Lady Gaga does not set foot on a red carpet unless she knows her outfit will be the one everyone leaves chattering about. This is the one common thread between her famous meat dress, her once-ubiquitous sunglasses, and her more recent old-Hollywood looks, like the padded hips and tattoo-covering makeup she wore to the 2016 Golden Globes.
Monday’s ensemble was no different. At the Elle Women in Hollywood celebration, Gaga wore a dramatically oversize Marc Jacobs suit in a shimmering taupe with a subtle weave. On a man, or in a smaller size, or inhabited by a smaller personality, it would have been a remarkably boring suit for a fancy Hollywood event. On Gaga, it was revelatory, transforming a symbol of masculine drudgery and conformity into something luxe, outlandish, and undeniably feminine.
In the speech she gave at the event, Gaga said she’d chosen the outfit after trying on 10 or more dresses “with a sad feeling in my heart, that all that would matter was what I wore to this red carpet.” When she got into the suit, she started to cry. “In this suit, I felt like me today,” Gaga said. “In this suit, I felt the truth of who I am well up in my gut.”
Gaga went on to mention the sexual assault “by someone in the entertainment industry” she survived at age 19, the post-traumatic stress disorder she’s suffered in the years since, the shame that still keeps her from identifying her assailant, and the “very powerful men in this industry” who failed her when she opened up to them. To her, choosing the menswear-inspired (but designed for women) Marc Jacobs suit against the advice of her stylists was a way of claiming control in an industry where men often make the final decisions. “As a woman who was conditioned at a very young age to listen to what men told me to do, I decided today I wanted to take the power back,” Gaga said. “Today I wear the pants.”
The sentiment was somewhat shocking coming from a star who appears from the outside to have imposed a strong and singular point of view on her own appearance and creative output. Much more so than the many musicians who’ve hewed closer to trends and the parameters of mainstream likability, Gaga has expanded classic notions of pop music, sexiness, and awards-show fashion. That she was still brought to tears by the opportunity to choose a suit over a gown is a testament to both the narrow boundaries of acceptable modes of Hollywood femininity and the persistent pressure on famous women to conform to one of a few archetypes of sexual desirability.
It also speaks to the pain and trauma that have resurfaced for many women over the past year. Gaga’s emotional response to seeing herself in a suit is not unlike the middle-of-the-day, take-you-by-surprise upwellings of anger and despair other women have endured as they’ve watched powerful men contort themselves to discredit alleged abuse survivors. For me, Gaga’s story was a reminder that women of all income brackets and social statuses have been forced to confront the foregrounded workings of the patriarchy this year—and that a rich and famous woman who doesn’t want to reveal her abuser’s name might experience a totally different kind of shame, because she feels she should be stronger than that.
Gaga’s explanation of how she felt while trying on gowns was also illuminating:
I tried on dress after dress today getting ready for this event, one tight corset after another, one heel after another, a diamond, a feather, thousands of beaded fabrics and the most beautiful silks in the world. To be honest, I felt sick to my stomach. And I asked myself: What does it really mean to be a woman in Hollywood? We are not just objects to entertain the world. We are not simply images to bring smiles or grimaces to people’s faces. We are not members of a giant beauty pageant meant to be pit against one another for the pleasure of the public.
This, from someone who has practically marked her every career accomplishment in diamonds, feathers, corsets, and high heels! The music-industry criticism embedded in A Star Is Born, which seemed to fetishize the amorphous idea of authenticity and diminish the vitality of showmanship and artifice in popular music, struck me as fundamentally anti-Gaga: Throughout her career, she has shown her fans and critics how profoundly artistic the construction of pop personas can be. She is a seeker and creator of spectacle, and it’s sad to imagine that adornments she once loved might have been ruined for her by their association with femininity, a quality Hollywood alternately devours, sells, and devalues.
But ultimately, Gaga’s choice of suit illustrates the power of clothing to imbue its wearer with confidence and authority, to inform a person’s inner narrative in addition to her outer appearance. Red carpets and A-lister events are ill-suited to sartorial political statements, as the watered-down blackout protest at the 2018 Golden Globes demonstrated. For Gaga, the statement-making aspect of her suit was only one part of its appeal—the bulk of it was how the outfit made her feel. And from the looks of it, that suit was mighty comfortable.