Artistic Dress

Transgressive Fashion in the Victorian Era

Red (Carpet) Revolution

Cate Blanchett in Alexander McQueen at the premiere of 'Robin Hood' in Cannes, 2010. Source: Getty Images.

Cate Blanchett in Alexander McQueen at the premiere of ‘Robin Hood’ in Cannes, 2010. Source: Getty Images.

Does hearing the inevitable ‘Who are you wearing?’ during the Red Carpet season fill you with excitement or dread?

I shall dispense with apologies for my blog hiatus and get back to it with some thoughts I’ve been having about the growing ‘revolution’ on the Red Carpet, whereby celebrities are beginning to question the objectification women receive during awards season. The most recent discussion is from the NY Times, On the Red Carpet, a Revolt Builds Over the Pageantry, and points to some of the more absurd practices of which I was blissfully unaware, namely the E! network’s ‘mani-cam’:

At this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston made headlines, of a sort, by taking the revolutionary step of refusing to stick their paws in E!’s Mani Cam.

For anyone who has tragically missed this gimmicky red carpet arriviste, the Mani Cam is a camera-mounted box lined with red on which actresses are exhorted to show off manicures and borrowed jewels. Already armed with a “Glam Cam,” showing 360-degree views of stars’ outfits, E! rolled out the Mani Cam in 2012. And the host Giuliana Rancic instructed actresses to walk their fingers through it “like a runway.”

Results have been mixed. Jena Malone stuck her tongue out at it. Elisabeth Moss gave it the finger. Then came the three A-listers’ snubs, which CBS News reported as a “sign of a growing gender-equality push in Hollywood.” Which goes to show just how low the bar can be for what passes as a gender-equality push in Tinseltown.

Without a doubt, the emphasis placed on beauty over talent and work is problematic for women well beyond Hollywood, but certainly that is the site of its most prevalent display. It is fascinating to watch a group of people whose body/look is such a critical part of their success, take a stand and start to say, ‘What about my WORK?’ My favourite response is that of Cate Blanchett (always looking sublime as above, a reflection of her power as an actress) who last year ‘called out a camera operator who was scanning the length of her dress. Crouching down, she asked, “Do you do that to the guys?”’

Cate Blanchett schools a cameraman. Image: Matt’s GIFs

And yet, as a fashion historian, this outrage is beginning to sit uneasily with me. It seems a bit disingenuous to kit oneself out in stunning couture, then become incensed when the public wants to know more about it. Especially when many of these gowns and accessories are not paid for, but worn as a sort of advertisement. ‘Who are you wearing?’ doesn’t just feed the public desire, but promotes the designer whose artistry (or failure) is making its way down the carpet/runway. But setting even that issue aside, what unsettles me more is that with these challenges, fashion is yet again being framed as a frivolous, worthless distraction from the more important matters at hand.

For example, the wonderful organisation Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls has promoted the hashtag campaign #askhermore to instigate better questions for women – and without a doubt this is much-needed. My favourite example of this problem, which I simply must interject, is that of Scarlett Johansen being interviewed for an Avengers press junket in London:

Reporter: “I have a question to Robert and to Scarlett. Firstly to Robert, throughout Iron Man 1 and 2, Tony Stark started off as a very egotistical character but learns how to fight as a team. And so how did you approach this role, bearing in mind that kind of maturity as a human being when it comes to the Tony Stark character, and did you learn anything throughout the three movies that you made?

“And to Scarlett, to get into shape for Black Widow did you have anything special to do in terms of the diet, like did you have to eat any specific food, or that sort of thing?”

Scarlett: “How come you get the really interesting existential question, and I get the like, “rabbit food” question?”

Ask better questions, indeed. But is ‘Who are you wearing?’ a poor question? The NY Times suggests that this is a consensus for many:

“We kept getting messages and tweets like, ‘God, why do they ask these questions on the red carpet?’ ” said Meredith Walker, Smart Girls’ executive director. “Our viewers and followers are interested in these women, interested in deeper questions that help us learn anything interesting. They don’t want that time wasted hearing them saying what they’re wearing and all this stuff that really doesn’t matter.”

So, when we ask ‘Who are you wearing?’, we apparently don’t learn anything interesting. And it is a subject that simply doesn’t matter. So much so that Jezebel’s suggested solution is simply trolling the asker (which might be pretty entertaining).

Or, we could change the question. How about: ‘Why are you wearing that particular dress?’ No, not a catty, Joan Rivers resurrection ‘Why are you wearing THAT?’. But a genuine, ‘What made you choose that? What does it say about your life right now, your career, how you see yourself tonight?’

Because fashion is about identity. Many do not actively think of it this way, when they throw on jeans and a t-shirt (does it promote a sport, a beer, a comic book, a political agenda? It says something.) “Who are you wearing?’ is in fact a boring, shallow question when it is being delivered by-and-for people who aren’t thinking it through. It is framed within the context of superficiality, instead of exploring the artistry of the designer, as well as the expression of the wearer.

