re: dress: Here’s Why Mad Max’s Costume Designer Is Basically Rihanna

Meredith Graves waxes poetic on why the mall beats the Oscars’ red carpet.

Last weekend’s #OscarsSoWhite served as yet another powerful reminder that, in general, the United States Entertainment Industrial Complex is suffering from a sort of ecological disaster in which a parasitic species (fine-boned, unhappy-looking white entertainers) has dramatically outnumbered other members of its genus (glamorous, powerful black entertainers). The red carpet was a veritable Ringling Brothers parade of brightly colored, twenty-thousand-dollar gowns on colorless bodies with interchangeable heads.

The world’s elite came together for one night and it was as awkward as a high school prom. Ill-fitting strapless nightmares abounded (the best comment of the night went to my boyfriend, who asked why Sarah Silverman looked like she was being squeezed out of a tube). Who are these unremarkable people with individual incomes to rival those of small countries? Why do they look so goofy in such expensive, tame clothing? Fashion is full of miracles, so where were the swan dresses? (Possible answer: staying home in protest.)

No wonder we all found Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer Jenny Beavan’s outfit to be the most remarkable of the evening. Black jacket bedazzled with a roller derby patch that looks like it came from JoAnn Fabrics? Check. Patti Smith hair? Check. Ban the bleached teeth and assholes of the Illuminati; give me a middle-aged Australian anarchist who looks like she bought her outfit at Christopher & Banks. When someone on the red carpet is truly just feeling herself, we all know.


Somewhere between the overwhelming whiteness of being and the desire to see women in dresses that don’t cost as much as a new Audi and look like absolute shit, I flashed back to the greatest cinematic achievement released in recent memory: Rihanna’s doubleheader video for “Work,” the first single off her much-loved recent release Anti. In a world in which even the most rebellious awards ceremony in recent memory is still overwhelmingly white, we must exalt and uplift images of glamorous, successful black women.

So, Rihanna’s “Work” video is wild cool because she, and every woman in it, looks like she’s wearing clothes from the mall. The video was shot by Director X on location at a Toronto Caribbean restaurant-dance-spot, a cultural center X explains in a wonderful interview over at Fader. It was cast, he explains, with a mix of Rihanna’s IRL friends and local kids who attended an open call. Real folks wearing their own clothes to dance (and eat!) at a spot where they’d actually hang out and dance and eat.

What’s cooler than a million-dollar dress? When the most glamorous, successful and stylish women in the world use their image and fashion choices to inspire their fans in a more direct sense. It shows a particular awareness of financial privilege on the artist’s behalf (ex: Nicki designing a line for KMart back in 2014). There are so few stars, but now every woman everywhere can dress like Nicki and Rihanna. Old Hollywood is on its way out. In 2016, it’s cooler for stars to present more attainable images of beauty.

Rihanna is my age — younger by like half a year, if anyone’s counting — so I know she was probably in sixth grade in 2001. Like other people our age, she was early-Internet, probably didn’t have a cellphone until, like, 2004-2005 at the earliest, and may have spent her early teenage years plugged into the only social network we had at our disposal: the food court at the mall. We were a little too young to get jobs, we may even have still received allowances, and the mall was rife with choices for girls looking to spend less than twenty bucks on an outfit.

Rainbow, Mandee, Deb (for halter tops and “99% Angel” pajamas), Wet Seal, Hot Topic for fishnets, Claire’s for sparkly hair accessories: we had it all. I close my eyes and can still see hordes of girls piling into Deb the Friday before a school dance, picking out fringed fake suede halters and rainbow terrycloth tube tops, our first high heels, clutch purses with a little wrist strap. We went together and helped each other pay because, don’t worry, Brittany’s mom will pay you back. We envied the girls who could buy entire outfits at once — there wasn’t a girl at Case Junior High School who wouldn’t have killed for Rihanna’s look from the second half of the “Work” video: a sparkly lavender halter top and chopped-up acid wash denim skirt.


And what kind of music did they play — do they play, still — at the mall? Pop music. Then? Mariah. Now? Rihanna. Who do we want to hang out with at the mall? Girls like Rihanna — girls who look like they’re having more fun looking at themselves in the mirror than dancing with dudes — and her fun group of real-life girlfriends.

You can keep your red carpet — I would rather teleport back to the fluorescent lighting and stained carpet of the Deb dressing rooms at Salmon Run Mall. Me and Rihanna and our girlfriends, each of us proud to be 99% angel, until our moms — who look at us as suspiciously as those men looked at Jenny Beavan as she went to collect her Oscar — come to pick us up at the exit near the food court.

(Photo credits: Meredith Graves by Charlotte Zoller, Rihanna image from “Work” video)

Meredith Graves is a musician and writer. She also runs a small record label called Honor Press. You can follow her on Twitter here and on Instagram here.