person, but let’s go with it — of whether it’s time for the red carpet circus to hit pause, or take a moment out; to play more of a supporting, as opposed to starring, role in such public events. For paillettes not to be the point, but to serve it.
Taylor Swift, after all, already declared one music stereotype dead (her own multiple old selves). Why not another?