On Sept. 12, 1973, Cher appeared on the “Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” wearing not much more than a beaded bikini, a skirt and a long headdress of white feathers. She looked straight into the camera and sang her latest single, “Half-Breed,” about a woman who is half Native American (like Cher herself): “Half-breed, how I learned to hate the word.”
The song was provocative, as was the outfit itself, and now the look is featured in the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ exhibit “Women Who Rock.”
On one hand, “It’s a play on the ceremonial dress of Native Americans,” says Meredith Rutledge-Borger, the assistant curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, where the traveling exhibit originated. “It’s taking hold of your heritage and being proud of it.” On the other hand, “it also pushes buttons about hyper-sexualizing women, especially native or minority women.”
“Women Who Rock” has a few such doubly encoded sorts of getups, including Britney Spears’ nude bodysuit that essentially announced her adulthood at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards.
Many of the pieces in the show, however, are easily appreciated at face value by hard-core followers as well as casual fans. They include beloved instruments, handwritten set lists and loud, stretchy, shiny and grimy clothes worn by the women who shaped music over the past 90 years. All the big, cross-genre names are here: Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Madonna and, of course, Lady Gaga.
The exhibit is arranged chronologically, with cases of stage clothing and accessories accompanied by text about the music of each era. The arrangements of costumed mannequins evoke the “First Ladies” dresses exhibit from Smithsonian’s American History museum, crossed with the flashy kitsch of a trip to Madame Tussauds.
“We didn’t want this to be a fashion show,” Rutledge-Borger says. “But it’s hard to escape. For performers onstage, a huge part of the performance is what they’re wearing.”
That’s especially true for Gaga, who is represented with her own small room containing the upright piano she grew up playing (she learned to walk by pulling herself up on its legs). Further in the show, there’s also the sparkly green Armani that Gaga wore to the 2010 Grammys. And then there’s the meat dress: The once-raw 25 pounds of Argentinian beef were dried on a plaster model, then painted red for a “fresh” appearance (it had been the color of jerky, and smelled of formaldehyde).
Safely encapsulated in a glass display, the dress now gives off no odor (at least, not discernible to visitors). But “we were afraid,” Rutledge-Borger says, laughing. “We were very, very afraid.”National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; through Jan. 6, $10; 202-783-5000. (Metro Center)