Tailoring a solution to the Barbara Dex Award

Cover photo credit: EBU/Andres Putting

With the amount of attention given to staging at Eurovision, the concept of a fashion award is appropriate. Artists and their teams put a lot of thought into their look, as we saw with the number of outfits that changed from live on tape to first rehearsal to final show. 

However, the current Barbara Dex award is too identified with its history as a “worst dressed” award, no matter how organisers have tried to respond with the “most notable” narrative. 

So here are some thoughts on how a fashion award might be delivered in future years:

1. Change the name of the award: Look, we don’t want to take the award away from its Benelux origins. The award is named after the 1993 Belgian entry, was started in 1997 by two Dutch fans, and is now administered by the songfestival.be website. But the name “Barbara Dex” is now associated with “worst dressed.”

If we’re looking to rebrand, there are plenty of Belgian Eurovision contestants with amazing fashion. Think of Laura Tesoro in her silver sequined number from 2016, or Xandee’s shimmering red dress in 2005, or Nicole & Hugo in their bedazzled blue jumpsuits from 1973. Heck, we can even go back to the shiny three-piece suit worn by Fud LeClerc in 1958. 

But if you’d like something more memorable, why not choose one of the artists who was a previous recipient of the award – like Verka Seduchka. While Verka was chosen as “worst dressed” in 2007, her outfit has now become a beloved symbol of modern Eurovision, copied at parties and featured in museums.

Verka Serduchka, Eurovision 2007 (Source)

2. Implement some guidance for the voting: The list of Barbara Dex award winners is a bit mystifying. There are some acts – like the aforementioned Verka and this year’s recipient TIX – who have incredibly memorable outfits.

But other winners seem to have earned the honour by not having outfits that were memorable enough – like TaTU (2003) and Martin Vučić (2005), who committed the cardinal sin of wearing jeans and t-shirts on stage. 

If the award is truly for the “most notable” outfit, then explain what that is – the outfit that is going to stick in viewer’s minds afterwards; the outfit most representative of the common conception of Eurovision as camp; the outfit that elicits the most gasps? 

3. Add more than one award: Eurovision has grown and expanded since the award was first announced in 1997 – and the award needs to grow and change with it. Why not set up categories for Best [Turquoise or whatever colour] Carpet Look? Most notable look from each Semifinal? And most notable look from the final? It will require more administration, yes, but it will also help to change the association of the award from solely “worst dressed.”

Go_A on the Turquoise Carpet, Eurovision 2021 (Photo Credit: EBU/Thomas Hanses)

4. Bring in a jury: Oof, I know, we all hate juries – but it would help validate the award as a serious fashion choice. And Antwerp is a centre for fashion, with a celebrated fashion programme at its Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Why not get some designers to weigh in and combine their scores with the public vote, so as to dilute any influence from fan (or hater) campaigns? 

5. Give it some time: The list of past winners of the Barbara Dex award is puzzling. After all of us have been partaking of old contests via Eurovision Again, we know that what’s won in the past rarely represents the worst – or best – of what’s on the stage that night.

The problem is that the week after the contest is often too fresh for a costume to be divorced from the performance of a song. We can’t disconnect the look from the sound. So, since songfestival.be already runs the Eurovision 250 award, why don’t they add in a Eurovision Top 10 Looks award, to be announced on New Year’s Eve?  With the passage of time, we’re more able to judge what’s actually a great costume choice versus what merely passed for a style popular in the day. 

Photo Credit: EBU

6. Just get rid of it: Maybe the award made sense at one point, back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when pop culture skewed misogynist and mean. You know, when Perez Hilton reigned as a gossip king, and publications counted down to the 18th birthdays of teen stars like Britney Spears and the Olsen Twins, and “Pick Up Artist” culture was mainstream.

But we’re in an era where the leading mantra is Be Kind (even though we so often aren’t). We now regularly talk about mental health and the anxiety and stress that result from being in the public eye, when so often all a contestant at Eurovision wants to do is sing. And Eurovision is no longer a place where an artist is going to wear a dress they’ve made themselves, but a place where every styling choice is made by a committee, not a person.

So to hand out an award associated with tacky taste to an artist who may have had very little input into their outfit just seems mean, and against everything a contest associated with peace and love is about.

Songfestival.be should be commended for their engagement with fans who have complained about the contest, and we’re encouraged by their openness to feedback and seeming willingness to take the contest in a different direction. We want to celebrate what they’ve built – it’s something many fans look forward to each year –  but also hope that they’ll take steps to reduce the mean-spirited associations with the fashion contest. 

With the amount of joy we all get from the contest, it seems more constructive to be celebrating the effort of all contestants, rather than simply aping the less informed comments from all the Saturday Night Twitter Drunks who think they’re hilarious. We’re better than that.