(Spoilers for A Star is Born below)
Critics and audiences adore A Star Is Born for being a moving musical that’s sexy as hell. But watching this remake of a remake of a remake, I couldn’t fall into “The Shallows” and swoon. Part of that was because I kept waiting for Lady Gaga’s drag queen crew to pop back into the mix. But more than that, I was deeply confounded by this movie’s devotedly bad fashion.
Directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born follows the rocky romance of rugged country star Jackson Maine and emerging pop starlet Ally (Lady Gaga). You know the drill. His drinking problem is killing his career, but then he discovers this diamond in the rough, launches her, but hates what the music industry makes of her. There’s public embarrassments, private battles, trauma, and one final super sad musical number. And along the way SO MUCH BAD FASHION.
Witnessing Ally model one fashion disaster after another, I wondered what Cooper was thinking. Did he not notice? Or maybe the direction he gave costume designer Erin Benach was, “a general Worst Dressed Hall of Fame vibe.” His leading lady’s costumes are meant to visually chart Ally’s journey from dive-bar diva to award-winning pop icon. But something is lost when they are 50 shades of ugly.
When we first meet Ally, she’s in cater waiter wear, which is understandably unglamorous: black slacks, white blouse, clunky black blazer, shoes that your grandma would wear to her orthopedic surgeon’s holiday party. Fine. This is the uniform that is known for being unalluring. And it’s Gaga wearing it, so we anticipate a fab glam makeover later. This is the clearly established “before” look.
Next comes her first stage costume, a half-hearted drag ensemble of a black silk slip, fishnets, a pile of painted black hair and duct tape eyebrows for a bit of Edith Piaf fantasy. It works in the trailer, giving her an arty mystique. But in the film, when she’s surrounded by the glitzy drag of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Shangela and Willam, this look feels wildly underwhelming.
In an interview with Fashionista, Benach has said that was (sort of) the point. “Doing it in a simple way and letting Jack see her,” she explained, “Nakedly, openly and simply — and it was meant to be a moment that she catches his eye. Less is more sometimes in those moments.” Hm. Look. Less can be more in a lot of instances. But not in drag. How are we to believe that these queens would let a cis-woman on their stage in such a weak costume. This isn’t even Party City Bitch look. It’s basic bitch! What kind of sisters are they supposed to be?! And is the lesson of this less-than look that it’s a good thing some drunk straight dude wandered in to see how hot she could be almost naked? Not exactly a magical meet-cute, is it?
Casual Ally outfits are nothing to write home about. She prefers belly-baring tees and high-waisted slacks, sometimes in cheetah print (pictured up top). Which makes her appropriate arm-candy to the rumpled drunk celeb that is Jackson Maine. But as the two begin to tour together, I expected the star to offer some eye-candy that would appeal to those who long for Gaga-worthy glamor. Nope. The most memorable outfit is a white jumpsuit with colorful embroidery across the chest that’s less Elvis and more unflattering.
As Ally steps out of Jackson’s shadow, she’s urged by her snitty British manager into a makeover. She needs to ditch her mousy brown hair for something bolder. She immediately rejects the suggestion of going platinum blonde (because this is not the Lady Gaga story, this is the Lady Gaga is an ACTRESS story), and decides on a jarring bright orange that made me remember Vitamin C was a thing. Remember Vitamin C?
In her new pop persona, Ally wears vibrant eye-make-up and a wardrobe of eye-sores from loud blouses, to polka-dot high-low ruffled skirts, to a voluminous gold gown with glitter and ruffles and pleats that look like something a five-year-old on a sugar high would pick out. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is meant to show Ally’s so dizzy on fame that she’s not thinking about how she comes off. Clearly, Jackson hates this look, giving side-eye to all of it and asking the manager if this was his idea. (She chose it.) When she performs on Saturday Night Live, she wears a glorified bra as a top, paired with transparent cargo pants to perform a lusty dance jam that Jackson loathes. This look—which Benach says was inspired by “‘90s Fly Girl-type groups”—is likley intended to be off-putting to the audience. We’re to wince as Jackson does as Ally grinds on backup dancers and sells sex over her songwriting and singing. We are meant to think Ally is off the path of authenticity and what music really means! However, even after she’s chastened by Jackson’s suicide, the looks aren’t much better.
Once Jackson kills himself, Ally returns to the stage rechristened as Ally Maine. At his memorial concert, she wears a simple, strapless, light blue gown. Her make-up is toned way down from her pop persona phase. Her hair is closer to its original brown, and pulled into an afterthought of an updo. With this scene, Cooper’s muddled message becomes clear: real musicians are about music, not fashion.
There’s a condescending attitude toward the idea that a musical artist’s image is part of their art. Just as Cooper’s costume designer rejected the hyper-feminity and over-the-top eleganza of the drag queens (who were good enough to be vibrant set dressing give Ally street cred), Cooper as a director rejects that the glamor of a pop star can be a part of her message. Instead, he suggests makeup is a barrier between artist and audience. Which explains the problematic anecdote the first-time filmmaker shared on A Star Is Born’s press tour.
According The LA Times, when Gaga met with Cooper to discuss starring in his movie, he examined her face closely, then said, “Take it off,” before running a wet-nap down her face to remove her makeup.
This is the woman Cooper wanted in his film, A Star Is Born. Not the pop star masked with face paint and headdresses and hairpieces. Just Stefani Germanotta. “Completely open,” he said. “No artifice.”
Cooper’s behavior here suggests that he’s not too different from those ranting MRAs who denounce makeup as a feminine lie. He’s just gussied up this sexist double-standard for mainstream movie audiences. In A Star Is Born, this makeup anecdote is re-imagined as Jackson Maine plucking Ally’s taped eyebrows from her face so he can really see her. Later, he resents Ally’s hair dye and fashion choices, seeing them as a distraction from her true talent as a musician. But completely ignored by Jackson and the movie itself is how he may have profited through his image as a handsome, broody cowboy in rough and tumble devil-may-care gear. Instead, his meticulously groomed beard, snug-fitting denim shirts, black cowboy hat, and worn boots are regarded as authentic, while her choices are openly scowled at for being titillating and thereby “artifice.”
Maybe that explains why Ally’s stage outfits are never real stunners. Maybe we’re expected to scowl with him. Then, in that final moment, she’s wearing a classic silhouette, paired with barely-there makeup, where we’re to believe this is authentic Ally. Fashion is inherently subjective, but this final outfit harkens back to the Golden Era glamor, an earnest attempt to visually please the audience. Somehow, through verbal abuse and suicide Jackson has saved Ally from a life of fashion and artifice! Because god forbid a woman wear eyeliner if she wants to be seen as sincere. Even if makeup is an everyday accessory women are socially pressured to employ and an important tool of performers for centuries to help their facial expressions read to those in the back row. Cooper wants us to know it’s all a lie. Which probably means he’ll never wear make-up in any of his movies, right? Wait. He used how much spray-tanner for A Star Is Born. Hm.