Why is red carpet fashion so over-the-top?

Outlandish frocks are the norm on the red carpet, where stars regularly appear looking like prom queens or drag queens, writes Maya Singer. With so many interesting looks available, why do so many stars get it so wrong?

Has there ever been a more gut-wrenching Oscars moment than at this year’s Academy Awards, when Jennifer Lawrence tripped over her dress as she clambered onstage to collect the award for best actress? You had to feel for her. It was her big moment, a billion people around the world were watching – and down she went. Of course, Lawrence is pure charm, and she handled the moment with aplomb, poking fun at herself from the podium. And when a reporter backstage asked her the idiotic question, “What happened?” she loosed a throaty laugh and parried, “What do you mean, ‘what happened?’ Look at my dress…”

Well, exactly: look at her dress. It was a gorgeous one – a pale pink Christian Dior sheath with a vast, billowing skirt, first seen on model Manon Leloup in the finale of Dior’s Spring 2013 haute couture show. But it was hard to know what Lawrence was doing in that dress. She’s an earthy, goofy girl, with a good deal of steel in her spine; you’d never cast her as a docile princess in a fairy tale. So why does she have to play that part on the red carpet?

Red carpet fashion is vexing to fashion people. To be sure, it’s big business. The industry can barely produce enough frocks to dress every A, B and C-list celeb for all the awards shows, premieres, festivals, galas and sundry other ‘appearances’ they attend in the course of a year. The fight to dress stars is fierce: if you put the right dress on the right girl, your brand will reap untold benefits. The classic example is Liz Hurley, wearing that iconic safety pin number to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. That dress established Versace as a household name. Many a handbag has been sold on the back of it.

But red carpet dressing is also curiously irrelevant to fashion. From the point-of-view of fashion as art, as style, there’s nothing interesting about an Oscars dress. Looking over the photos from the rain-soaked premiere of The Great Gatsby at Cannes was a pretty dreary exercise. Carey Mulligan looked chic; Nicole Kidman hit all the right notes in her strapless, floral, tea-length gown; and Julianne Moore looked great, too, aside from her ill-fitting shoes. They were all wearing Dior and thanks to new creative director Raf Simons, the house is killing it on the red carpet these days. But still, it was all quite underwhelming – nothing looked exciting or new.

Which brings me back to Jennifer Lawrence, and her Dior dress at the Oscars. Lawrence was wearing that tricky pink gown because she is the face of Miss Dior, a prestigious and no doubt highly remunerative gig. She’s obliged to wear the clothes. But couldn’t she have worn one of Dior’s more adventurous looks? Wouldn’t it have felt fresh to see a young woman like Lawrence, who I suspect likes to mooch around in jeans, collect her Oscar in a pair of trim silver tuxedo trousers and a swirling bustier top? Or if it had to be a dress, why not an intelligent and intriguingly constructed little black dress?

Notes on camp

If Lawrence had worn either of those to the Academy Awards, there would have been howls from the peanut gallery: Joan Rivers and her ilk, the snarky tabloid editors and the viperish internet horde. Hollywood actresses are all but marched to the guillotine if they don’t play by a set of rules for formality and glamour that seemed dated even in the 1950s. The only other group of people so committed to those vintage feminine codes, at least that I can think of, are drag queens.

In other words, red carpet dressing is just kind of… campy. The word ‘camp’ derives from very old French slang, ‘se camper’, meaning ’to pose in an exaggerated fashion‘. And so, just like drag queens, clever actresses like Jennifer Lawrence know that they’re posturing when they show up on the red carpet in ball gowns the size of zeppelins, their hair swept into up-dos. Some girls, less clever, take it all very seriously; they’re the ones who show up at the Golden Globes looking like prom queens.

Not that it was ever thus. If you look through photos of the red carpet Hollywood of yore, what you see are women dressed of their time. When Lauren Bacall went to the Oscars in 1955 in a New Look-style gown, her hair set in waves, she wasn’t getting into costume; women in the fifties set their hair, and they wore full skirts on a regular basis. Bacall’s look that night was an elevation of her usual style, not a performance of something totally different. Likewise, back in 1976, Anjelica Huston scored one of the best Oscars looks of all time in a white lace sheath nearly as nonchalant as a tee-shirt.

Only a few celebrities today show any similar knack for dressing up in a down-to-earth way; of these, Sofia Coppola reigns supreme, treading the red carpet in flats and showing up to her Bling Ring photocall at Cannes in a casual yet elegant Louis Vuitton blouse-and-trouser ensemble. That takes nerve.

Rules of engagement

But everyone else is playing the game. Who made it up? I posed that question to Bronwyn Cosgrave, a former editor at British Vogue and the author of Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards.

“Well, it’s not really about fashion anymore, is it?” Cosgrave says. “The red carpet now, it’s about brands selling a dream. I think, maybe, you could date it back to the time Nicole Kidman turned up at the Oscars in that striking Dior gown, from John Galliano’s first collection for the house – that moment generated so much awareness for Dior. And since then,” Cosgrave continues, “it’s just turned into a luxury brand extravaganza. ”

And the actresses are complicit, too, as Cosgrave goes on to point out.

“Look, most of these women, they’re not that fashion-savvy. And when they’re going to a premiere, or an awards show, or what-have-you, they’re doing it to promote something. They’ve got publicists and agents and people at the studio pushing them to conform to this role of ‘movie star.’”

For another perspective, I turned to Cher Coulter, one of Hollywood’s top stylists. Coulter’s clients include Kate Bosworth and Nicole Richie, two women who know how to work a look. But even they are wary of too much risk taking, she notes.

“You have to understand, the red carpet¾it’s bare, and it’s almost, I’d say, confrontational,” Coulter notes. “The lights are blazing. There’s no context – the only backdrop is, probably, a step-and-repeat board with a sponsor’s logo on it, and you’ve got to stand in front of that and pose while hundreds of photographers shout at you. In that situation, it’s very, very hard to tell a story with clothes. Especially,” she adds, “when you know that trying something different will probably just put you into that week’s ‘worst dressed’ list in US Weekly, or whatever.”

I’ve got plenty of sympathy for those actresses: I’ve stumbled into the odd paparazzi scrum, and frankly, it’s terrifying. But I put it to Coulter that maybe actresses would feel more at ease on the red carpet if they looked more like themselves.

“Yeah, maybe,” Coulter replies, not a little sarcastically. “I mean, look, some of these girls, they do want to look like princesses. If you’re a young actress going to the Oscars, you don’t know if you’ll ever get invited back; I get the sense that girls want to look back at photos of themselves from that night, and think, ‘oh, didn’t I look pretty?’”

 “It’s hard to resist that,” Coulter adds, “and also hard to resist the desire to look tall,” she sighs. “I swear, if I see one more platform sole on the red carpet, I’m going to kill myself.”

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