Of course, for many, there was a stylist who got them there (and as evidenced by the Crafting the Look conference, styling is a much overlooked and important aspect of sartorial theory). But I have no doubt that the majority of these smart, talented women had some voice, some choice, in how they adorn and present themselves on their big night. It isn’t the Hunger Games after all… well maybe it is a little.

Here is another case in point. I have a an uneasy enjoyment of the blog Tom + Lorenzo: Fabulous & Opinionated. I think it is one of the very best sources to see the latest trends, and especially, the most recent couture. I love the way they engage with popular culture (reviewing everything from Paris Fashion Week to style in the latest episodes of Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and even Dr Who). That said, I often find myself in disagreement with their criticism, and that of course makes me feel uncomfortable because… am I tacky then? Are they? (Ha, ha.) In any case, one of their most recent takedowns was poor Rosamund Pike, looking admittedly hapless at the SAG awards:

Rosamund Pike in Dior Couture (Spring 2014). Source: tomandlorenzo.com

Rosamund Pike in Dior Couture (Spring 2014). Source: tomandlorenzo.com

Here is what they had to say:

We’re sorry, but she’s weird. She chooses insanely unflattering, tackily attention-seeking outfits and then poses like she’s doing performance art or something.

This dress isn’t horrifying, but it’s clearly FMO – For Models Only. You need a runway, only 90 seconds of exposure time, and an accomplished dress-worker to make this look good. And even then, the tent-like shape and mullet hem can’t be pulled off.

Plus she’s got the seaweed hair, a pale face, and a slash of almost orange on her lips. Everything here is so off that we feel like we should be backing away from her slowly, like we can smell the crazy.

Ok, it’s kind of funny, in a ‘Mean Girls’ sort of way. Some of the photos there are definitely awkward. But their criticism is interesting to me because it highlights the schism between what can happen on the runway, and what we should see in ‘real life’. Outside of the fact the Red Carpet really is a sort of runway, I applaud anyone who experiments with fashion and is brave enough to give it a go in other contexts – and really, the Red Carpet is a pretty safe context to be avant-garde, if you don’t mind catty take-downs by fashion bloggers.

Plus, I really like this dress, and kind of like the look altogether!

Back to the point – T+L’s commentary begs the question – what happens when clothing made for fantasy takes a stab at reality? To bring it home: that’s what Artistic Dress was all about! With its roots in painting and fancy dress, it crafted a different kind of look that was meant to express creative ideals. An apropos example is this gorgeous 1873 carte-de-visite of the actress Ellen Terry looking very unconventional with cropped hair and in a comfortable Artistic Dress.

Samuel Walker, 'Ellen Terry', 1873. Photograph [carte-de-visite]. Collection of the National Trust, Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Smallhythe Place, Kent.

Samuel Walker, ‘Ellen Terry’, 1873. Photograph [carte-de-visite]. Collection of
the National Trust, Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Smallhythe Place, Kent.

We can imagine Samuel Walker has captured her in an intimate, candid moment while she was perhaps studying her lines – which is what the popular postcard undoubtedly was meant to express to fans that purchased it. Her styling expresses her creative, artistic identity, intentionally crafted. Artistic Dress wasn’t necessarily frivolous, just like the sartorial choices of many celebrities – and people on the street – are conscious decisions related to the context in which they find themselves. Of course they are.

So ask better questions, yes. And yes, we can and should make these follow-ups after a considered question about their work. I realise time doesn’t usually permit, but let me have my fantasy here. Rosamund Pike: why did you choose that dress? Was it your choice, or did you discuss it with a stylist? What does it say about who you are, and your hopes for tonight? How does it make you feel?

The next issue is… are they prepared to answer better questions?


Today’s red-themed post in honour of ‘Go Red for Women‘, the American Heart Association’s campaign to raise awareness about heart disease and women.

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3 comments on “Red (Carpet) Revolution

  1. malikaarenee
    February 7, 2015

    Omg so many good points. I definitely believe that ‘what are you wearing?’ Isn’t a “bad” and shallow question, the public would like to know. I mean, I sure do. However follow up questions pertaining to their career, aspirations, hopes for the night are well needed also. These questions can go hand in hand, one just needs to piece them together

  2. @style
    February 8, 2015

    I think, and actually feel pretty strongly, that what they’re wearing is less important than why they’re wearing something. I would be very interested to see how many are actually allowed to voice that their stylist chose it because the designer paid an obscene amount of money for the advertising. Actually, something that looked at the whole chain of commerce involved in styling and staging red carpet fashion would be fascinating.

    • REC
      February 8, 2015

      Next conference!

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'Mrs Luke Ionides' by William Blake Richmond, London, 1882. Oil on canvas. Collection of the V&A, Museum no. E.1062-2003. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A.

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