The Video Music Awards have very little to do with fashion trends and a lot to do with style, branding and attention-seeking, and so it was that both Amber Rose – erstwhile model and actress — and Taylor Swift – singer and holder-of-grudges-against-ex-boyfriends — walked down the red carpet from opposite ends of our pop culture spectrum: one looking as though she had just slithered off a brass stripper pole, and the other wearing the equivalent of a very expensive one-sie.
Amber begged for attention – hoping to catch a next-day wave of post-show chatter and ride it to fame. Swift begged to be declared cool, daring and pop: Look ma, no pants!
But then Katy Perry emerged from a Ferrari in a full-on denim ode — by way of Versace — to Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. It was a dress so awful that it was irresistible. And you had to love her confidence, sense of humor and tolerance for the look of acid-washed denim.
The women are the most fascinating and disconcerting entertainers to watch at the VMAs. When it comes to style, they have a vast range of options. But this is music, not politics, so the men are not far behind. (See: Pharrell Williams and hat.) Yet the women almost always seem to go for the clichéd instead of the creative. They go for skin. Bronzed, powdered and obvious.
It makes no sense to climb atop a big crate of feminist bluster and decry this as a form of empowerment, but it’s worth noting that at no other awards presentation is there such a gulf between how the men are turned out and the manner in which the women show up. Mostly, the men remember to wear pants or shorts or something below the waist. And their style doesn’t suffer from their decision to actually wear clothes atop their underwear. The men look good.
The women make a point of letting everyone know just how little they can get away with wearing when they are on the red carpet or, particularly, when they perform.
To be fair, some of the women made head-turning statements with their clothes rather than the lack of them.
Jennifer Lopez looked stunning in a dress with bands of fabric that wrapped around her extremely fit torso and revealed plenty of toned thigh. And Iggy Azalea looked positively regal in an elaborately embroidered strapless Versace gown that had MTV’s Sway Calloway fumbling around and repeatedly remarking on how great she looked — and even inquiring about the meaning of her hair, which was simply slicked back and hanging straight.
Gwen Stefani in hot-pink, Rita Ora in cherry-red. They both looked fantastic.
But far more of the women were intent on letting the world know how effective their fitness routine, their plastic surgeon or their esthetician is. Consider Mrs. Kim Kardashian West, who arrived to introduce Sam Smith – God bless his earnestly emotional performance. Smith, the performer, was dressed in a black suit. Kardashian, who was onstage for approximately 20 seconds, wore a tapestry print mini-dress with a strategically cut neckline that gave viewers a generous view of her breasts, which were elaborately contoured and powdered for their on-stage appearance.
It is true that a career can be transformed with a singular appearance in a particularly dynamic ensemble. After Miley Cyrus twerked last year in her lacquered beige bra and panties, her attire this year was practically a nun’s habit: high-waisted black-leather trousers and a matching bandeau that looked a bit like a Glamour “Don’t” bar plastered across her chest. But still, it was conservative for Cyrus. Last year’s underwear had done its job, succeeding in making it clear that she was all grown up and full of swagger. And this year, her thank-you speech turned into a plea to help homeless youth rather than a long list of shout-outs to producers, managers and fans.
Watching the VMAs is less about a red carpet of fashion highs and lows than an opportunity to take stock of exactly where performers stand in their career. And women always seem to be struggling to define themselves on stage. Sometimes clothes help. Sometimes, they just get in the way.