That Straight Red Line From Lady Gaga To Angela Merkel

From Madame Gaga's infamous meat dress to Chancellor Merkel's boxy blazers, women are setting new standards in feminine fashion, whether men like it or not.

Merkel's blazer and Lady Gaga's meat dress
Merkel's blazer and Lady Gaga's meat dress
David Pfeifer

BERLIN â€" Critiquing style is a rather inexact science, a field of study that falls somewhere, perhaps, between astrology and anthropology. Observers try to interpret every new development, no matter how tiny, and figure out how it fits into the bigger picture of fashion, culture and life.

Sometimes changes are just trends, things that become popular for no particular reason, that don't have a deeper meaning. And yet even in those situations, critics can be counted on to assign meaning and thus render the inherent meaninglessness of the trend irrelevant.

In some cases, though, changes in style really do signal significant cultural shifts. A case in point is the changing image of women in pop culture, an image that is removed from male understandings of what a woman should be and is emerging, not by coincidence, at the same time as the "no means no" debate in Germany and elsewhere.

On the silver screen, female characters now fight men until at least one nose has been broken. Women in the latest Star Wars film, and in Mad Max Fury Road and The Hunger Games â€" the kind of action blockbusters that are usually aimed at a young male audiences â€" wear costumes that still look feminine but don't hold them back from delivering the ocassional smack-down.

Even female pop music icons (with the exception of Miley Cyrus) have moved away from the porn-star look sported "in the good old days" by performers like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

Lady Gaga’s appearance at the 2010 MTV Awards, where she wore a dress made of fresh meat, seemed to mark a turning point, helping spawn the concept â€" popular in cultural criticism circles â€" of "sexiness refusal." Since then, artist have enjoyed a more diverse range of options for expressing themselves, from Adele’s corpulent peculiarity to Sia's sexiness satire, which involves the use of alluring red lipstick, but also wigs that cover her face all the way down to those red-red lips.

There have been similar shifts of late in the fashion world. The fashion collective Vetements featured gigantic, square jackets and large hoodies that cover up more than they reveal. They may seem unattractive at first glance, but they're also selling. That's because over the past year, female clothing behavior has changed. Women don’t want to see the shortest of dresses at fashion shows. They don't want to serve male ideals and clichés.

Or am I perhaps reading too much into this, attaching meaning to what is just a passing trend? The Italian systematic theorist and sociologist Elena Esposito notes how strange it is that we perceive fashion â€" which is, by its very nature, fleeting and time-sensitive â€" as a constant point of reference for societal change. But she also states that "for all its overt banality, the validity of fashion is irrefutable."

It is the fleetingness of fashion, after all, that people rely on to express their ever changing individuality as it depends on mood, surroundings, occasion and expectations. The paradox is that as styles come in, everyone, in their quest to be different, gravitates toward a similar look. That is how trends emerge.

The current fashion trend tells us that the mood of womanhood has taken a darker, angrier, smarter, more brutal and empathetic turn. Women who wear unusual styles want to be perceived as unusual but also beautiful, albeit in a non-standard sense. Think Charlize Theron sporting a shaved head in Mad Max and Sia with her wild wigs.

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

These choices don't represent a refusal of sexiness but rather a way to clearly communicate signals. They also enable women to escape their own objectification, though that is only a side effect rather than a planned end goal.

Fashion is a way of communicating without words. Jil Sander’s clean-cut designs, in the 1990s, enabled women to look professional without looking too sexy or too provincial. Gucci wearing women had a more aggressive undertone that spoke volumes about their monetary expectations. Since then, though, things have become a bit more complicated. Nowadays, a woman is able to be manager of a large company and still let herself be tied up in a bodice if she wants to. She is allowed to be an object but only if she wants to be one.

Still, women cannot not be stylish. Take the case of Angela Merkel, whose style statements are never empty statements. Her short and often colorful blazers are sometimes ridiculed for being too boring, too colorful, too short. Other women â€"most notably Angelica Blechschmid, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue â€" get worked up over Merkel’s lack of female finesse.

But when the chancellor decided to adhere to a classic feminine look by wearing a ball gown with a definite décolletage at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, the rainbow press went into a titter. "She is a woman!" they marveled. No other badly dressed politician â€" and there are a good number of them â€" ever had to endure such comments.

Women can't simply be dressed; they have to be dressed the way they want to be perceived. And that is why women are usually right when they stand in front of their wardrobes and say, "I don’t have anything to wear." The woman who utters this sentence is not referring to the number of garments in her possession. She's talking about her inability to express herself for that particular occasion, or in her particular state of mind.

The more unsophisticated among us men may think that the streetwear inspired clothes of Vetements, or a skin-headed Charlize Theron, are meant to "not be attractive to me." But that's not true. The new female role models of the silver screen and pop music industry, who wear unusual vintage pieces, Vetements hoodies and even meat dresses, are simply communicating in a more varied way.

These women want to avoid the obvious fashion expectations and constraints, but also be alluring and unapproachable at the same time. They want to display the entirety of their personality and its various facets. Their style is more than just decoration; it's a statement, one that's worth taking the time to contemplate.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!