If you like Lady Gaga’s meat dress, you’ll like Jana Sterbak

Get to know the Czech-Canadian artist who made her own dress made from raw flank steaks – as a comment on human mortality

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Vanitas Jana Sterbak Lady Gaga
“Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic”,1987/Lady Gaga’s meat dressCourtesy Walker Art Center/via tumblr.com

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IF YOU LIKE: LADY GAGA’S MEAT DRESS

It’s been five years since Lady Gaga made her entrance to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards wearing the infamous meat dress. Styled by Dazed’s former creative director Nicola Formichetti, Gaga’s look was completed with matching shoes, hat and purse (which she put into the hands of a reluctant Cher while accepting her award for Video of the Year). “We wanted to do something weird and different,” said Formichetti at the Dazed Fashion Forum. “So I got my assistant to go and buy some meat, it was actually all attached with safety pins.” While Gaga had already earned a reputation for her outlandish sense of style by this stage, this particular outfit sparked controversy, particularly among animal rights charities.

“Gaga’s look was completed with matching shoes, hat and purse (which she put into the hands of a reluctant Cher while accepting her award for Video of the Year)”

But what was the inspiration behind the dress? Speaking to Access Hollywood, Gaga revealed that she was inspired by her make-up artist, Val Garland. “(Garland) wore meat in the 70s, to go out to parties,” she explained. Earlier this year, Garland herself shared how she created her meat dress in Australia, at the time when punk rock was at its absolute height. “I went to the butchers,” she told 10 Magazine. “I made myself hair out of sausages, I had steaks here (points to her chest) and I had them here and put leather through them to make a bra, and I had Viking bacon leggings... I was dripping blood.” While Garland’s outfit was about punk rebellion, Gaga described hers as a “statement about equality”, referring to her campaign against the US military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

YOU'LL LIKE: JANA STERBAK’S “VANITAS: FLESH DRESS FOR AN ALBINO ANORECTIC”, 1987

However between Garland’s and Gaga’s meat dresses, there was one more, which was created by Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak in the 80s. As you can see from the video below, Sterbak took raw flank steaks (50 pounds worth) and stitched them together. While “Vanitas” has been recreated several times since (in 1991 and 2011), it made its first debut at the National Gallery of Canada in 1987. Like Gaga’s dress, this sculpture was controversial – in this case, with food bank organisers and soup kitchen operators. According to The Spokesman Review, they deemed it to be “a waste of more than $260 of food when the homeless go hungry a few blocks away” and “an insult to the poor in touch economic times”. In fact, two hundred people posted food scraps to the National Gallery of Canada in protest. 

“It speaks about our aging and our mortality” – Jana Sterbak

“Vanitas” could easily be interpreted as a comment on structural sexism: how women are consumed in society, or else treated like “pieces of meat”. However its roots were not in feminist thinking but in art history. Vanitas itself is an art historical term, referring to a genre of painting that flourished in the Netherlands during the 17th century. Depicting objects such as meat, candles and skulls, these paintings were created to help people meditate on life, death and spirituality. Sterbak’s Vanitas was created to the same end: “So the flesh dress is a memento mori, Vanitas, done in a very direct way where there can be no doubt about its meaning,” said Sterbak. “It speaks about our ageing and our mortality.”

Watch the making of “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic” below:

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