There was a girl in high school; her name was Kaysha -- who had a particular look. She wasn't the only girl with this look at St. Ann's, but she was the one who was most committed. She had the most style. She was part of a group who often went out to nightclubs, most notably Danceteria. When I finally went to Danceteria, trailing along behind some classmates who were grandly waved in by the doorman Howie, I saw a lot of other women dressed like Kaysha. But she was the one who carried it off most crisply, with the most conviction. Somehow, I always thought this look was her invention.
So I paused when I saw Madonna's picture for the first time. It was either on one of her records or in a magazine. I understood Madonna was a regular at Danceteria. I understood that the look of the women at that club, and the whole downtown New York look of that time, was influenced by many different people and places and was a kind of collective invention. Yet I couldn't help but feel that Madonna had ripped off Kaysha's look.
This was the spring of 1983. Madonna's singles were being played all the time. I would find myself casting sidelong glances at Kaysha to see how she was holding up. She was a sophomore in high school. She was pretty and carefree. She seemed to be holding up just fine. But I would check her out, just to be sure, as though waiting for the advent of some bitterness.
This all came to mind while watching the fascinating video essay by Josh Gilbert in which Colette, a woman who feels her look has been stolen, takes action against the thief. The difference between Madonna and Lady Gaga is that at the start Madonna felt like a big deal locally, whereas the Gaga phenomenon always felt global and about large sums of money. This video is in theory about style but the mood is about money -- an insider and an outsider. A reclamation project. Street theater. Performance art. Nuttiness. Absurd fashion. White paint on the sidewalk.
Josh Gilbert is the author of several beautiful essays -- both written and on video -- about street life in New York. Here he has put together a little sketch about retroactively claiming rights to a look: http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2012/01/born-this-way.