Ever since Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, first hit the entertainment scene, she’s been known for her outfits almost as much as her chart-topping music. The singer-actress’ public appearances have always kept people guessing about what fashion boundary she would push next with unique styles that have often bordered on performance art.
Lady Gaga has never been afraid to take risks or cause a stir with her appearance, be this her hair, makeup, clothing, wild manicures, or even gravity-defying shoes. Modeled after Andy Warhol’s creative hive The Factory, the Haus of Gaga is the musician’s corresponding hub, where philosophers, artists, and designers not only come up with Gaga’s fashion statements, but also the levels of meaning behind each one as they pertain to art history, pop culture, and social justice messaging.
More often than not, Lady Gaga’s latest looks will first appear in one of her music videos, before she takes it for a walk on a real-life street — another detail that’s set her iconic style apart from others. So, let’s put on our poker faces and explore the changing looks of Lady Gaga over the years.
Lady Gaga's burlesque beginnings
Lady Gaga is a classically-trained pianist, who decided to incorporate the instrument in her early performances as an exotic dancer in New York City’s go-go dancing and burlesque scene. Wearing her hair long and natural brown, Gaga’s outfits typically consisted of hot pants, a bedazzled bra, thigh-high pantyhose or fishnets, and stilettos. Alongside her pal, Lady Starlight, the duo performed a “heavy metal and disco strip act” in those days, according to The Telegraph, which featured Gaga’s original songs, as well as covers of Black Sabbath and more. “It represented freedom to me,” Gaga told the publication in an in-depth 2010 interview, adding, “It was on the New York underground that I found myself.”
This look followed both Gaga and Starlight to a small stage performance at Lollapalooza in 2007, where Gaga’s costume changes included taking off and putting on various jeweled adornments over her skimpy bra and black underwear. In 2012, Gaga released rare pictures of herself and Lady Starlight from their burlesque days that show her in this “retro sexual” look that was once described by BMI as the “lovechild of David Bowie and Jerry Lee Lewis.”
The poker face that rocked the world
The release of Lady Gaga’s first studio album, The Fame, in 2008 marked a major shift in how she presented herself. Gone was the long brunette hair of her burlesque days, and in were blonde wigs so platinum they were almost white. This would continue to be Gaga’s signature hair for this era.
The first music video from The Fame was “Just Dance,” in which she debuts not just the new blonde hair, but also a David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust-inspired blue lightning bolt painted over one eye. Over her skimpy outfits, the pop star wears ’80s-style, shoulder-padded jackets, as well as a plethora of wild sunglasses so large they nearly cover her entire face.
But it was the music video for “Poker Face” that established Gaga’s new role as fashion icon. A deconstructed disco ball adorns her face, while asymmetrical body suits in latex and leather define her look both in her videos and public appearances. By the time her first short film — the “Paparazzi” music video — was released in 2009, this newly-sculpted, blonde bombshell look with a rock and roll edge was immediately associated with Lady Gaga.
Mother Monster shows us her teeth
When the fame hit Lady Gaga, it arrived fast, catapulting the singer-songwriter into the stardom for which she always felt she was destined. Her wild stylings during The Fame era had created a similarly-inspired fan base, who weren’t just copying Gaga’s fashion, they were building on it and helping her develop it. Because many of these fans felt marginalized in their own lives, they turned to Gaga’s unflinching and fearless self-expression for their own. This phenomenon quickly inspired the far edgier looks that came with The Fame Monster, an album that played on notions of outsider status and, well, monstrousness.
In the “Bad Romance” music video, Gaga introduces her claw nails and sharper make-up, which gives her face a more angular appearance. While her live performance outfits drew from her original burlesque roots, it’s the “Alejandro” video that echoes back to Gaga’s history of wearing a spangled bra, panties, and tights with high heels.
Thanks to the lyrics of the songs “Monster” and “Teeth,” the pop star began referring to herself as Mother Monster and her most dedicated fans as Little Monsters. Her evolving fashion would follow in (sometimes grotesque) suit.
