In a literal sense, the red carpet has been part of the Oscars since 1961. But the red carpet as we know it today dates from the 1995 ceremony, when Joan Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, stood along the scarlet walkway and asked attendees the indelible question: “Who are you wearing?”
Since then, the awards-show fashion has been a mirror of the awards themselves, somehow at once very high-stakes and entirely fluff. Every dress, bag, shoe, lip color and earring is a potentially decisive factor in how a woman’s image and career is perceived by a shadowy, decidedly undemocratic cabal of producers and casting directors. In lieu of an official voting body, Rivers’s heirs and heiresses — Ryan Seacrest, Tim Gunn, Robin Roberts, Tyson Beckford, Giuliana Rancic and the rest of the self-designated fashion police — crown the person with the most acceptable look the “winner of the red carpet.”
And therein lies the problem: Red-carpet commentators enforce a code of conduct that pretends to be about fashion but is really about control. Appointed by television networks and glossy magazines, these people don’t reward self-expression. They’re implementing a now-entrenched notion of what makes a winning red-carpet dress: a glorified prom dress with a couture tag.
The person who “wins” the red carpet is almost always a thin, white actress. Ideally, she is wearing a dress that evokes a lost era of glamour: think Christian Dior’s vision of the 1950s or Valentino’s interpretation of the American Camelot-era style of the early 1960s. Pastel palettes are best. Neutral palettes are acceptable. In rare circumstances, a bold color will be tolerated, if it compliments the actress’s skin and hair. Within these constraints, the red-carpet dresses considered canonical include Audrey Hepburn’s 1954 Givenchy dress (even though it predates the red carpet itself), Gwyneth Paltrow’s pink Ralph Lauren spaghetti-strap ball gown in 1999, and Julia Roberts’s vintage Valentino in 2001.
Bad dresses have their own canon, and they are similarly trotted out for re-examination around this time every year. Dresses too much like costumes are considered bad: Cher’s 1986 Bob Mackie, complete with cape and headdress, is one example. And Björk’s infamous swan dress of 2001 is a classic. Richard Blackwell, the fashion critic and inventor of the Worst Dressed List, was neither clever nor cutting when he said: Björk “dances in the dark, and dresses there too. Let’s dub her ‘Alice in Blunderland.’ ”
There must be some comfort in believing that ignorance is what motivates people to wear something different or unusual on the red carpet — that a bad dress is a sign of some inward flaw. But in practice, a bad red-carpet dress is a dress that is just a little too different from the expected; it’s a dress that has failed to account for the impending scrutiny, a strange parallel to the too-human candidates we see in other more explicitly political arenas.
The red carpet “losers” are, by and large, attendees who have no interest in placating a limited idea of what is pretty, and they dress, instead, for themselves. When asked about her swan dress after the fact, Björk made her intentions clear: “They wrote about it like I was trying to wear a black Armani and got it wrong, like I was trying to fit in. Of course I wasn’t trying to fit in!”
Every once in a while, a dress actually does win on its own merits. Halle Berry’s Elie Saab dress, worn to the 2002 Oscars when she won best actress, had a sheer bodice with carefully placed floral accents and a voluminous skirt — elements contradictory enough to create a sort of pleasing visual asymmetry on a beautiful person. The shock of Sharon Stone’s 1996 Gap turtleneck vacillates from best and worst lists depending on the sense of humor of the publication doing the rating; likewise her white Gap button-down shirt in 1998 paired with a purple Vera Wang skirt. Björk’s dress was included in her Museum of Modern Art retrospective, redeemed by the fact that no one will ever forget it.
The choices a woman can make on the red carpet may appear aesthetic, but they are ultimately economic. They drive a huge amount of attention and therefore commerce. The dress matters only as much as the amount of money the actress’s presence, body and outfit can generate for someone in charge of signing her checks: an editor, a photographer, a producer. In an ideal world, everyone would be Björk in a swan dress or Sharon Stone in a white button-down — wearing what they want, beholden to no one’s rules but their own. Because if accepting the arbitrary standards of beauty is surrender, it is also a kind of sacrifice. The red carpet is the place where anyone who doesn’t fit into the approved categories can be discarded, ultimately rendering the tradition a pageant with no true winners, a parade of the world’s most famous faces made anonymous.