Smile, Everyone’s Watching: Celebrity Representation on the Red Carpet

In the context of my discussion regarding celebrity fashion choices at red carpet events, I will use the term “representation” to essentially mean the outward demonstration of a certain emotion, message, or state of mind. When celebrities walk down the red carpet, there is a reason why a ton of photographers scream their names and furiously snap photographs of them. The reason is simple: the way celebrities dress—subconsciously or not—is often representative of either how they feel or what message they wish to send to the people who ultimately decode their fashion choices. Consequently, these somewhat subliminal messages are often turned into tabloid stories that grab the attention of interested readers. What is interesting, though, is that sometimes celebrities may not even have complete control over what they wear to red carpet events, and more importantly, we never really know for sure if the intention that we assume behind a celebrity’s fashion choice was, in fact, intentional (unless, of course, the celebrity confirms it). Regardless, this reality has never stopped us from reading into what we assume to be silent—yet revealing—fashion cues. After all, as Bourdieu once said, “‘It is through [the] endless work of representation (in every sense of the term) that social agents try to impose their vision of the world or the vision of their own position in that world, and to define their social identity’” (Portwood-Stacer 5).


Most people who know Miley Cyrus know her as “Hannah Montana” from Disney’s hit television show of the same name. However, if someone were introduced to Cyrus for the first time at the 2012 Billboard Music Awards, he or she probably would not have ventured to guess that she had ever been affiliated with Disney. After all, Cyrus essentially wore a blazer as a dress—one that was very low cut and exposed some of her chest. In fact, the New York Daily News captioned the photo saying that Cyrus took a  “…plunge into adulthood with her revealing blazer dress” (“Billboard Music Awards 2012”), thus implying that this fashion choice was Cyrus’ way of showing a more adult side of herself, perhaps removed from her Disney days. After all, “personal style is a form of representation that presents to the world information about the individual herself, particularly where she situates herself socially” (Portwood-Stacer 1). This outfit was potentially a representation of Cyrus’  desire to “situate” herself out of the Disney realm and steer her career into a more adult realm. I would even venture to guess that many of her fashion choices before this one were dictated and censored by her Disney bosses, simply to assure that she did not wear anything that would contradict her good-girl Disney image. Therefore, celebrities may not always be in control of their representation on the red carpet, so even if there are intended messages behind their fashion choices, those messages may be coming from stylists, managers, or publicists, rather than celebrities themselves.


Furthermore, Taylor Swift is known for wearing fairly conservative outfits, so when she stepped out in a low-cut dress at the 2013 People’s Choice Awards, people were quick to assume that she was sending some sort of message to the world following her recent break-up. After all, “an individual caught up in a certain mood may wish to externalize it so it can be conveyed to and shared with others” (Roach and Eicher 110). In fact, the headline of Mail Online’s coverage of her outfit said, “Are you looking Harry? Newly single Taylor Swift is defiant in daring plunging gown at People’s Choice Awards” (Proud), implying that Swift’s dress choice was a direct response to her recent break-up and an “externalization” of her “defiance.” The article even ventures to assume that the dress “…was perhaps chosen to attract a certain 18-year-old’s attention as he parties it up across the pond in England” (Proud). In other words, in many people’s eyes, not only was Swift trying to send a message to the rest of the world—essentially declaring her freedom and singlehood—but also to her ex-boyfriend, who she perhaps wanted to make jealous or regretful of what he let go. As Fred Davis says in “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” “…undercoding occurs when in the absence of reliable interpretative rules persons presume or infer, often unwittingly, on the basis of such hard-to-specify cues as gesture, inflection, pace, facial expression, context, and setting, certain molar meanings in a text, score, performance, or other communication” (153). Therefore, in the “context” of her recent break-up, people found certain “meaning” in Swift’s outfit choice. In other words, if Swift had still been in a relationship with Harry Styles at the time, stories about her using fashion as representation of the confidence that her relationship was giving her could have very well surfaced. Again, it may have not been Swift’s intention at all to use this fashion choice as a representation of her singlehood and as a reminder to her ex-boyfriend of what he lost, but it was not altogether crazy for people to assume that it was. Furthermore, it is important to note that “…what some combination of clothes or a certain style emphasis ‘means’ will vary tremendously depending upon the identity of the wearer, the occasion, the place, the company, and even something as vague and transient as the wearer’s and the viewers’ moods” (Davis 151). Therefore, if someone other than Swift at this event had worn a dress like this, perhaps no one would have even called attention to it, but because Swift had just had a very public break-up with another famous celebrity, her low-cut dress took on significant meaning.


