Over the last decade or two, the red carpet has matured from a guileless ingénue into a knowing megastar. Once upon a time, you might have seen Barbra Streisand accept an Oscar in a sparkling, sheer sailor top and flares (1979), or Anjelica Huston attend the ceremony in a Halston gown that she’d bought two days previously at Neiman Marcus (1975). The red carpet was a gig for which Demi Moore paired a corset with Lycra shorts in 1989 and Kim Basinger, the following year, wore an Elvis-tribute satin dress that she’d designed herself. It was a brilliantly lawless land – an obstacle course of personal style that truly told us something about each guest and their taste.
Kim Basinger 1990
“When you look back, it looks so innocent in a way, so gauche,” says Jess Cartner-Morley, fashion editor at The Guardian. “It’s a long way from what we have now, which is a very highly sophisticated fashion machine.”
Take a bow, the celebrity stylist. He or she – an invention of the 1990s – is the professional who helps each actress to present a carefully considered message: a custom blend of glamour, quirkiness, sex appeal, wholesomeness, femininity and edginess, which tells the world where she is in life (Successfully Making The Transition From Child Star To Serious Actress, for example, or Doing Better Than Ever Despite My Divorce). Stylists broker deals between designers and celebrities, and if the actress dazzles sufficiently in her borrowed dress, this can help her land lucrative ad campaigns, magazine covers and better roles; it can also boost sales for the brand. Sometimes, money literally changes hands in exchange for the star wearing a particular dress or mentioning the designer on camera. The New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman recently called the scene a “race to the cash register” – in reality, everyone’s a winner.
There are benefits to the new order. The more conservative attendees of these events have often tended towards “a flattering metallic sheath with a corset underneath, which is the default red-carpet thing because it’s glam”, says Cartner-Morley. But, with the coverage attracting more attention than ever – just try wading through the internet after an awards show – more innovative designers now have a reason to take the project seriously. For me and others interested in fashion, this means actually seeing a reflection of the catwalks out there, rather than just a lot of blandly pretty frocks. “If you look at what Nicolas Ghesquière is doing at Vuitton for the women he dresses on the red carpet, they’re really interesting clothes, with loads of design content,” she adds. “Alicia Vikander last year was in slashed leather. He does seem to incorporate the actresses’ personalities in the clothes – they’re recognisably Vuitton, but you feel like you’re looking at a woman and a spirit as well.”
Jennifer Lawrence is approaching the end of a three-year, $15m contract with Dior, which has dressed her in mostly full-skirted, strapless princess gowns for every event – beautiful but boring
On the other hand, a long-term commitment to one designer can start to feel rather dull, particularly if it is motivated by business, rather than a shared sensibility. Jennifer Lawrence, for example, is approaching the end of a three-year, $15m contract with Dior, which has dressed her in mostly full-skirted, strapless princess gowns for every event – beautiful, but boring. Dior is classically ladylike, while Lawrence is funny and irreverent. When she wore black Schiaparelli Couture to a premiere in 2015, she seemed to be in an altogether sexier comfort zone of her own. “If they’re not careful, actresses can end up looking bought and paid for by a brand,” says Jessica Morgan, co-founder of the celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself. “I think if you have a really good stylist, you can overcome that, but these are a lot of weird business decisions people have to make that they didn’t have to make 10 years ago.”
In this stage-managed environment, it goes gleefully viral when an actress in some way decides to rebel; waking up the morning after an awards show, these are the stories I click on first. In 2014, there was Elisabeth Moss, who flipped a middle finger at E!’s moronic “Mani Cam”, a mini red carpet on which female celebrities were supposed to parade their manicures – it became one of the most shared gifs of the night. At this year’s Golden Globes, Lola Kirke teamed her embroidered Andrew Gn gown with unshaven armpits – still unusual enough to make headlines. Then there was Evan Rachel Wood, who eschewed gowns for the Globes and instead wore an Altuzarra tuxedo: “I wanted to make sure that young girls and women knew that [dresses] aren’t a requirement,” she explained. Wearing a suit isn’t outlandish – but in this highly formulaic context, it made a point.
