How the red carpet became the home of feminist statements

Posted by
Kate Finnigan

The first big feminist moment of 2018 happened on the red carpet. Stylist looks at the symbolic evolution of a style institution. 

“Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events,” said Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of US Vogue throughout the Sixties. “You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.”

At January’s Golden Globes you could certainly see one resounding message in the clothes on the red carpet. Whether it will lead to a revolution is yet to be seen, but the Time’s Up suggestion that guests wear black in solidarity against sexual harassment was taken up almost unanimously. The result was a sartorial statement of feminist social responsibility
not seen on the red carpet before – a wall of black that said women, celebrity or not, need to be addressed as equals. For the Baftas this Sunday, stars have been urged once again to wear black.

The film industry rolled out
the first red carpet at the world’s inaugural film premiere, 1922’s Robin Hood. The Oscars didn’t use a red carpet until 1961 and shots of the guests outside weren’t broadcast until 1964. Stars began to use the space to assert their personalities through their clothes. But it wasn’t until the Golden Globes in 1994, when Joan Rivers hosted rolling red carpet coverage for E!, that the question, “Who are you wearing?” was asked. Faced with TV and tabloid coverage, and later, online judgment, film stars gradually began opting for more conservative looks.

In recent years, the red carpet has been used as an alternative form of advertising, with stars often paid to wear certain clothes. This says something about the status of the women involved: whether
it makes them power brokers or commodities, though, is up for debate. If any deals were struck before this year’s Golden Globes, they did not lessen the message, delivered four years after the Ask Her More campaign first pressed for women on red carpets to be quizzed about more than just their clothes. Will momentum continue through other awards ceremonies and beyond? It will be interesting to see but already it’s allowed starlets to evolve into spokespeople with a powerful platform.

So what happened along the way? Meet the women who first challenged the tyranny of the red carpet. 

Barbra Streisand - Academy Awards, 1969

When she won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand wore a black sequinned trouser suit by Arnold Scaasi with flared legs and tuxedo cuffs. “I had no idea when I wore it to receive the Academy Award that the outfit would become see-through under the lights!” she said later. “I was embarrassed but it sure was original at the time.” Streisand was the first star to cause an Oscar sensation with her clothing. It was an outfit that also said much about its time. At this point a woman in trousers could still be shocking. This was only three years after Yves Saint Laurent caused a kerfuffle with Le Smoking, the sexually ambiguous tuxedo for women, and the same year that Charlotte Thompson Reid became the first woman to wear trousers in the United States Congress, causing all the congressmen to run to take a look.

Scaasi and Streisand knew her outfit was a statement. On the day of the event the nominee had two options in her room: “One was lovely, but very conservative,” she recalled. “And then there was the pantsuit with plastic sequins.” Streisand chose freedom.

Postscript: nearly half a century later, at the 2017 Golden Globes, Evan Rachel Wood wore a tuxedo suit and felt the need to say, “I’m not trying to protest dresses, but
I wanted to make sure young girls and women know they aren’t
a requirement. You don’t have to wear one if you don’t want to… just be yourself because your worth is more than that.” 

Cher - Academy Awards, 1973

Now 71, singer and actress Cher has been ahead of any trend, inventing them and reshaping them on the red carpet since the Sixties. If it’s outrageous, Cher’s done it. She’s always been in control of her own image – and this has remained so even in the face of harsh criticism. Not so much reflecting the decades as challenging them to keep up, her choices have not always delighted conservatives – but that’s the idea. Cher delights in breaking all the rules, except one: be fabulous.

In every decade since, Cher has been compulsive viewing on the red carpet. Working with the designer Bob Mackie, she has riffed on showgirl, ethnic, punk and classic Hollywood. In her 1973 Mackie ensemble she looks like an Indian princess, and proves abs existed pre-Instagram, although talk about cultural appropriation clearly didn’t: the next year she took her cues from Hawaii, donning a bikini and beach wrap. Throughout the Eighties, Cher embodied the decade of excess – sheer dresses encrusted in crystals, huge headpieces. Often derided at the time, they’re still influential – Beyoncé and Rihanna have both paid homage. “Cher never wanted to be like the lady next door and she never cared if people didn’t approve,” Mackie has said. “Her approach to red carpets was always, ‘Let’s give them something to look at.’ It was about fun.” 

Julia Roberts - Golden Globes, 1990

Listen, if she wasn’t Julia Roberts, if she didn’t have that face, that hair, that killer smile, and if she had not become the powerhouse that she was from this night onwards (when she scooped Best Actress for Steel Magnolias), we would possibly not be talking about Roberts’ ill-fitting, grey Giorgio Armani men’s suit. 

“I had
a very whimsical sense of style,” Roberts said in 2014. “I clearly didn’t care what anybody thought about it.” 