Speaking of demonstrating freedom, many celebrities seemingly use red carpet appearances to exhibit their confidence and comfort in their own skin. As Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher note, “Although one learns the language of personal adornment from peers, and thus may be expected to conform somewhat to their patterns of dress, one can also show determination to be an individual and declare uniqueness through dress” (111). For example, at the 2013 Grammy Awards, celebrities were actually provided with a “dress code,” which laid out fashion choices that CBS wished to have avoided on the red carpet—in short, the network basically asked that no inappropriate parts or areas were overexposed. Of course, once celebrities began to arrive, people began to judge their adherence to the dress code, and Jennifer Lopez ended up being deemed one of the “dress code violators” (Adams), of the night, considering that she wore a dress with a huge slit, thus exposing a great part of her leg. Lopez’s disregard of the dress code could very well be construed as a representation of her confidence and ability to go against the grain. After all, “by the very fact of an individual’s not following the norm, one can see that the norm lacks the power to dictate that individual’s behavior” (Portwood-Stacer 11). While the norm that night may have been to follow the “dress code,” Lopez’s risqué fashion choice represented her lack of fear to abstain from “conforming.” And while Beyoncé may have “followed the new Grammy wardrobe guidelines” (Krupnick), she still demonstrated confidence by wearing a fashion item that is not typically chosen by women to wear on red carpet events—pants. By calling her pants “a total surprise” (Krupnick), The Huffington Post’s headline even implies that people do not usually expect women—particularly Beyoncé—to wear pants on the red carpet. Therefore, Beyoncé’s pants choice is seemingly a representation of the singer’s willingness to defy expectations and of her being perfectly comfortable doing so. Furthermore, “…social elites carry immense symbolic capital, which allows them to enforce the standards of which cultural tastes will be deemed widely acceptable, status-worthy…” (Portwood-Stacer 12). Therefore, because Beyoncé is admired and undoubtedly considered a “social elite,” I do not think that it is far-fetched to assume that seeing Beyoncé wear pants on the red carpet may inspire other celebrities to do the same more often.

The 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Arrivals

Lastly, asiden from sending personal messages regarding careers, relationships, and confidence, fashion can be used as a representation of political messages, as well. As Laura Portwood-Stacer notes, “External appearances like styles of clothes or hair are important cultural signifiers, visible before any political conversation begins” (6). When Lady Gaga wore an actual meat dress to MTV’s Video Music Awards in 2012, many people were left wondering and speculating what it represented about the singer and her views. One of the few statements that Gaga made about her dress was the following: “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” (Lester). She also explained, “It is a devastation to me that I know my fans who are gay … feel like they have governmental oppression on them. That’s actually why I wore the meat tonight” (Ganz). Therefore, her meat dress was not simply a representation of her unique personality and style. Instead, it seems as though Gaga was trying to convey the message that we will be left with as many rights as a piece of meat—which essentially has little to none—if we do not begin speaking out for our own, such as the right and freedom to love whoever we wish to love. Although Gaga’s meat outfit did not exactly speak for itself, it did leave room for speculation and conversation about Gaga’s political views. At the same time though, aside from sparking conversation about an interestingly unique fashion choice, what did Gaga’s fashion choice really accomplish? As Laura Portwood-Stacer acknowledges, “Though they may symbolize a deeper commitment to political resistance, acts of stylistic resistance ‘solve’ but in an imaginary way, problems which at the concrete level remain unresolved” (13). I do not intend to say that Gaga has not used her public notability to make significant differences in the world, because I do not know that for sure. However, I will say that it seems as though this particular outfit choice sparked more conversation about the singer herself, rather than about the point that she was trying to prove and the message that she was trying to send.

Lady Gaga celebrates in the Press room a

Every red carpet event presents itself as an opportunity to determine what message celebrities may be sending us by way of their clothing, even if they do not put on their outfits with the explicit intention of sending those messages. In other words, while Taylor Swift may not have put on her low-cut dress with the explicit intention of making her ex-boyfriend jealous, Lady Gaga put on her meat dress to make a particular point. Regardless of there being explicit intention or not, though, in the context of what we know about celebrities at the time of certain red carpet events (such as the direction in which his or her career seems to be going or a recent breakup), fashion choices are often construed as representations of current states of mind, political opinions, or confidence levels, all of which celebrities may not explicitly discuss or proclaim when a microphone is put in front of them on the red carpet. After all, sometimes fashion says it best.

Works Cited

Adams, Rebecca. “Grammys Dress Code Violators Include Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez & More Stars (PHOTOS).” The Huffington Post., 11 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

“Billboard Music Awards 2012.” NY Daily News., 21 May 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

Davis, Fred. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Malcom Bernard. London and New York: Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007. 148-58. Print.

Ganz, Caryn. “Meet the Mystery Meat Dress: Lady Gaga Explains Rare VMAs Outfit.” Yahoo! Music. Yahoo!, 12 Sept. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Krupnick, Ellie. “Beyonce’s Grammys Pants 2013 Were A Total Surprise (PHOTOS).” The Huffington Post., 10 Feb. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

Lester, Tracey Lomrantz. “We Interrupt This NYFW Coverage To Bring You Some Important News On Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress (From A Butcher).” Glamour., 14 Sept. 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “I’m Not Joining Your World.” Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism.

Proud, Amelia. “Are You Looking Harry? Newly Single Taylor Swift Is Defiant in Daring Plunging Gown at People’s Choice Awards.” Mail Online., 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

Roach, Mary Ellen, and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Malcom Bernard. London and New York: Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007. 109-21. Print.


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