Lady Gaga: 'I'm not a piece of meat'
Lady Gaga was always on the trajectory to be an ultra-famous star, but as the realities of fame — and the pressures of being a role model to many marginalized listeners — began to seep into her daily life, her fashion sense became more aggressive. She infamously performed a blood-soaked mashup of “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi” during the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, and accepted her video of the year Moonman for “Bad Romance” in an actual meat dress. The asymmetrical outfit, styled by longtime collaborator Nicola Formichetti and created from flank steaks from designer Ferdinand Franc’s own family butcher, was sewn onto Gaga backstage.
Gaga later discussed the meaning of the dress on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, saying (via MTV News): “If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And I am not a piece of meat.” Since the dress caused a huge controversy among vegans and vegetarians, Gaga explained that it was a critique of the military’s anti-LGBTQ+ “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Baby, you were born this way
Next came what some consider to be the pinnacle of Mother Monster’s outsider look with the release of 2011’s Born This Way. As Lady Gaga and her Little Monsters embraced her narrative that monsters — i.e. people who are different — are beautiful in their own way, the pop star’s outfits blazed the trails and became her edgiest yet … quite literally.
The short film corresponding to the album’s title song, “Born This Way,” features Gaga embodying several different humanoid creatures. She has facial prosthetics that make her cheekbones blade sharp, a more prominent forehead, as well as shoulder prosthetics that give her an alien look. The intensity of her nail claws are heightened and extended here, and, off camera, she was prone to wearing heel-less platform shoes that seemed to defy gravity. Gaga even appeared at the 2011 Grammy Awards in a huge plastic egg, only to hatch on stage later.
The performance completed the narrative that Gaga and her Little Monsters are distinctly not from “here.” Rather, they are otherworldly creatures who don’t just look different: they are different.
Lady Gaga channels her masculine side
Lady Gaga’s meat dress might’ve been one of the most iconic looks of her Fame Monster era, but for the Born This Way years, it was the appearance of the singer-songwriter’s drag king alter-ego, Jo Calderone. Calderone first appears as one of Gaga’s love interests in the “Yöu and I” music video. He has short black hair slicked in a ’50s greaser style, culminating in a curl on his forehead, and wears a white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and baggy blue jeans.
In lieu of the Mother Monster as herself, Calderon appeared in person at the 2011 MTV Movie Awards, wearing his signature white t-shirt, but paired with a black suit jacket and trousers. Calderon accepted the award for best female video for “Born This Way” on Gaga’s behalf, never once breaking character during his acceptance speech, his performance, and his interviews. Calderone even went on to do a full photo shoot for Vogue Japan Hommes.
Jo Calderone was just one in a long line of examples that Gaga’s far more than just a pop star, she’s a performance artist who’s unafraid to shatter boundaries and labels.
Art's in pop culture in Lady Gaga
Just two shows away from ending her Born This Way tour, Lady Gaga was forced to cancel after breaking her hip. This accident, coupled with her fibromyalgia diagnosis, meant that she was going to have to take a break from the full-on kinetic performance experience that Little Monsters had come to expect. This hiatus also marked a new look that began to strip Gaga down, sometimes literally, from the Mother Monsters looks that defined her until late 2013.
She still often sported her signature long blonde wig — in particular on the ARTPOP album cover — but Gaga was slowly beginning to simplify her outfits, as well as rock a more bare-faced look that highlighted her unique bone structure and striking nose. While paying tribute to both her shifting looks and the new iteration of herself as a stylish clown with a smeared-painted face in ARTPOP’s “Applause” music video, Gaga’s appearance for this third album era is at its peak in her short film video for “G.U.Y.” Using clean lines in her clothing, Gaga’s makeup is often classically, rather than exotically, applied.
From Mother Monster to jazz diva
As Lady Gaga adjusted to her physical limitations after breaking her hip and fibromyalgia diagnosis, she collaborated with music legend Tony Bennett on Cheek to Cheek, an album of classic duets they eventually took on the road. While every once in a while Gaga appeared in a sheer outfit and pasties over her visible breasts in a nod to her burlesque beginnings, her Cheek to Cheek era look embodied a classic old-school jazz diva vibe. Sequined caps and sparkling full-length dresses with plunging necklines became her signature costuming both on stage with Bennett and in her solo public appearances.
