The Princess of Wales wearing a white off-shoulder gown, earrings and long black gloves
The Princess of Wales at the Baftas, in a white, off-shoulder gown, big statement earrings and long, black opera gloves © Bafta via Getty Images

The politics of red carpet dressing has changed much in recent years. The #MeToo era prompted a backlash on too much sartorial analysis: “Don’t ask about the dress” became the mantra among the more empowered. And us plebeians were told to keep our focus on the art being promoted rather than ask about the hours spent embroidering the sequins on their gowns.

We were spurned for being reductive. Social media demanded #askhermore. As though the poor subjugated actors were detonating landmines or developing Nobel-winning theorems for a living rather than dressing up in silly wigs and pretending to be someone else. Curiously few, if any, reneged on the brand contracts that paid them millions of spondoolies for their ambassadorial support. But then all’s fair in love and ball gowns: who said emancipation had to play by any rules?

Covid ushered in a further period of po-faced self-reflection where awards were duly marked and well-attended but actors observed a funereal code. Everyone wore black or muted colours, and accessorised with a regatta’s worth of ribbons and thought-provoking pins. Personally, I thought this the golden age of red-carpet dressing, as a hushed sophistication befell awards. Just as the Queen’s death last year prompted a period of mourning among TV presenters, for one heart-stopping moment everyone looked super chic.

One can only marvel at the change in temperament this season, in which the red carpet has exploded with the maddest looks I’ve seen. In the swing away from sober, thoughtful, intellectual dressing, there’s been a crush to wear the weirdest, ugliest clothes around. Brutal colours, acid palettes, cage details, cut outs, ruffles, capes and flesh. Everyone is making 20 statements. Everything looks slightly bats.

Clicking through the pictures from last weekend’s Baftas marked a new nadir in horrific clothes. Even the Princess of Wales, the poster girl for unshowy classicism, has started flexing more subversive looks. Attending the Baftas as its royal patron she wore a white, off-shoulder “Elsa from Frozen” kind of gown. She then pumped it with strange but spicy extras — big statement earrings from Zara and, more bewilderingly, long, black opera gloves.

Anya Taylor-Joy at the Baftas . . . © Samir Hussein/WireImage

… and Lily James at the Royal Festival Hall event © Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

Of course, there is a place for experimentation and eccentricity when it comes to celebrity style. We all love a Cher, glistening like a golden goddess in Bob Mackie, or (a personal favourite) Bjork dressed as an egg-laying swan. Musicians have always tended to the more outrageous, as their brands are built on personality. By contrast, actors are more elusive: their calling card is their mystique. But rather than demurring from discussion about their wardrobes, this season is less #askhermore than screaming #lookatme.

The extremification of the wardrobe is surely a product of the way we consume media today. The audience that watches the red carpet increasingly outnumbers the one that tunes in to the actual ceremonies. Engagement has shifted to TikTok and other meme-centric spheres. Global events are now reduced to tiny viral moments and classic old-world glamour can’t compete with cockscombs, nipple tassels, jester harlequins and unitards.

© Elisa Leonelli/Shutterstock

© FilmMagic

Some might blame the stylists and the brand contracts which now dominate the industry. Once upon a time Sharon Stone could throw on a Gap T-shirt and blazer to the Oscars, and look her beautiful, authentic self. Now, celebrities are surrounded by an army of stylists and advisers who manage every look. Designer Julie de Libran was in charge of dressing celebrities at Prada and then Louis Vuitton early on in her career. In those days, she says, dressing someone was a more organic process — the actors often had a personal relationship with the designer and, back then, very few were paid. Today, red-carpet dressing has become a billion-dollar business in which the outfits and jewels are invariably coupled with huge contractual deals. Actors have become a mannequin for competing interests, and a sandwich board for brands.

But that’s not the only explanation as to “why there is no style or taste on the red carpet”, as Elizabeth Saltzman explains. The former Vanity Fair fashion director and stylist dresses Gwyneth Paltrow, Saoirse Ronan and Jodie Comer, and blames a scarcity of clothing and the ever-booming influencer culture as being part to blame. Where once the red-carpet circuit consisted of only a few dozen key moments, events have mushroomed in recent years: film premieres now require months-long multi-city global rollouts and the awards season social marathon requires an actor to wear dozens of different looks. Add to that the need to look exclusive and there’s a limit to the gowns that go around. “There are shockingly few clothes,” insists Saltzman, “especially if you don’t want to have something custom made”. Bespoke design might be a good solution, but it runs contrary to current trends. Says Saltzman: “Custom-made is not supportive of the environment, or of the brand.”

© Corbis via Getty Images

As such, Saltzman conjures an amusing picture of actors forced to rummage through the jumble bin. Caught between the horror of wearing something unoriginal or going naked, one imagines them forced into the only Fraggle costume going spare. Maybe, in future, we will see more actors like Cate Blanchett, who for the Baftas updated an old Margiela dress with the addition of some extraordinary Louis Vuitton pearls. The Princess of Wales should also be commended for at least attempting to recycle something she had worn before.

And there is one other solution — which could solve two problems in one stroke. Instead of dressing like a muppet, why not sign an exclusive deal with the Jim Henson workshop and wear the real deal?

Email Jo at [email protected]


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