This awards season, the fantasy of red carpet dressing went up in smoke. Even for a die-hard red carpet apologist like myself, it was more than a little depressing to see celebrities get dolled up just to join a Zoom meeting from a couch in a bland hotel room.
Of course, remote ceremonies meant that a few people seized the opportunity to do as little as possible — actor Jason Sudeikis, notably, who accepted his Golden Globe for the football comedy “Ted Lasso” in a tie-dye sweatshirt. At best, the virtual awards shows presented an awkward, fractured vision of Hollywood glitz. To be clear, I don’t hold Sudeikis personally responsible for that. I can’t think of a single reason not to wear a colourful hoodie to a Zoom awards show during a global pandemic.
From the outset, Sunday night’s Academy Awards promised something entirely different. The show’s producers — Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins — planned an emphatically in-person event at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.
In a letter sent to attendees, they made clear their expectations for elevated fashion: “We’re aiming for a fusion of Inspirational and Aspirational, which in actual words means formal is totally cool if you want to go there, but casual is really not.” Their project, it seems, was to restore some of the glamour to an industry that, like the rest of us, has been looking awfully bedraggled lately.
As it turned out, the attendees came through in exuberant style. After a year short on opportunities to go all-out, it was as though they decided en masse that standard black tuxes and mermaid gowns simply wouldn’t cut it anymore. This was Oscars fashion that was uncharacteristically fun and uncommonly individual — a shift best exemplified by the menswear on the red carpet.
Colman Domingo of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom turned up in a three-piece Atelier Versace suit in an eye-popping shade of fuchsia, with crystal embroidery streaming down the jacket. Competing for the title of most dazzling suit was Leslie Odom Jr, nominated twice for One Night in Miami, who wore an all-gold Brioni look. LaKeith Stanfield, nominated for Judas and the Black Messiah, was an instant hit in a belted ’70s-esque Saint Laurent jumpsuit, accessorised with a chain necklace, black nail polish and bleached blonde hair.
Some menswear looks proved eye-catching in more subtle ways. Best Supporting Actor winner Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah) paired a black crewneck and suit with a crisp Cartier diamond necklace. If you paid attention, you’d notice that Minari director and nominee Lee Isaac Chung was wearing patent leather Doc Martens with his tux. Indeed, informal shoes were a micro-trend of the night, dress code be damned: Questlove wore gold Crocs, while Chloé Zhao, who won Best Director for Nomadland, which also won Best Picture, paired a beige knit dress with white sneakers.
Did some nominees turn up in classic, elegant tuxedos? Of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly, there were plenty of elegant gowns that would have made the best-dressed list in years past. Not this time, though. Princessy tulle affairs were a wash next to the parade of high-spirited looks on the red carpet.
Consider Regina King, who wore a sparkling pale blue Louis Vuitton dress with shoulders that resembled butterfly wings, or Laura Dern, whose Oscar de la Renta gown combined a black velvet turtleneck and a frothy white feather skirt. Think of Angela Bassett in a bright red Alberta Ferretti dress with tremendous sculptural shoulders that met in a bow at the back, or Carey Mulligan, a Best Actress nominee for Promising Young Woman, in a gold Valentino bandeau top and an enormous skirt, both covered in iridescent sequins.
I love all of these looks, but it’s not necessarily because they’re my thing. It’s because, after a year cooped up indoors wearing the same half-buttoned jeans every day, I personally find it thrilling to see people going out in public and truly having fun with fashion. If the producers were looking for “inspirational and aspirational”, this was it.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with New York-based stylist Kate Young, who was preparing to dress Margot Robbie, a producer of Promising Young Woman, for the Oscars. (The look would be streamlined, silvery Chanel.) It was the first time in a year that she’d be flying out to Los Angeles for work, she said, and her first time pulling shoes for a client, which just aren’t necessary for press appearances over Zoom. Young had become accustomed to basing outfits on “bar tops” — the kind of statement shirt you’d wear with jeans to the bar.
“I can’t tell you that I think it’s super inspiring,” she said.
She was excited about the Oscars, though. She was excited to see real red carpet photos, as opposed to photoshoots done in celebrities’ backyards. She would be handling red carpet prep in a way that felt to her largely normal.
But it wasn’t normal, and the unusual circumstances of this year’s Academy Awards are exactly what made the fashion so surprising and lively. They shook something loose, making space for hot pink suits, jumpsuits and trainers in addition to those princess dresses. The show didn’t make Hollywood seem like a fairytale — that might be a lost cause — but it did provide a venue for some much-needed fashion escapism.