The question of what the red carpet, that weird celebrity style ritual that reached its apogee in the early 21st century as a marketing/social media/fashion Frankenstein’s monster, would become in a Covid-19 world — could it still exist at all, when most people have given up on party dressing entirely — was finally answered Sunday night at, of all places, the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards. And it was answered by Lady Gaga.
Held live around New York City, socially distanced but without an audience, the V.M.A.s were the last of the summer award shows, and the first to attempt some semblance of old days pizazz, rather than Zooming-from-your-living-room relatability. Keke Palmer hosted, and both acknowledged the tragedies of the day — the death of Chadwick Boseman, the shooting of Jacob Blake — and engaged in multiple-dress modeling.
Not everyone wanted in. Taylor Swift accepted her prize remotely. So did BTS, though the band performed in a prerecorded segment in very snazzy suits and ties. There was a space where hosts and performers could pose on their ownsome for arrival photos to show off their clothes, but they didn’t quite reach the usual critical mass: Sofia Carson, in red Giambattista Valli with a giant poufy peplum; Joey King in a short rose-print Versace; Machine Gun Kelly in hot pink Berluti.
It was nice to see them make an effort, and to experience a bit of a vicarious dressing-up thrill, even if without the attendant crowds and paparazzi. It also felt as if something were missing, like a hot-air balloon slowly deflating. (Why are those people all gussied up and standing there by themselves?)
But then came Lady Gaga. She puffed it back up all by herself.
She accepted her many awards in person. She performed. She changed clothes every single time she appeared, and she appeared seven times. And almost every time she appeared in her seven different outfits, she wore a different face mask.
In the process she used her image to do for mask fashion and designers what used to be done for, say, Dior and Chanel.
First came her entry-making silver circular Area coat, with a matching clear face shield/astronaut helmet by Conrad by Conrad that made reference to the V.M.A. Moonman himself. To accept her artist of the year award, she wore an Iris Van Herpen bird of paradise dress with a swirling pink Cecilio Castrillo face mask; for the song of the year award, a gigantic iridescent emerald green shirtdress ball gown from Christopher John Rogers and a matching bejeweled and tusked Lance V. Moore mask. She looked like some sort of superglamorous mastodon.
And so it went. In her performance from “Chromatica,” Gaga appeared in a pink and black bodysuit, mask by Diego Montoya and Smooth Technology. And finally, she wore a giant feathered Valentino couture cape and silver bodysuit with a silver Maison Met mask, which she also wore for her last change into a silver cape by Candice Cuoco to accept the Tricon award.
Her clothes were eye-catching, but her masks were unforgettable. Even on an evening that also included Miley Cyrus poking fun at her own history in a sheer Mugler dress, not to mention wearing a sequined tank top and panties on top of a disco ball.
Thanking everyone at the end, Gaga said: “I might sound like a broken record, but wear a mask. It’s a sign of respect.”
Masktivism! That’s one way to inject meaning into what had become, by any measure, a format increasingly sapped of its soul and original purpose (self-expression). As we move forward into more red carpet events — next up is the Venice Film Festival, which starts this week and where Cate Blanchett, as jury president, has vowed to wear only gowns from her own closet — the bar has been raised.