The Oscars red carpet this year truly caused the head/upper body to react: involuntarily inhaling audibly due to boredom, not tiredness
Billy Porter in Giles Deacon. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
By Mao Shan Wang
I rose early this morning, raring to go, not at all my groggy early-hour self. Yet, it became tiring, looking at the tired looks in front of me, an equally tired telecast of ABC’s Oscars Red Carpet Show on Channel 5, which was a surprise since also-tired Mediacorp had not bothered with simultaneous telecast for years. Five gowns later, I was certain where the moda will head. This was not going to be a vintage year for “fashion at the Oscars”. Not all red carpets are created equal. The Oscars has always been up there—firmament level, but this year, I really thought I woke up to People’s Choice Awards!
In the show, Billy Porter was very visible. He was a co-host; he wore a gown like his female counterparts, which was expected, and therein lies the problem for me: predictability. What would have been more striking and unexpected was for him to not wear a dress. Mr Porter, perhaps, unbeknownst to him, has come to reflect the show’s expected visual tedium, even if he had striven to be not-the-usual-actor-in-a-tux. The way he wore what he wore, you’d think that Mr Porter is a red carpet veteran. But he started only wearing gowns at last year’s Academy Awards. Yet, in a very short span, he has become the Cher of his time. Or, as my best friend from KL said more accurately in a text to me, “moved from wow to becoming a black woman”. I would struggle to disagree.
The red carpet’s one-dimensional lameness-as-lure could also be attributed to a noticeable lack of those women who can truly dress, and had made the red carpet deserving of viewership: Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Uma Thurman, and to a lesser but not insignificant degree, Tilda Swinton. These women know how to carry an evening dress and how to move in couture—what the French call (and the Americans have turned into a cliche) je ne sais quoi, or as Carine Roitfeld once described to the Evening Standard, a “way of thinking, of sitting, of crossing the legs, of eating, of everything”.
The situation is compounded by the visible changes in couture—French couture, not whatever it is that they do out there in LA. On the red carpet, almost everyone wears what the American media likes to call “custom”. And French couture is where most turn to. But long gone are the times when stars took a gamble on the red carpet by wearing a designer’s daring—not necessarily, to be sure, outré—creations. I still vividly recall Ms Kidman in John Galliano for Dior in 1997, a chartreuse gown in the silhouette of a cheongsam, so striking it was that the venerable Smithsonian considers it “one of the most influential Oscars dresses of all time”. Sadly, I don’t believe any of the gowns I saw this morning will enjoy the ‘influential’ tag. Many traditional Parisian houses simply do not create clothes that, in the old days, make people dream.
To the mix that is je ne sais quoi, Ms Roitfeld also added “bad taste”. However, dressing for the Oscars has to be the antithesis of that, since actresses, outside of playing imperfect characters, want to look perfect, offering no room for what the truly stylish know could work favourably: a touch of something that is off. Diana Vreeland, a proponent, said, “A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.” This morning, the dresses on the red carpet at the Oscars, to me, not only showed no taste, they were—simply put—under-seasoned.
One Shoulder/One Strap/One Sleeve Safe Bet
Clockwise from top-left: Regina King in Versace, Cynthia Erivo in Versace, Charlize Theron in Dior, Kelly Ripa in Christian Siriano, Caitriona Balfe in Valentino, Renee Zellweger in Armani Privé, Salma Hayek-Pinault in Gucci. Photos: source
It seems that baring one arm or one shoulder (not one breast—this is the Oscars!) is the exposure that actresses needed, even with seasoned stars such as Rene Zellweger and Charlize Theron. Ms Zellweger, in Armani Privé, was in a safe bet that every actress thinking they would win adopts. Ms Theron, Dior-clad and proud of her legs, needed us to know she has never abandoned her StairMaster and Veet (or whatever is loved these days). But it is her need to join the one-shoulder club that I found amusing. To achieve the one-deltoid-exposed sexiness, she deliberately dropped the left strap down the side of her arm. Better to coordinate with her stuck-out left leg? More intriguing was Cynthia Erivo: her cleavage was framed by a pair of inverted commas, 45-degrees askew. Breast enhancement has never been this well punctuated.