At the end of the Eighties and into the Nineties, an indie mentality reigned among young actors. It was cool not to give
a toss, to break the rules. Roberts’ choice got the thumbs up from those who would become the grunge generation. It’s an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise between what you could wear in the Nineties before fashion houses were bought up by the luxury conglomerates and started doing deals with stylists to dress their clients. Because let’s face it, no actor now would dare to show up looking as improvised as Roberts did in 1990. 

Elizabeth Hurley - Four Weddings And A Funeral London premiere, 1994

Elizabeth Hurley did not invent red-carpet sexiness (see Cher). But when the unknown actor and girlfriend of Hugh Grant turned up at the Four Weddings premiere in a clinging black Versace dress that plunged almost to her midriff and split at the sides beneath a spray of gold safety pins, she became an overnight sensation.

There was something about the combination of Grant as the floppy-haired, bumbling Charles in Four Weddings, Hurley’s Sloaney hairstyle and the Jessica Rabbit-ness of the dress that knocked the press for six.

They couldn’t get enough of it. Hurley has since said the dress was “a favour from Versace because I couldn’t afford to buy one… There was one item left in their press office. So I tried it on and that was it.” Real story or not, Hurley went on to star in Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery and secure lucrative Estée Lauder contracts, proof that the blend of bold fashion and the red carpet was a new route to instant success. Hurley’s gown also put the spotlight on the fashion house, highlighting how valuable dressing an actor could be. Many, many more would follow her. The Guardian wrote in 2012 that the dress “arguably launched celebrity culture as we know it today”; a notable milestone if not a feminist one. Hurley has since said that maybe if she hadn’t worn the Versace dress, she might have become “an actress of worth”. 

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Björk – Academy Awards, 2001 

When Björk wore Marjan Pejoski’s swan dress to the Oscars, everyone screamed, “Mad!” But was she? Or was she simply carrying on doing the job of being one of the most mesmeric and important female artists in the world? The dress, with its long neck that curled around the shoulders to the swan’s head and a tulle skirt for the bird’s feathery body, was a nod to surrealism- linked couturiers such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Charles James. When the Icelandic musician went on to ‘lay an egg’ on the red carpet, it was pure performance art. And why not? By ignoring the unspoken restrictions of how someone on the red carpet is supposed to look, Björk made a genuine point about individuality and imagination, and highlighted the conservatism of an event that should be celebrating creativity. It’s interesting that often it takes a musician – Cher, Celine Dion, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna – to flout the unspoken rules of these ceremonies. Although Helena Bonham Carter can also often be relied on.

One footnote: Björk was there to perform her Oscar-nominated song from the Danish director Lars von Trier’s film, Dancer In The Dark, in which she also starred. Last year, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations and the #metoo movement, Björk wrote about
a Danish director who she says harassed her while working on his film. Von Trier has denied any wrongdoing, but attending the 2001 Oscars could have been
a reminder of a pretty miserable experience for her. And yet Björk’s swan didn’t die on that red carpet, it laid a flipping egg. 

Susan Sarandon – Cannes, 2016  

So what? Susan Sarandon in a tux and flat shoes? She looks great, but no biggie. Well, quite. It shouldn’t have been, but Sarandon got a huge amount of props for ‘daring’ to wear her pointy little black suede slip-ons on the red carpet at Cannes. Why? The previous year a group of women in their 50s had been turned away from the gala screening of Todd Haynes’ Carol for not wearing high-heels. The women, some of whom had medical conditions, were apparently barred entry for wearing “rhinestone flats”. Even though the festival director denied that shoes that are more difficult to walk in were a requirement for women going to watch films in dark rooms, the story rightly whipped up a furious storm and caused some women to think about the unspoken rules of dress for these kind of events. 

“Everyone should wear flats, to be honest. We shouldn’t wear high heels,” commented fellow actor Emily Blunt, when asked about the controversy at the festival. “It’s very disappointing, just when you kind of think there are these new waves of equality.” Very disappointing. Particularly when 50 years ago we were pretty much saying the same thing. 

Viola Davis – Golden Globes, 2018  

Davis is the only female black actor to have been nominated for three Academy Awards (winning for Best Supporting Actress for Fences in 2017), and the only
one to win the triple crown of
an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar. This makes her one of the most influential actors in the world.

Like her peers, Davis wore
 a black gown to the recent Golden Globes, but her hair
– a beautiful, voluminous afro, made an equally big statement.

At the 2012 Oscars she’d worn
a more closely cropped style
but this was bigger and bolder,
a celebration of natural texture. Davis’s hair showed how out-moded Eurocentric beauty standards have become. She does nothing without consideration 
and she’s spoken about how empowering it has been for her
 to embracing the texture of her hair both on and off screen.

“Every time you walk that carpet, the pressure [is] to be your authentic self, but at the same time not stick out… That balance is something we are all trying
 to reach when we walk out the door every day. How do we fit 
in, but be ourselves and be true
 to ourselves?” In 2018, the answer to this question 
is going to matter more 
than ever. 

Images: Jack Bedford / Rex Features