The image of Miley Cyrus' stripper shimmy at last night's MTV Video Music Awards will be forever burned into the minds of millions. (And don't get it twisted — that was not a twerk she performed — it was more like a warm-up move from her Flirty Girl Fitness DVD).
The double performance of "We Can't Stop" and "Blurred Lines" (which cast her as the video girl to Robin Thicke's Beetlejuice) has spawned untold thousands of words about its brazen cultural appropriation and unforgivable use of black women as props. But even speaking strictly stylewise, Cyrus appropriated certain other ideas, as well. Ever since the Diane Martel-directed "We Can't Stop" video, Cyrus has been working with overgrown, slightly scary stuffed teddy bears, part of her adamant message that she is Growing Up. Versions of those appeared on set, designed by Todd "Reas" James, and though they were meant to complement Miley's silver lamé leotard (with a tongue-out bear-face also presumably designed by Reas), one image loomed large, and it wasn't the 20-foot Teddy with rave glasses: It was Kanye West's College Dropout sad-bear suit, an image so iconic that even Miley's heavy-handed, foam-handed vision couldn't erase it from her performance.
Of course, everyone was quickly distracted when she ripped off her leotard to expose a latex bralette and bottom in a hue that matched her skin tone — the first impulse to feel beside yourself at her near-nudity might have been tempered by relief that the shorts peeking from the bottom of her bear-suit were not an over-exposed buttpad. Her over-enthusiastic video-chicking to Robin Thicke's wide-striped and slightly fermoozled performance of "Blurred Lines" might have seemed an odd placement, but makes a bit more sense when you consider Martel directed that video, too — awkward pairings are what you risk when you're doubling up art direction.
Apart from that, there weren't many style risks at the VMA, which is slightly disappointing from an awards show that's been a platform for wild looks since Madonna writhed "Virgin"-like onstage in a Maripol-designed, bustier/wedding dress in 1984. Hands down the best dressed red carpet attendee was Ciara, wearing a feathery swan dress from Givenchy's indefatigable Fall 2010 haute couture collection, probably the best season that label's had in 10 years, though Rita Ora gave her a birdlike run for her money in a similarly feather-hemmed couture piece from Alexandre Vauthier, a favorite designer of the Roc Nation singer.
Onstage, though, we were low on performance pomp and flash. Even Lady Gaga, Ms. Style Risk U.S.A., was something approaching demure, taking the carpet in custom Prabal Gurung and keeping her stage antics low-key. She opened the show in an architectural tunic that recalled Katy Perry's Dior box hat and cast her as a Warholian take on the Flying Nun, but kept it simple even as she stripped down. Mimicking her gorgeous "Applause" video, shot by revered fashion photographers Inez + Vinoodh, Gaga transitioned through looks that invoked not just her past, but others' — the Bob Fosse choreography and Broadway-glittering leotard recalled Ann Reinking in Fosse's classic All That Jazz, a weird but delightful touchstone in a performance that felt wildly retro, like Pia Zadora doing kabuki theater. When she finally stripped off all her costume down to a butt-baring seashell thong and strapless bra, she was certainly more naked than the offending Cyrus of yore, but the statement was less sexual than it was bold. For what it's worth, that screenshot of the Smith family looking disgusted depicts their reaction to the seapunk bikini, not Miley's beginning stripper class moves. Was it that shocking, though? Perhaps Jaden is friends with Lil Internet.
What was appalling, though, was the reinvigoration of the fedora — on Justin Timberlake, on Bruno Mars, and on DJ Cassidy (the latter calls his hat his signature boater, but it's gross enough to fit in this category). Of course, the fashion hat on older dudes is often a sign of male pattern baldness and the shame associated with it — or at least, that is what the fedora screams, no matter who is wearing it. And if any of these wonderful and talented men is losing his hair, perhaps they should go in a different direction; Ne-Yo, for instance, has made the bald-spot-concealing skully work for him for a good seven years, and it's only when he plops a fedoralike hat on his headpiece that we are reminded of why he's wearing it in the first place.
If this is not the case and all of these beautiful gentlemen are walking around, being fabulous, hair intact: WHY? Even Timberlake's, which was by far the finest millinery work of the three, with a snug fit and compact, well-lined brim, was imbuing him with a trying-too-hard factor that distracted. Particularly with the abstract lines on his shirt, he had something of a Quaker/Mennonite vibe that he was certainly not going for, but fully accomplished. Or, as New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica tweeted: "William Rast F/W 2009-10," invoking Timberlake's somewhat awkward attempt at running a clothing label that nonetheless resonates with Middle America. (The fedora is not just formalwear, either — here he is during the pre-show wearing it with khakis, completely disrespecting his Comme des Garçons button down, while looking like a caricature of a Brooklyn novelist.)
And after Timberlake's suave, 20-minute performance and 'N Sync reunion, it's probably the biggest takeaway from last night: If Timberlake can't do it, no one else should, either.