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Lady Gaga's a fashion plate, but it takes more for her to be an icon

Lady Gaga has made a pop culture splash with her extravagant stage costumes and outlandish street clothes. But a wardrobe of oddball outfits isn't enough to turn a performer into an icon.

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

In recent days, Lady Gaga has performed-- in a blood-smeared bodice -- at an AIDS fundraiser hosted by Elton John and been honored -- along with Beyoncé -- with an award for video of the year by Black Entertainment Television. She has been entertaining her fans via Twitter and on her Monster Ball tour, during which she looks like a cross between Catwoman and Gene Simmons. After witnessing a live performance by the fearless fashion gamin at this spring's Costume Institute ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it's accurate to say she works hard for her applause and she earns every bit of it. Gaga knows how to entertain.

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Though she's been in the spotlight for barely two years, folks, particularly fashion types, have been indiscriminately tossing around the word "icon." They apply it to Lady Gaga because she has the audacity to wear Kermit the Frog coats, Philip Treacy millinery sculptures, Alexander McQueen tentlike cloaks and Giorgio Armani crystal-studded scaffolding.

The fashion industry has found a kindred spirit in Mistress Gaga, as she is willing to wear the most dramatic -- and at times, absurd -- runway creations onstage. Her choices are well beyond the range of average pop stars who choose their costumes for effect but also with the unwritten rule that those costumes must make them look good. There doesn't seem to be any such governing principle in Gaga's decisions. She gives herself over to shock and showmanship.

In that way, she is reminiscent of Sir Elton, whose early costumes could be both playful and outlandish and never seemed geared to making him look either cool or comfortable onstage. Indeed, Gaga once performed at the piano wearing the equivalent of a Thanksgiving Day float. It was a testament to her stubborn tenacity that her look is, if not everything, then at least a fundamental aspect of her message.

If not for the get-ups, she wouldn't have made such a splash in the culture. And Gaga is nothing if not a wonder to observe. But when Oprah Winfrey -- one of the co-hosts of the Costume Institute party -- introduced Gaga, it was with such overwrought aplomb, with such breathless references to art, humanity and spirituality, that one might have thought Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Michelangelo had somehow formed a band.

Personal expression

There's power to be had in style, but there's limited muscle in a wardrobe of outlandish frocks. It takes time, proof of influence and perspective, not just a wardrobe of freaky clothes, before a performer can be declared a fashion icon.

As with a lot of young female pop stars with a flair for exhibitionism, a mantra of personal expression and a fascination with catwalk style, all roads lead back to Madonna, by way of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. With her lengthy career, Madonna convinced no small number of young women that sexual provocation is a feminist power play. She used her costumes in videos and concerts as tools for furthering her subversive stance against traditional femininity and the roles of women in a male-dominated culture.

For her "Like a Virgin" video, she turned the notion of the blushing bride upside down as she danced and strutted in her virginal whites, making clear through movement and innuendo that the woman singing was anything but a virgin. In "Material Girl," her homage to Marilyn Monroe, Madonna -- dressed in a fuchsia satin gown and about 10 pounds of glittering jewelry -- cut down another cultural cliche about gold-digging women. And while Madonna was forever dubbed the "Material Girl," the reality was that the song delivered a wholly different message. The guy who wins Madonna's heart is the one who hides his wealth and power and woos her with a bouquet of daisies and date night in a dusty pickup truck.

Madonna's early use of costuming was powerful, and she had thoughtful and daring collaborators. Her work with Jean Paul Gaultier was significant: His bullet bra and her inversion of lacy unmentionables into high-end outerwear changed cultural ideas about decorum, discretion and privacy.

Hordes of teenage girls mimicked Madonna's street urchin style, her rows of wrist bangles and her floppy mass of dishwater-blond hair tied up in a scarf. But she also influenced the design industry, ushering in a more urban-based version of sexuality, one that had glamour as well as grit.

Onstage, Madonna wore clothes that were more exciting than street clothes but not so extreme as to be unfathomable costumes. It was somewhere in between, a hyper-realized version of ready-to-wear. The result was that Madonna could catapult a designer to fame, not just in the pages of People magazine but on the runways.

Celebs turn to design

What has Lady Gaga done for fashion? Nothing. At least not yet. But it doesn't really matter. She comes out of today's muddled culture in which an often-photographed starlet who has exhibited no evidence of good taste can become a designer. No, this is not a reference to Lindsay Lohan, who has been so frequently maligned in this space. This is a reference to Spears, who has designed a line for Candies that will be sold at Kohl's. What has Spears recently donned that would make anyone believe that she has taste? What has she worn that was unique?

We have confused garish outlandishness for creative swagger. Lady Gaga has worn clothes designed by some of the top names in the fashion business: Treacy, Armani and the late McQueen. The effect has been dazzling -- but it has just been stuff. The get-ups have not advanced the conversation about style or brought any dynamic, intellectual topic to the table. Sure, she tells her fans to be free, to be who they were meant to be. That's nice. But that doesn't make a person iconic.

In the current climate, a person can be dubbed a fashion -- or pop culture -- icon without having forced a reassessment of certain assumptions or without standing for something larger than herself. Lady Gaga received this title because we noticed her, because Barbara Walters declared her "fascinating," and because she is unafraid of taking a Bedazzler to her eyelids or wearing lace hosiery as a face mask.

To be sure, Lady Gaga is a product of the times, a creative soul who understands the power of image and the importance of mythmaking. She knows that to break through the cultural clutter, something more than mere talent is required. One needs a look, a persona and extraordinary luck.

Lady Gaga has all of those things. But that doesn't make her iconic; that just makes her smart, and it makes us dupes.


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