Is the “revenge dress” extinct as a result of the pandemic? Kacey Musgraves teased her new album and short film Star-Crossed earlier this week. Her new music comes after her divorce, and it has a lot of similarities to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The film, which is billed as a “three-act tragedy,” employs fashion to convey her breakup tale, but there is no “revenge dress” look.
Rather, we saw Musgraves dressed in a variety of costumes that seemed to convey a mix of sorrow and catharsis. There’s a wedding gown that’s worn with extra-high shoes and bejeweled brows in a provocative way. A sprinkling of crimson tulle, a balaclava, and some angel wings complete the look. After the teaser was released, she shared a closeup shot of a corset with a small sword through it to her Instagram profile.
According to Dr. Dawnn Karen, author of Dress Your Best Life, “the corset might be a metaphor to the confinements of what she views marriage to be.” Musgraves appears to be wearing a silver breastplate in one moment (similar to the one worn by Cardi B in Lizzo’s Rumors video). Dr Karen speculates, “Perhaps she’s being sewn together so she can walk out into the world again.”
The phrase “revenge dress” was coined in 1994 in reference to Princess Diana’s shoulder-baring black silk Christina Stambolian dress, which she wore in public when Prince Charles admitted to adultery in the marriage.
Dr. Angela McRobbie, a communications professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London, adds, “It’s a very conservative concept.” She thinks the Mills and Boon-esque phrase fits into Jackie magazine’s pre-feminist themes. “In this claustrophobic society, the young lady who has been duped can conceive of no other way to punish her untrustworthy boyfriend but by displaying her body in lavish fashion.”
Diana’s visual messaging, however, had another depth. “While Charles was openly acknowledging his adultery with Camilla on the BBC, Diana showed up in a gown that completely weakened his power,” says University of Westminster Professor Andrew Groves. “Diana is a woman with fresh autonomy and authority in this garment, as acute as ever in recognizing the value of visual over soundbite in a mediated society.”
We see Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana hiding her face in the nest of what looks to be a bridal gown in the Spencer movie poster. It’s a sartorial turning moment for Groves. He remarks, “What strikes me about this image is that Diana is drowning in this garment; it is swamping her.”
“What if our worst tragedies become our greatest triumphs?” Musgraves wonders in the Star-Crossed clip. What if, like Diana, the clothing we wore in our worst moments helped us get through them? However, there is a catch. “There was someone extremely miserable and tortured behind her brilliantly manufactured self-presentation, as we subsequently learned with Princess Diana,” Groves adds.
Beyoncé was the one who came up with the concept of the “revenge dress” years later.
Beyoncé upended the visual language around vengeance clothing in her 2016 audio-visual infidelity tour de force, Lemonade. The artist integrated aspects of athleisure and prairie dressing into the videos for songs like Sorry, 6 Inch, and Pray You Catch Me through the prism of black feminism. But it was Roberto Cavalli’s canary-yellow gown that got connected to Jay-rumored Z’s affair with “Beckie with the beautiful hair.” However, the significance of this is more complex than we may imagine.
“I don’t think the Cavalli dress entirely aligns with that word other than conveying a certain narrative covered in an art historical blanket,” says fashion historian Darnell Jamal Lisby, who has done considerable study into the Lemonade style. “From a theoretical standpoint, the Cavalli dress might be called a ‘revenge dress,’ since it fits within this tale she was employing to convey her frustration.”
According to him, the yellow garment is a nod to the Nigerian goddess Oshun and refers to larger issues than retribution. “Through its west African inclinations, the dress, in conjunction with the lyrics and the scene of Beyoncé walking, skipping down the street, and smashing cars, emphasizes the rebirth she experienced as a woman not blinded by her partner’s facade, while enduring anger after discovering infidelity in her relationship.”
The concept of “revenge clothing” is still alive and well, but it has progressed beyond the single. Professor Ashwani Monga of Rutgers Business School states, “Acts of revenge dressing and buying have always occurred but used to be individualized – people expressed themselves according on their own personal condition.” “However, the epidemic is something that we are all experiencing as a group. As a result, we’re experiencing comparable feelings and behaving in similar ways.”
This includes “revenge shopping” (which originated in China, with the concept that people would rush out after the lockdown to buy luxury things) and “revenge dressing” (linked to dressing in bold patterns and colours during the boom time of the roaring 20s). Professor Groves describes revenge buying as “fashion as retail therapy writ big.” “Clothes have a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive us. There comes a time in life when, like Princess Diana, you’ve had enough of being told what to do and want to do what you want regardless of the consequences.”
“If I go vengeance shopping, I’m damaging my ‘virtue self,’ which ruled supreme throughout the epidemic, preventing me from spending money on frivolous, superficial consumption,” Professor Monga explains. “Enough with this goody-two-shoes attitude,” he declares. “At the same time, vengeance shopping allows me to reward my ‘vice self,’ who, after a lengthy period of agony, wants to finally let go, indulge, and have fun.”
According to him, the epidemic has affected our shopping decisions in a variety of ways. “Some individuals have grown more nihilistic, believing that life is so uncertain and worthless that there’s no purpose in planning for a brighter future,” he adds. “Doing what one feels like doing at the time, including vengeance buying, is preferable. For them, nihilism provides a convenient excuse to focus on the moment rather than the future.”
Monga believes the notion of a “revenge garment” has evolved. “It’s no longer about taking a stand against others. Rather, it’s about taking a stand against one’s own “virtue self,” which served as a check on excessive consumption during the epidemic.”