At the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, rising star Lady Gaga went up to accept her Video of the Year award wearing an outfit entirely made out of raw beef. To a shocked and unexpected crowd, she fluttered onto the stage and joked about asking Cher to hold her ‘meat purse’ before announcing the title of her second album Born This Way and belting out the chorus of the hit title track with tears rolling down her cheeks.
In a career of totally unforgettable moments, this was one of her biggest. Not only for its induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the dress was preserved as a type of beef jerky) and beating Kate Middleton’s wedding dress for the most iconic outfit of the year but because it solidified just exactly who Lady Gaga was. Through all the glitz, glamour and downright madness, the music was always at the heart of everything she did. And in an industry that’s constantly changing, the star knew that she had to not only keep up but stay three monster-inched-heeled steps ahead of the game.
In honour of the 11th anniversary of her debut album The Fame, we journey back through all the eras, characters and the most iconic moments of the Mother Monster.
The Fame Era (2008 – 2009)
Lady Gaga’s incredible debut prepared the world for the star that she was destined to become. Bringing a fresh face and attitude to the world of pop culture, Gaga combined elements of 80s electropop and synth-pop for her record to make huge, electrifying dance beats that would be impossible to go unnoticed. The Fame symbolised Gaga’s love for success and fame and how anybody can feel famous no matter your wealth or status, and her accompanying fashion statements complemented this. Donned in geometric suits, hair bows, massive square sunglasses and David Bowie-inspired make-up, Gaga accentuated all of her favourite 80s themes while becoming a utopian pop star fantasy.
Possibly the most ‘Lady Gaga’ of them all, The Fame Era really put the star on the map. It’s a time we all remember fondly because her look was so, so new. Here was a new pop star bringing a whole new concept to looking sexy and while it came off as shockingly strange, it birthed the true artist that Lady Gaga was and always will be. “Pop culture is art,” she spoke of the album and the reflected era. “It doesn’t make you cool to hate pop culture, so I embraced it.” And embrace it she did. While thigh-high boots and leather underwear is enough to get noticed, one of the most impactful moments from this era was Gaga’s mash-up performance of ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Paparazzi’ at the 2009 VMA’s where she gives reference to the danger of the paparazzi and tabloid media in modern-day society. Gaga bleeds to death on stage before being strung up by her dancers, her eyes lifeless and glassy as camera shutters are heard all around her. It was a picture-perfect resemblance of the way the media is infatuated with celebrities, even sometimes to the brink of death (think the tragedy of Princess Diana), and in a way, it was Gaga predicting her own stardom that was on the edge of blowing up.
The Fame Monster Era (2009 – 2010)
Having successfully gained the world’s attention, Gaga reissued The Fame with 8 new songs that cemented her eccentric yet alluring pop star status. The Fame Monster toyed with the darker side of fame and Gaga’s accompanying looks grew darker and more gothic in nature. For the release of the EP, dark make-up was paired with long, lacy gowns and veils to turn the star into a horror film heroine and play off the star-studded spectacle that was her first album. Citing the “decay of celebrities and the way that fame is a monster in society” as inspiration, Gaga developed the theme of a monster in both a physical and metaphorical form that would then become an identity for her fans to cling to.
The Fame Monster era really secured Gaga’s role as a commercial success, giving the world some of her biggest hits such as ‘Bad Romance,’ ‘Alejandro,’ and ‘Telephone’ feat. Beyoncé.’ We all couldn’t get enough of the quirky pop star and so the fashion just became weirder and weirder. Outfits that can only be described as art installation pieces were debuted at red carpets, award shows and outings (hello, meat dress); and the more we all gawked, the more Gaga gave us something to stare at. And just like moths to a flame, we all fell into the perfectly curated trap she had prepared for us.
Born This Way Era (2011 – 2012)
Born This Way was what saw Gaga truly become a superstar. The highly anticipated album included enough musical themes to make your head spin and really showed the world that the star was more than just a crazy wig and high heels. She was a fully-fledged musician and she had all the instrumentals, incredible chops and genuine talent to prove it. Influences for the album were cited as Whitney Houston, opera, Madonna, rock, techno and even heavy metal bands such as Kiss and Iron Maiden.
By this point, Lady Gaga was the name on everybody’s lips and her status as not only a fashion icon but a feminist and LGBTQ icon were only growing. Born This Way became a bible of sorts for fans to dip into, discover how to live their lives authentically as possible and embrace who they were always destined to become. To complement the album’s unapologetic theme, Gaga took the idea of ‘being yourself’ to the extreme. Promoting the album with prosthetic horns and protruding bones, she took on a whole new art form that suggested a ‘real’ Lady Gaga. “They’re my bones,” she said in a 2011 interview. “They’ve always been inside of me, but I have been waiting for the right time to reveal to the universe who I truly am.”
Around this era also, Gaga introduced her male alter ego Jo Calderone to the world, an Italian-American from New Jersey with a James Dean swagger. Calderone was featured sporadically throughout 2010 but didn’t make his official debut until his live performance at the 2011 VMA’s, where all the best Gaga ideas go to shine. He sang Gaga’s hit single ‘You and I’ from Born This Way, the same song in which he appears in the music video. In her 2011 interview with V magazine, Gaga addresses her creation of Calderone. “In a culture that attempts to quantify beauty with a visual paradigm and almost mathematical standard, how can we f**k with the malleable minds of onlookers and shift the world’s perspective on what’s beautiful? I asked myself this question. And the answer? Drag.” It’s pretty safe to say that with this era, Gaga was sitting pleasantly on top of the world.