And it’s those who do something different who we really remember. “I do think the public appreciates people who are just their own eccentric self,” says Morgan. “Parker Posey, for example, has always dressed like your dramatic aunt and there’s something about it that’s very appealing. I think, in the long run, that stuff has a better lifespan.”
The other benefit of eccentricity is that it can give us – let’s be honest – something to laugh at. My first interest in the red carpet was not gazing dreamily at Audrey Hepburn in a Givenchy dress – it was flicking through every issue of Heat magazine during my student years, howling at the fashion gaffes and the caustic captions. Cher in a spangly Bob Mackie dress with no regard for taste brings me more joy than anything by Ghesquière. I used to watch Fashion Police for Joan Rivers’ most nuclear putdowns (and I still admire and miss her). Then there was Go Fug Yourself, launched by Morgan and Heather Cocks in 2004 and still going strong; it began as a way for them to entertain their friends with amateur criticism of celebrity fashion and it tapped into the hunger at the time for witty, bitchy commentary.
Criticising someone’s ensemble at an event like a movie premiere doesn’t feel super personal, because this is a decision that’s been made in committee
The pair see the red carpet as a professional performance, ripe for criticism. “Nothing is accidental,” says Morgan. “They are selling something. Whether it is a film or themselves, none of these decisions are made thoughtlessly. So, for me, criticising someone’s ensemble at an event like a movie premiere doesn’t feel super personal, because this is a decision that’s been made in committee, frankly.”
If you put critics on a continuum from Rivers to, say, one of those faintly patronising Dove adverts that declares all women to be beautiful inside and out – Morgan and Cocks are somewhere in the middle. A recent post on Chloë Sevigny, for example, said of her outfit choice, “This is hilarious to me. I find it really charming, in a non-attractive way.” This may be mean, but review a sample Rivers quote about Sevigny for perspective: “Chloe always picks things you wear when you can't find your rape whistle.”
Chloe Sevigny at the 54th New York Film Festival
If that joke crossed your line of bad taste, it’s worth noting that, since Rivers’ death in 2014, nobody else on Fashion Police has made a success of that kind of comment. The mood has changed and the appetite for cruelty seems to have waned, with red-carpet commentary becoming gentler and more complimentary. In 2015, a scandal unfolded when Giuliana Rancic, another commentator on the show, said of actress Zendaya Coleman’s dreadlocks, “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil and weed.” The horrified reaction of the public – and Coleman – almost destroyed the show.
Today, we know our celebrities personally, through Instagram and Twitter, and perhaps we care more about their feelings. There are fewer gaffes now anyway, thanks to the stylists; there’s also an ongoing debate over whether being a feminist means refraining from making negative comments about other women. It’s true that women in the public eye get such a kicking from all corners that, personally, I think twice about my motives before I pile on – yet women aren’t delicate flowers and we shouldn’t be exempted from fair criticism. “For a while, there was a wave of people who were saying to us, ‘You need to be supportive of other women,’” says Cocks. “You don’t write to a female movie critic who didn’t like Arrival and say ‘I can’t believe you’re not being more supportive of Amy Adams.’ The fact that we share genitals is not a binding social contract that means I have to automatically pat you on the back for everything you do.”
The real question is where fair criticism begins and ends. At The Guardian, says Cartner-Morley, red-carpet coverage focuses on the outfit as a branding decision, unpicking what the actress and her team are trying to communicate. “To me, that’s a more interesting way of covering the red carpet than saying, ‘Did she look pretty?’ or ‘That dress doesn’t suit her,’” she says. “There’s nothing useful to be gained out of that. What’s interesting about the red carpet is the idea of looking at the visual message – of who this person is trying to be, how that’s changed from where they were last year and how it relates to the parts they’re taking.”
So, now, the stylists send out a signal and we decode it – a process that’s fascinating in its way, but hardly magical. Instead of the inspired or insane individuality of the 70s and 80s, and the opportunity to poke fun, today we have serious design, business analysis and a more sophisticated conscience that puts a dampener on mockery. This may be progress, but where’s the entertainment? Bob Mackie, come back – all is forgiven.