The Meat Dress: fashionable, art or just controversial?

I know you’ve heard about Lady GaGa’s meat dress.  Everyone has heard about the meat dress, and the corresponding PETA uproar.  However, how much do you know about the original meat dress and its message about fashion?

The History

In 1987, artist Jana Sterbak created the first – and extremely controversial – iteration of the meat dress.  It was composed of 50 – 60 pounds of raw flank stank that was salted to naturally undergo the curing process.  Sterbak attached the steak to a mannequin and fashioned it into the form of a dress.  The sculpture, entitled “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic,” was meant to emphasize the contrast between vanity and bodily decay.

In 1991, the controversial sculpture was exhibited in Ottowa’s National Gallery alongside a self-portrait of Sterbak wearing her creation.  Much like PETA’s outcry in response to Lady GaGa’s dress today, there was an outcry in 1991.  The dress was a waste of food and a waste of taxpayers money.  It wasn’t art, it was offensive.  People even protested the exhibit by sending scarps of meat to the gallery!

In 1993, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis acquired the piece and still owns it today.  According the museum’s catalogue:

“the dress was stitched together from 60 pounds of raw flank steak and must be constructed anew each time it is shown. Following a centuries-old method of food preservation, the meat is heavily salted and allowed to air-dry. Over the span of the exhibition, the aging process drastically changes the appearance of the work.
It is currently on display at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris’ modern art museum.  The exhibit, simply entitled “elles“, is a changing year-long survey dedicated to female contemporary artists which runs through February 2011.

The Meaning

It is always interesting to learn how an artist perceives their own work, and this case is no different.  Jana Sterbak considers “Vanitas” one of her most successful pieces:

“I think [Vanitas] is quite a successful work, if I can put it like that, because it can be interpreted in many different ways, from the respect that we do not accord to animals we raise for our food needs, to our own aging and death, the rituals of possession and absorption, etc. Vanitas could also be about the way time changes our perception of works. On the day of the opening, when the dress is exhibited the flesh is raw. Then the meat dries and starts to look like leather. Then everything is better, it becomes acceptable. This is also true for artists. Some curators prefer to work with dead artists because they’re less troublesome.“
Jana Sterbak, La condition d’animal human (interview by Catherine Francbln), Art Press, December 2006
She is completely right.  When the Walker Art Center cataloged its collection and came to this piece they deduced that, in addition to its message about mortality, it was a direct reflection on fashion:

“The work also addresses issues concerning women, fashion, consumption, and the body. The equation of women with meat and the notion that “you are what you wear” are common ideas in Western society. In the United States, statistics have pointed to a growing number of young women with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa (referred to in the title), because their body types do not match the prevailing fashion or “look” sported by the tall, thin models populating the media.”

I can definitely see that.

Lady GaGa, in contrast, told Ellen DeGeneres that for her personally, wearing the meat dress was a protest against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the governmental restrictions placed on the rights of gay soldiers. She said:

For me, it says if we don’t stand up for what we believe in, if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we are going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.
I guess I can see that as well, but I wonder how much of it has to do with that as opposed with simple shock and publicity value.  Prior to the meat dress, she wore a meat bikini on the cover of September’s Vogue Hommes Japan.  I haven’t heard what the reasoning behind that shoot was, but my guess is something similar.  Either way, the meat dress isn’t a new concept – it’s been done before.


Now, if I was ever going to wear something made out of meat, it would be this replica Chanel bag by Nancy Wu.  It’s made completely out of hand-sewn beef jerky.  Brilliant.
What are your thoughts on these 2 meat dresses?

{ 30 comments… add one }

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  • Luc A. Charette February 8, 2013, 6:43 AM

    Canadian artist Jana Sterbak or Lady Gaga were not the first person to tickle the world by wearing a dress made from raw meat. British artist Linder Sterling (currently showing her first retrospective exhibition at Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne) got there before them, performing in a dress made from discarded chicken meat for a concert in 1982.

  • SG March 27, 2011, 8:46 PM

    Where did you get the quotes from Sterbak in The Meaning section?

