Jennifer Lopez’s Fashion Blunder at American Music Awards

Robin Givhan on the outfit that cried out for attention in all the wrong ways.

Matt Sayles / AP Photo

The fact that Jennifer Lopez should deliver a provocative performance at the American Music Awards Sunday night wasn’t much of a surprise. She’s the kind of entertainer who knows how to titillate the public to her benefit—especially when it comes to attire. Lopez has made couture sizzle and has given near-nudity a ring of elegance.

So when she took the stage wearing a long, filmy dress with a leopard-print cape, her hair blowing from the breeze kicked up by a wind machine, only the most naive viewer would have expected that she’d remain so modestly and blandly attired. Followers of popular culture knew to expect a big reveal.

The surprise was that what lay beneath the flutter of fabric was banal exhibitionism.

Lopez hit her dance moves wearing a silver-spangled, nude bodysuit with a skirt of silver fringe. A few minutes later, the fringe was gone and the only thing between her and FCC litigation were a few well-placed sparkles. (The onstage presence of a Fiat, which Lopez shills for in advertisements, was also a miscalculation, but one involving greed rather than glitter.)

Few people would wear such a revealing get-up if they weren’t confident that their physique was in tip-top shape. So, make no mistake, Lopez’s figure was magnificent: strong, curvy, and lean.

But her costume too closely resembled the glitter-encrusted bodysuits favored by Britney Spears—a style that became a signature for the pop singer as she transitioned from tween star to adult performer. For Spears, the revealing bodysuit was an in-your-face display of bravado—a loud proclamation of her sexuality. Coming from a young woman barely into adulthood, the stance was—if not admirable—at least not surprising.

On Lopez—a 40-something accomplished performer who has regularly shown a more sophisticated, nuanced, and original take on sexuality and provocation—the bodysuit was a disappointment. There was no finesse or thoughtfulness in that costume. Its sole purpose was to show off her figure: to her peers, to her fans, to her estranged husband Marc Anthony, who performed separately … to herself. It spoke of insecurity rather than control, defensiveness instead of dynamism.

Almost without fail—and for better or worse—as Lopez’s star has risen, she has always owned her look. At the American Music Awards, she seemed to be borrowing a cliché.

A lot of celebrities understand that fashion goes hand in hand with stardom and the various red carpets that must be navigated. But Lopez has always gone a step further in recognizing the role fashion can play in crafting a public image and transforming a pretty actress into one tilting at iconic status.

Who can forget Lopez’s appearance at the Grammy Awards in 2000 when she greeted the media dressed in a plunging Versace scarf print gown? The dress, with its lush pattern of palm fronds and tropical flora, dipped several inches below her navel and was seemingly held in place with nothing but an ornate brooch. How it managed to remain attached to her glistening torso as she walked, sat, and breathed is a mystery of modern fashion technology.

The dress’s deep neckline was matched by its high slit. And the only thing that kept it from being obscene were the turquoise hot pants paired with it. It was an extraordinarily constructed dress, one that seemed to defy gravity. It was revealing without revealing anything. It dazzled because it threatened to slip away at any moment. And it suggested that only a brave, confident, and adventurous woman would wear it.

In a single dress, Lopez flirted with indecency, startled the public with the strength of her physique, and never let a sweet smile fade from her lips. The effect was far more interesting that a glitter-dusted bodysuit.

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A year later, when Lopez walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards, she wore Chanel haute couture. The gown’s skirt, dignified dove-gray silk, was topped with a swath of sheer charcoal-gray silk that shielded—but did not hide—her breasts. Her hair was pulled back in an elegant chignon. Her makeup was refined.

The contrast of the grande dame styling with the peek-a-boo bodice had the effect of making one question exactly how propriety is defined. Tongues started wagging and critics began to cluck. Why was the visible shadow of a breast more startling than heaving cleavage?

It’s hard to imagine that Lopez spends a great deal of time pondering the cultural significance of her public attire. Often, it seems that her choices are based on personal preference, the occasion, and just how much attention she’d like to attract. But her fashion decisions often ring with an intriguing sexual frisson. Sometimes they force a rethinking of old Hollywood traditions and cultural decorum. Sometimes, they force folks to ask themselves why the threat of a female body being revealed is more intoxicating than simple nudity. If nothing else, the clothes make Lopez stand out as more interesting, more exciting than the rest of the Hollywood swans.

Sadly, the only thing that made Lopez stand out in last night’s sea of stars was a hackneyed performance that had her shilling for Fiat in her silver bedazzled skivvies.