Lace Always Has Its Place
From left: Rooney Mara in Alexander McQueen, Gal Godat in Givenchy, Geena Davis in Romona Keveža. Photos: source
You can always count on lace to make evening wear more evening and the red carpet more resplendent, never mind that quite often, the wearers barely escape looking like they are ensnared in a fancy net or are reviving macrame to support a craft school for the delinquent. Rooney Mara, former fashion darling, looked strangely demure in Alexander McQueen’s skin-baring, cut-out bodice, which had pretty going for it rather than sexy—odd choice since I could not get Lisbeth Salander out of my head. Gal Godat, Givenchy-clad, was all wrapped-up on top and frothing at the bottom—odder since I could not get Diana Prince out of my head. As for Geena Davis in bridal wear designer Romona Keveža’s gown, the pandan leaves, even in silk (probably), covering the breasts prevented me from seeing them as anything other than bak chang wrappers.
Something’s Going On From The Waist Down
From top-left: Krysty Wilson-Cairns in an hitherto unidentified dress, Saoirse Ronan in Gucci, Florence Pugh in Louis Vuitton. Photos: source
What is it about gathers of fabric from just below the belly button that make women feel especially attractive? Anything that flares from the waist—peplum especially—perhaps a fertility symbol? I admit I am ill-informed. The big bow underscoring Krysty Wilson-Cairns waistline has the same appeal as paper that is crushed when one is in a foul mood. Young Saoirse Ronan, once a fairy frock fan, now decided to be Gucci-fied and wears a peplum so huge they looked like an abbreviated skirt she might have saved from her adolescent red carpet days. Fellow cast member of Little Women, Florence Pugh, in an eight-tier Louis Vuitton dress, could have been wearing her character Amy March’s outfit of choice to vex her older sisters if such an outfit were permissible in New England during the American Civil War. I can’t make out the appeal of the poufiness, since even currently loved Disney royalty Elsa and Anna of Arendelle clearly prefer more streamlined silhouettes.
The Allure Of Long Backs
Natalie Portman in Dior Couture, Brie Larson in Celine, Olivia Colman in Stella McCartney. Photos: source
Sometimes, a little extra covering appears, even if it is mostly superfluous. Natalie Portman concealed her Dior Couture gown with a cape, reportedly embroidered with the names of female film makers—later referred to by Chris Rock as “vaginas”—thought to have been snubbed by the Academy. So discreet was this detail that, frankly, I was none the wiser. Why so imperceptibly? Because you can’t lend your voice too loudly? She could have taken the Sandy Powell route (the costume designer had stars signed her suit), but instead, Ms Portman preferred the not-discernible touches of Dior’s petite mains. Brie Larson’s caped dress by Hedi Slimane for Celine did not have secret names, but there were sequins galore, sharing the same iridescence of a gown I once saw in Mustafa, Seriously. On Olivia Colman, the Stella McCartney (not quite a red carpet name) dress I did find refreshing and, dare I say, modern. The train just wide and long enough that one might think it was a scarf. Maybe it was her hair too—nicely short and opened up a happy face.
The Plain Dull
Greta Gerwig in Dior, Idina Menzel in J Mendel, Camila Morrone in Carolina Herrera. Photos: source
And there were those who probably tried, but sadly, didn’t look like they did. Greta Gerwig, in Dior but could have been a prom relic, appeared to be in a generous mood: she likely preferred her young Little Women cast to outshine her. Actress/singer Idina Menzel, who sang Into the Unknown from Frozen 2, picked a designer with a surname that rhymes with hers: J Mendel, and the result is a dress that was plonked on her. Camila Morrone, the Argentine-American actress (Dead Wish), reportedly dating Leonardo Dicaprio, knew how to pressure her man: she gave a wedding dress a trial run. Any discerning bride would have relegated the ho-hum piece to the bride’s maid, but Ms Morrone did not, probably thinking that the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood lead prefers her looking like a pure, prairie lass.
The Two Ralphs
Janelle Monáe (left) and Lily Aldrige (right), both in Ralph Lauren. Photos: source
And how different they are. Janelle Monáe was little red-riding hood in a galactic silver hooded gown—very modest, while Oscars Red Carpet Show co-host Lily Aldrige had the belle-of-the-ball pick: a low-cut, body-skimming sheath with flounces on one side that opened up at a kick of the leg to show alabaster limb. No, I am not going down that path!
The Stage Hand
Scarlett Johansson in Oscar de la Renta. Photo: source
Is it I, or does Scarlett Johansson look like the woman (women?) who hands out the statuettes to the presenters on stage? Do tell me.