  • THE-LOUDMOUTH January 1, 2011, 7:54 PM

    Thank you so much for taking the time to research this. I honestly think what Gaga did was a publicity stunt — she is so obsessed with getting attention that she’ll do anything. Being pescetarian, I don’t eat meat (except for fish) and seeing her dress disgusted me. But even if I did eat meat (which I have, in the past) it’s ridiculous that animals were killed for that purpose (instead of used for nourishment).

  • Ceilinh October 8, 2010, 3:53 AM

    Beautifully Invisible- I just found this post of yours and wanted to thank you for making it. I studied Jana Sterbak and her meat dress in university, so when I read about Lady GaGa’s latest stunt, I was irritated (to say the least) by her and her supposed statement. Thank you for telling everyone about the original meat dress.

    • Beautifully Invisible October 13, 2010, 9:41 PM

      Your welcome! It was my pleasure – I just hated the fact that everyone thought it was such an original idea, when it had been done before. And for a better reason!

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:21 AM

    I think many starving and well-fed are sickened by it!

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:20 AM

    Thanks. I agree, we are lucky. And yes, I tend to think her main motivation was shock factor.

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:19 AM

    Your “meat aversion” definitely makes sense. I DO eat both pork and steak, and GaGa’s dress grossed me out. Sterbak’s doesn’t – I find it strangely intriguing. I don’t know where the meat came from, but I would assume it was likely a local butcher. (This was also where the designer of GaGa’s dress got his meat.) You are right on the money though – Sterbak’s piece is an art instillation, and it is meant to be contemplative and to evoke a response LARGER than just shock.

    As for GaGa, I still like her music, but I get bored with her outside of that. The music should speak for itself, but she has created this persona where shocking/crazy/gross/disturbing/unexpected is now expected. She constantly has to outdo herself, but you are right – she isn’t always original. Most of it has been done before, although GaGa might do it bigger.

    i also heard she is a vegan. *shrug* shock factor, I guess. Maybe she thinks that somehow makes it more credible?

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:11 AM

    Ewww re: sitting next to GaGa and how the dress must have felt on her skin. YUCK.

    I agree re: the meat wastage. I think that is what sets Sterbak apart – her actual work is still studied today. GaGa’s motives will be studied, but I am sure the steak was thrown out long ago.

    However, as I mentioned below, PETA is also guilty of food waste in some of their best campaigns. I assume that the dresses their spokespersons wear (made out of vegetables) get thrown into the trash too.

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:07 AM

    I can’t argue with that!

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:07 AM

    Thank you! Art is definitely supposed to stir emotion, and Sterbak’s piece did. GaGa’s – not so sure that is art! LOL

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:06 AM

    Agreed, and my pleasure!

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:06 AM

    I agree re: this being a publicity stunt. Although, I don’t think any animals were killed for fashion purposes. I read that the designer for GaGa’s dress purchased the meat at his local butcher, so I think it was just available. Not to say that is right, because it is definitely a waste of food – someone could have eaten those steaks. But, on the flipside, PETA is know for their ad campaigns where they deck out actresses in clothing made out of vegetables, etc – that is ALSO a waste of food.

    I just really doubt that the message here IS about gay soldiers – I think it’s all about shock, shock, shock.

    And thanks for sharing the article!

  • Beautifully Invisible September 19, 2010, 12:02 AM

    I think the big difference is Sterbak didn’t do it for shock value, whereas I truly believe GaGa did.

  • Joanne Faith September 17, 2010, 1:55 PM

    This was really interesting to read, so thank you for that! I had no idea that it was not an original concept… It makes me really question whether Lady GaGa was just doing it for the shock value. I don't think her 'reasons' for it make that much sense though. I think that we are actually quite lucky over here in the Western world…

  • Jessica September 16, 2010, 10:07 PM

    I can't believe animals had to die for that. Starving people in other countries are probably sickened too.

  • Casee Marie September 15, 2010, 11:30 PM

    I think if you're an artist and your vision is to make a dress out of meat then you should just make a dress out of meat. It moves on from fashion to…more of an art installation, you know? I'm an on-again/off-again vegetarian, but I never eat pork or steak so the meat dress really bothers me in the kind of physical way that it bothers someone with an aversion to meat. Does that make any sense? But I respect art and I love art and I know that trying to limit art is like trying to catch sunshine in a bottle. It's something bigger than us and it can't be denied or controlled or directed. I can't expect to love every piece of art in the world. (The only thing that makes it hard to justify for me is that hunger and starvation are such an issue in so many places in the world. But I don't know the details of how they got the meat/the condition of the meat so I can't judge on that either.)

