There were no meat dress moments. No Miley-emerging-from-a-bear-in-latex-to-twerk-Hannah-Montana-into-oblivion shockeroos. The color scheme was a disconcertingly minimal blue and white. Beyoncé arrived early (early! Beyoncé!).
All of which is not to say that the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night were, when it came to the red carpet and the outfits thereafter – the performance looks, the award-accepting looks, staid. Beyoncé did make her entrance dressed as a combination of mint green fairy and evil snow queen in Francesco Scognamiglio feathers and sheer beading, with Blue Ivy on her arm. (Of course, she then changed clothes four times; no brand owns Beyoncé.) It’s just that there was a muted quality to the outrageousness. It was bound to happen. Our expectations have gotten so high.
In the world of red-carpet dressing, the VMAs are the anti-Academy Awards: the uncensored, un-airbrushed expression of the celebrity sartorial id. It lets us mock and ogle, admire and unleash.
The event is famous for its flesh-baring, a suggestion that the dress can barely contain the persona within, and its refusal to bow to good taste. It is not about using stars to market brands but about star power squashing brands. It is a declaration of independence from the fear of the fashion police.
I mean: Marc Jacobs? Louis Vuitton? Balmain? Alexander Wang? Naeem Khan? Moschino? Gucci? Brandon Maxwell? Hood by Air and Vetements? All brands represented Sunday. But I’d bet a lot of money that the morning after you couldn’t tell me who wore what.
(For the record, and in order: Rita Ora, Nick Jonas, Hailee Steinfeld, Ariana Grande, Ashley Graham, Stella Maxwell, 2 Chainz, Naomi Campbell, Rihanna and Rihanna – at different times.)
And that is a good thing. The event is a palate cleanser before we get to fashion month (which begins, by the by, next week), a primal scream of glitz and legs and individuality. It is a reminder that fashion houses do not dictate what we wear, much as they might try to convince us they do; that in the end, it is the buyer’s decision, even if it is on occasion a little, ahem, questionable. There’s nothing wrong with making your own mistakes. At least, they are yours.
I’m talking, admittedly, mostly about the women, though there were some notable male appearances, such as Chance the Rapper channeling Super Mario in overalls, Nick Cannon in a white turban and Sean Combs in a kimono top. Also a lot of shirtlessness from both sexes.
And not everyone went to extremes: Joan Smalls in a leather bustier and wide-legged black trousers by Off-White and Amber Rose in a black tuxedo and lace bra looked positively understated. Ditto Jaden Smith in a cat-print blazer/coat. (Everything is relative.)
But one accusation often lobbed at the VMAs (I’ve done it myself, mea culpa) is that the event is not about clothes, but costume. Which is, of course, specious, since all clothes are, to varying degrees, costume: just the ones we don for everyday life. The VMAs strip away the pretense and make this plain. See, for example, Britney Spears’ onstage chartreuse and silver spangled – what would you call it? maillot? – with matching boots.
She’s a Vegas girl now, and hers was a Vegas look, – more so than the sparingly sliced asymmetric black Julian Macdonald dress she wore to make her entrance – just as Rihanna’s various changes shouted cutting-edge cool, and Beyoncé’s multiple furs and sheer fluffy white frocks and spangled Elvis jumpsuit served to emphasize her charisma, and Kim Kardashian West managed to up the sheer ante by adding a dose of dampness to her black minidress/negligee.
Like the choices or lump ‘em, they owned ‘em. So should we all.