ARTPOP Era (2013 – 2014)
The ARTPOP Era felt like the last movie in a trilogy, the curtains closing after one final bang of a show. Hailing from her art history roots, Gaga channelled historic art masterpieces to make a conceptual project that fully embraced the magical connection between art, music and pop culture. Unbeknown to fans, it was Gaga saying goodbye to Gaga in the best way possible and making way for a new musical path and more defined artist to come through. The hit single ‘Applause’ played into the joys of fame and other themes were depicted as self-empowerment and sexuality through EDM and synth-pop melodies and hooks.
For her 2013 VMA’s performance of ‘Applause’ (after she arrived on a giant horse made of two men), Gaga well and truly played into the scrutiny she had constantly received from critics and the public and transformed into versions of her previous self. From her iconic ‘Just Dance’ flat bob to the highlighter yellow wig in ‘Telephone,’ Gaga moved through all her past phases and physically shed them all like layers of skin. The final outfit, a disco-rave rendition of Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus, set the tone of what ARTPOP was all about and the deep artistic roots that lay within the album. The ARTPOP Era felt like all 3 previous ones combined and each new grand outfit and fashion statement seemed as though it had been made to push the world over the edge. But through the blonde dreadlocks, the white make-up and multitudes of lace, the era will always be known as the pinpoint of her career where Lady Gaga learned to grow.
Cheek to Cheek Era (2014 – 2015)
Gaga’s musical and personal style changed drastically with her next project Cheek to Cheek. The collaborative album with the famous Tony Bennett explored themes of jazz, swing and big band appeals. Although the genre was a new direction for Gaga, it was one that felt familiar. No one could deny that the star’s massive vocals weren’t suited for a more toned-down musical range and she’s cited jazz and soul singers as a major influence ever since she was a child. It was amazingly different and after her whirlwind years of theatrics, seeing a stripped-back and effortless Gaga really showcasing her musical abilities scooped up any extra fans who hadn’t been so sure of the star before.
The Cheek to Cheek era brought out the classical glamour in Gaga. It was no secret that she loved to dress up, but instead of backless heels and hoop dresses, she opted for floor-length gowns and shimmering jewellery. Paying homage to female icons such as Amy Winehouse and Cher, the whole jazz thing looked pretty good on Gaga and it almost became easy to forget that the star hadn’t been pursuing the genre her entire career. In the stunning live performance of ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ as part of her tour with Bennett for Cheek to Cheek Live!, Gaga sported a black curly wig and a leather red jumpsuit that made her look like the modern-day version of a 70s Cher. She owned the small arena (a conscious decision, having exhausted herself from massive, high energy venues) and transformed herself into her new character as if she had done it a million times before as part of her own Broadway show. And in a way, she had.
Joanne Era (2016 – 2018)
The Joanne Era was Gaga’s most personal, peeling back all the layers she had wrapped herself up with in previous years and revealing that underneath everything she was simply just human. It was a concept that the world wasn’t expecting, as for so long we had held the star on her untouchable pedestal that we forgot that she too could become relatable. Joanne played like a diary of Gaga’s deepest emotions and insecurities, touching on her separation from her ex-fiancé and her Aunt Joanne who tragically passed away from lupus disease at only 19. The album had country and folk themes that were almost unheard of for the star, but just like she had with her previous jazz album she slipped into the role naturally as if it had been written for her all along.
The most iconic statement from this era was Gaga’s pink cowboy hat, which she paired with a long, glossy blonde wig and matching pink suits. Variations of Western outfits came in forms of glittery cowboy boots, chaps, plain t-shirts and simple blue jeans. When we had been so used to living in Gaga’s Fantastic World of Fashion for years prior, it became hard to adjust to the star’s new uniform of cut-off denim shorts and a cropped plain t-shirt. Her hair was often just effortlessly pulled back and the boldly coloured makeup had been replaced with a smudge of eyeliner and a tint of lipstick. Gaga had stripped herself back, letting her growth and maturity now grab hold of the steering wheel and guide her career. And just like we had adored all the mania, we loved seeing who the star was underneath it all.
During this era, Gaga released her Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, which showed a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Joanne, battles with her health and the preparation for her Super Bowl LI Halftime Show performance. The documentary aimed to give her fans a deeper understanding of who the star really was and the influences for Joanne that revolved around family and heartbreak. In a beautiful scene, Gaga plays a song written for her aunt to her grandmother and the emotion behind it brings the new era all together. Although the song didn’t appear on the album, Gaga later released it with an accompanying music video that sees her in her most natural and content state, running through the forest in bare feet with a flowing pink dress and an acoustic guitar. It was almost as though Gaga’s entire journey had been leading up to this destination and now that she was here, she was finally home.
A Star Is Born Era (2018 – present)
The fourth rendition from Bradley Cooper of the iconic film saw Lady Gaga become an actress. Although she had appeared on American Horror Story on and off prior and had essentially been treating the world like her audience since day one, A Star Is Born brought out a real talent that let her live out her career as a movie star. The musical film didn’t feel too distant from Gaga’s real life and the album, which was written by both Cooper and Gaga, incorporated the country and folk roots found on Joanne as well as some dance-pop beats to pay homage to the star’s earlier sound.
Gaga fell into the role of lead character Ally Maine as naturally as she had her others, and she gave a performance that felt so real and raw the world found it difficult to separate the two. After the vulnerability from Joanne, Gaga continued to present herself as naturally and authentically as possible. While glamorous gowns were still present, they were classier and more elegant and accentuated the poise that came from the success of A Star Is Born. But just before we all forgot the legacy of Lady Gaga and her knack of making a statement, the 2019 Met Gala saw the star showcase four separate outfits relating to the theme of ‘camp.’ Beginning with a beautiful pink get-up and then stripping down to a black evening gown, a hot pink bodycon dress and then finally a pair of sparkling black underwear, fishnets and, you guessed it, her monster-inched boots. Because no matter what character she’s fallen into, Stefani Germanotta will always be Lady Gaga.