These stylings included visual tributes to other female crooners, like Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland, while bringing a small taste of Gaga’s unique over-the-top wigs and other headwear. Gone were the booty shorts, sequined bras, and edgy prosthetics, and in were the vintage turbans, ball gowns, and swanky cocktail dresses that would feel right at home in a Marilyn Monroe movie. Explaining her about-face fashion turn, Gaga reportedly said around the time the album dropped (via U Discover Music), “It’s me rebelling against my own pop music.”
Lady Gaga shatters the final monster illusions
After her year of channeling the jazz divas of times past alongside Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga returned with arguably her most surprising look to date with the release of 2016’s Joanne. Sporting cut-off jean shorts and a sports jersey, Gaga’s first music video from Joanne, “Perfect Illusion,” features zero frills as she dances in the desert accompanied by a driving electro-pop beat. She also introduces the pink cowgirl hat that would become the signature look of this Gaga era, which focused more on reaching a more mainstream middle American audience rather than the marginalized Little Monsters who originally made up much of her fan base. Variations on the cowgirl hat popped up during her subsequent Joanne tour, some in pastel pink, others bejeweled, and typically paired with cowboy boots of various colors and lots of fringe.
Having mostly discarded the outrageous fashions that made her a household name, Lady Gaga was invited to perform the halftime show for Superbowl LI in 2017, where her look paid mild, glittering homage to her entire catalog — even though it was far more modest than the Gaga of the previous decade would have ever been.
An old Hollywood style reigns as a new movie star is born
In 2018, Lady Gaga made her proper Hollywood debut as the young ingenue Ally Maine in Bradley Cooper’s remake of the classic musical drama, A Star Is Born. In many ways, Ally’s appearance in the film is an even more stripped down version of Gaga’s Joanne-era look, as the character initially wears nothing but a small hint of foundation on her face, complete with a wardrobe consisting mainly of t-shirts, jeans, and a cowboy hat.
Off screen, however, the pop star-turned-actress brought old Hollywood glamour back with a vengeance throughout the press tour for A Star Is Born. The key words for this particular look were vintage-inspired ballgowns in satin, sequins, and yards of tulle. Gaga’s makeup channeled Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic cat eyeliner, as well as shimmering lip glosses in classic pinks and reds that were dramatic in a completely different way than her original “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” looks.
Lady Gaga's growing tattoo collection
When Lady Gaga got her first tattoo at just 17 years old, her father was furious and made her promise to only get tattoos on her left side, so she would still be “slightly normal” on one side, per Rolling Stone. This tattoo — a treble clef on her lower back — was later covered up with a flowery rose and vine after the original upset her parents. In 2009, she got a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on the inside of her left arm. However, breaking her promise, Gaga later got her first tattoo on her right side, a trumpet drawn by Tony Bennett, just before they released Cheek To Cheek.
Adding to her collection are tributes to her Little Monsters: two words underneath her Rilke tattoo feature the lettering “Mother Monster,” plus a monster claw on her left rib cage. In addition to a heart on her shoulder in tribute to her dad, and the date “12/18/74” in remembrance of her deceased Aunt Joanne, Gaga has David Bowie’s face tattooed on her rib cage, as well as a tribute tattoo for every project she’s worked on.
Lady Gaga's Las Vegas residency is a collection of career looks
In December 2019, Lady Gaga began a two-part residency in Las Vegas called Enigma, marking the culmination of not just her musical career to date, but also a tribute to virtually every single look she’s sported since The Fame. Her pop show has since been lauded for many aspects of its production, but Billboard made a point of mentioning the Mother Monster’s various looks, specifically noting, “With her longtime fashion collaborator Nicola Formichetti and her sister Natali Germanotta joining forces, the duo spawned a number of creative looks — ranging from florescent and leather to a body suit with flashing LED lights and a nude-colored unitard — for Gaga, the dancers and her band that would have made David Bowie proud.”
From the Bowie-inspired lightning bolt of The Fame era and the leather and lace from Born This Way to her performance of the Oscar-winning tune “Shallow” as her A Star Is Born character Ally Maine, Gaga’s costume changes during Enigma spoke to her myriad contributions — not just to pop culture, but also to fashion as a whole.
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