    I can't have the same respect for Gaga, though. I loved her back in…'07, I think, when her Just Dance EP came out, but that was before she was played on the radio and before she started trying to shock people. Now it annoys me that people think she's this amazingly original artist. She didn't make the meat dress, she isn't Alexander McQueen. She's a vehicle for those artists, and I think the fact that she has to resort to doing shocking things is proof that she doesn't really have anything to bring to the table herself. I do think she's a talented vocalist, but there are plenty of talented vocalists in the world and a lot of them are obscure, independent and generally more in need of support.

    Oh, and as far as Gaga's reasoning for wearing the meat dress…I appreciate what she's trying to say, but I don't get the connection. Also, apparently she's a vegan? That's just not making any kind of sense to me.

  • Cloud of Secrets September 15, 2010, 11:15 PM

    I was feeling revolted. I like meat, but I don't approve of meat wastage. I'm sure GaGa's dress and bikini went right into the garbage — were not preserved, studied, contemplated, and written about with intelligence. (I think the thoughts evoked/provoked by Sterbak's work are arguably worthy of the meat use.) And I'm shuddering to think what a meat dress must feel like on the skin. I wonder who got to sit next to GaGa at the VMAs?

    Thank you so much for the jerky Chanel bag punch line. Needed that!

  • The Well-Appointed Catwalk September 15, 2010, 10:38 PM

    Wow – thank you for this! I had never heard anything about a meat dress before Gaga. And, I'm with you leia- the connection to the rights of gay soldiers is tenuous to say the least. There are much better ways to get the message across.

    xo Marissa
    (The Well-Appointed Catwalk)

  • Porcelain Complexion September 15, 2010, 10:38 PM

    This is by far the most interesting post I have ever read.
    I had not heard about the original either, I really like the concept & thought that went into it and I totally agree art is supposed to stir emotion!

  • Stylethroughhereyes September 15, 2010, 10:38 PM

    I think it's digusting. That's honestly all I have to say about it.

  • leia12 September 15, 2010, 9:56 PM

    I think this is appalling. As a vegetarian I just don't believe in killing animals, but I am prepared to accept that well-treated animals can be argued to be part of the food chain, so if you're going to kill an animals it had darn well be because you're going to nourish yourself! I understand that my views aren't shared by the rest of the world, but I think it's just crass and vulgar to kill an animal for fashion purposes. Of course I'm being a hypocrite because I do wear things made out of leather (not fur, though) but that's because I understand that it's a byproduct (although I could be wrong!)

    ANYway, it's great that she's trying to send a message about gay soldiers, but I think there are more effective ways of doing so. I think this was just a publicity stunt.

    Also, this was a great post! I had no idea the meat dress was done before. Thanks for all the info! As usual I'll be sharing this article on my facebook page 🙂

  • Heather Fonseca September 15, 2010, 9:56 PM

    I wish lady gaga had done as much research as you did prior to wearing her meat dress! Great blog post I did know the history of gagas dress nor had I heard about the original. The artists version seems much more intelligent

  • Beautifully Invisible September 15, 2010, 9:56 PM

    I think it's really more about shock value where GaGa is concerned. I can kind of see what she is saying, but it's a stretch to think that was why she did it. Especially after the bikini image, which as far as I know she never commented on.

    I think the original was more controversial because of the time period (and the simple fact that so many people just don't get that type of art). It wasn't just PETA that hated it, it was politicians and vegetarians and vegans and everyday people who even ate meat.

    That's art, though – it's supposed to stir emotion!

  • kristy September 15, 2010, 9:56 PM

    this is a really interesting post. i didn't know any of the history of the meat dress.

    i don't really understand the correlation between the meat dress and lady gaga's reasons for wearing it.

    and i also don't understand why the original was all that controversial. it seems kind of silly. but i guess that's PETA for you.