Music

Sam Smith’s Brit Awards look is part of a long tradition of brilliant pop 'attention seeking'

Sam Smith's bold Brit Awards outfit references pop art, Leigh Bowery, and David Bowie, and was a personal response to body dysmorphia.

Sam Smith arrives for the 2023 BRIT Awards ceremony at The O2 arena in London. Image: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Sam Smith arrives for the 2023 BRIT Awards ceremony at The O2 arena in London. Image: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Sam Smith didn’t win a Brit award this year, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the coverage. The singer was the third most talked about name on Twitter after Harry Styles and Wet Leg (who won six awards between them, to Sam’s zero). Partly it was a response to a brilliant, grease-smeared, fetishy performance of Unholy, their collaboration with Kim Peytras, but mostly it was that red carpet outfit, making them either the best dressed celebrity at the event, or the worst dressed star in Brits history, depending on who you ask.

Sam Smith’s Brit Awards red carpet look

Smith walked into the Brits wearing a ballooning, latex outfit by Keralan designer Harri, known for bulging, pop-art-inspired fashion. There were several on-point references layered into the look – fetish, obviously (Smith has very much leaned into this recently) and pop art, but also the Blitz Club and legendary weirdo club kid icon Leigh Bowery, whose extravagant and imposing costumes pretty much defined the mish-mash of queer, fetish, drag and clowning of London and New York’s artsy club scenes. Most obviously there’s a nod to David Bowie’s Kansai Yamamoto pin-stripe vinyl jumpsuit, a bespoke piece made for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour that distended dramatically at the legs in the same way as Smith’s.

Harri’s look for Smith was super-queer, super-coded, super-fashion and absolutely eye-catching. It was also personal, playing into recent comments the singer has made about body dysmorphia by making their body shape literally impossible and teasing those who have made cruel comments about their weight by expanding to over-fill a space in pop they’re constantly told they’re the wrong shape for. It stole the night. It was, as the kids would say, a serve.

Piers Morgan thinks they’re attention seeking

And it pissed people off. Royally. Beautifully. As the Brit Awards continued, Twitter, especially, was awash with “what are they wearing?” comments, and the memes were immediate and plentiful. There was a nasty tone to a lot of the conversation; accusations of “attention seeking” and thinly veiled homophobia and transphobia. Tedious provocateur-in-chief Piers Morgan accused Smith of being “thirsty for attention” – perhaps the least self-aware comment made in the history of human civilisation. We’ll gloss over Morgan’s sneering placement of Sam’s pronoun in quotation marks.

Of course they were thirsty for attention. Pop stars on red carpets are supposed to be thirsty for attention. The outfit’s similarity to Bowie’s classic look was no coincidence; Ziggy Stardust set the template for sartorial pop eccentricity – the need to create dramatic moments through fashion to stand out. He wasn’t the first – he was channelling Elvis and Little Richard as well as an army of avant-garde and underground names – but it was Ziggy that super-charged the idea and took it to gorgeous extremes. Someone last year referred to Bowie as “the coolest rockstar ever to bestride the planet”. Who said that? Let me check. Oh. It was Piers Morgan.

Pop and outrageous fashion statements

Walking the line between dramatic-work-of-art and “a bit of a tit” is a fine celebrity tradition, and provides the defining moments of most award ceremonies and glitzy do’s. Lady Gaga’s meat dress, Bjork as a swan, everything Billy Porter has ever worn to the Met Gala. Geri Halliwell’s knicker-flashing Union Jack mini-dress. Prince in pink capes and ostrich feathers. Lily Allen’s dramatic Chanel piece with its amazing collar. That time Katy Perry dressed as a chandelier.

Surely this is what we want from these occasions and from these people? Events like the Brit Awards are ridiculous celebrations. They’re fantasies. If you want elegance, watch the Oscars. If you want gritty, go and see a Mike Leigh film. If you want ordinary, go down the pub.

This is pop. It’s a confection. A hyper-real, sugar-laced art statement. It should be ridiculous. It should be so thirsty for attention that it’s practically dead from dehydration. It should be literally anything but boring, and ideally as far from that as it is possible to be. Escapist, exciting, stylish and just a bit ridiculous. And that was all there in Sam Smith, one-part queer art masterpiece, one-part goth Michelin Man and the true winner of the Brits 2023.

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