Hollywood has long proven red-carpet fashion speaks just as loud as words
Oscars outfits – from actors' to directors' and costume designers' – have run the gamut from the outrageous to the political
The two-foot tall, 800-piece rooster feather headpiece and sheer midriff-baring outfit that Cher wore to the 1986 Oscars is one of the most memorable in red-carpet history. That year, she was overlooked by the Academy, missing out on a nomination for her lead role in the biopick Mask. And, while her talent on screen had been snubbed by the industry, Cher made her attendance at the ceremony impossible to ignore; that Bob Mackie design was a show-stopper. Thirty-two years later, and Cher wafting onto the stage balancing her Troll-doll-esque headpiece like a basket of fruit to present a slightly unsure Don Ameche with a gold statuette for Best Supporting Actor is easier to remember than any of the actual winners. Cher got her message across, loud and clear, without saying a thing: I am Cher, hear me roar.
While Cher's play wasn't necessarily political, it stoked a fire that continues to burn brightly today. Fashion lends a voice when words aren't working. Clothing can make a statement without saying anything at all, especially in Hollywood, and especially during awards season when the stars' reach is even greater than usual.
Most recently, the world watched as the women of Tinseltown banded together to use their power for good at the 75 th Golden Globes. From heavy hitters like Angelina Jolie to up-and-comers including Laurie Metcalf, Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan (each of whom took home a statuette for their work in Lady Bird), the stars opted for sombre black fashions, a show of support for the #TimesUp movement that sprung up as sexual harassment allegations surfaced in Hollywood, many against the now defamed film producer Harvey Weinstein.
At last year's Oscars, director Ava DuVernay made a not-so-subtle jab at President Trump, who, at the time, had just announced a travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Her ice-blue gown with long, lace sleeves and high neckline received praise from fashion critics in terms of cut and design, but the real story was the man behind the frock. DuVernay's dress of choice was created by a Lebanon-based designer, Mohammed Ashi, who hails from one of the countries on Trump's attempted no-fly list.
In 1993, Susan Sarandon and her then-partner Tim Robbins wore red ribbons in support of people living with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and especially to call attention to HIV-positive Haitians detained at the Guantanamo prison in Cuba.
Even in 1936, when the Academy Awards was still in its infancy stage, entertainers were using dress to provoke. That year, instead of donning some curve-hugging, lacey number that exuded sex appeal, Bette Davis opted for a conservative, almost maid-like Orry-Kelly dress with wide, white lapels and long, loose sleeves to accept her award for Best Actress in Dangerous. Compared with many of her female peers at the event, she looked pedestrian, and that was no accident; Davis's look was meant to rattle her agency, Warner Bros., which was battling with the star over her contract at the time. Jane Fonda played a similar card in '72 during a time of Vietnam protests, when she chose a "sombre" black Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit with a high mandarin collar as her Oscars look, making an instant statement on the notion that women should always and forever be in form-fitting frocks.
Australian costume designer Lizzy Gardiner has built an entire career on making clothes that express a mood or feeling on screen, but she has brought her work into the real world, as well. Remember the AMEX dress? Gardiner had 254 American Express Gold credit cards stitched into an ankle-length gown and wore it to the 1995 Academy Awards, and, like Cher's bombastic headpiece, it continues to find its way onto Best/Worst Dressed lists. The rectangular pieces of plastic – all real, albeit expired – shimmered under the camera flashes like a dress embellished with Swarovski crystals. The designer claimed, however, that she wore it simply because there was nothing better in her closet that day, though others have speculated it was an indirect dig at the excessiveness of Hollywood.
Ultimately, fashion is just another medium through which we communicate. It can signal moods and spur movements, spark conversations and stir controversy, and it's only as eloquent as its wearer is elegant. And, as Hollywood proves again and again, nowhere is the language of style more powerful than on the red carpet.