The Oscars 2015 red carpet was, as ever, a lesson in high glamour. But between Emma Stone in beaded chartreuse, Keira Knightley doing maternity-chic and Gwyneth Paltrow returning to sugary pink, who took home the plaudits? (Clue: she didn’t win an award)
It’s not just a beauty pageant, actually. I have zero time for the “what’s the big deal, they’re just frocks” angle. This night is, in fact, a Hollywood hustings. The fact that it’s a hustings which is all about the women – whereas the men get to advance their careers in more straightforward ways, like, I dunno, being good at their jobs – is sexist, of course it is. But to assume that this is because it is a hustings of all-female candidates and is therefore all about prettiness – when in fact it’s about career strategy and the securing and servicing of a power base among the Hollywood electorate – would be sexist too.
So anyway, Dakota Johnson won. She won because she looked awesome, and because on a night when women on the red carpet are traditionally as tightly bound and breathless as a Fifty Shades sex scene, she wore a dress that seemed to stay up on its own, all lightness and freedom, suspended over one shoulder by a delicate, sparkly strap. Also, it was by Saint Laurent, a brand that right now represents a youthful, uncompromising kind of chic. In other words, the dress announced: Fifty Shades was just the Trojan horse out of which Dakota Johnson has stepped, victorious.
The red carpet has become a more interesting place since feminism got louder in the pop-cultural conversation in the last couple of years. Pale, shimmery and hourglass doesn’t cut the mustard anymore; a sharp-as-mustard dress is what you need instead. Emma Stone’s dress was a bold shade of chartreuse, a colour that really only works if you have Stone’s colouring. Her jewels were at her wrists, so that the focus was on her dress and orange lip colour. It was an elegant, grownup gown with a twist, which said: “I’m not just the teeny ingenue any more. I may in fact be the next go-to beautiful-quirky character actress, so Cate and Julianne, watch your backs.” Nicole Kidman, who in her own slightly crazy way always does something great on the red carpet, went for a similar colour (hey, it works for redheads) and with a similar pop of colour – red, not orange, and a belt not lipstick. It was Louis Vuitton, it was simple and fabulous, and it totally worked.
If there’s one thing that the women of Hollywood get scrutinised for more than their looks, it’s their motherhood-or-otherwise status. Interesting, then, to compare the red carpet looks of Keira Knightley (pregnant) and Rosamund Pike (just had a baby). Knightley’s strategy was to bow gracefully out of the whole foxy thing with a romantic, floaty old-rose Valentino gown with indecipherable handwritten squiggles on it. (See: Angelina’s graffitied-by-the-brood wedding gown. It’s a mom-thing in Hollywood, I guess. Me neither.) With the girlish hair garland, it was a little bridesmaidy: a deliberate sidestepping of the glamour stakes.
Reese Witherspoon’s brand is still in transition as she reinvents herself as one of Hollywood’s foremost feminists. Tom Ford made her gown, which was monochrome and had broad stripes which seemed to reference the tuxedo rather than the hot-damn-cute-and-curvy thing she has traditionally done. She still has that too-perky smile though – as if there’s a little-known opposite affliction to Bitchy Resting Face, of which Witherspoon is the one and only sufferer. And she waved and mouthed “Hi Mom!” when the camera was on her in the auditorium, which is so sweet but, you know, not exactly a power move. (Would Harvey Weinstein do that, Reese?)
I was hoping for a whole lot of 1970s-influenced louche action on the red carpet this year – think Julianne Moore’s plunging neckline at the Baftas – but in the end we had to make do with Margot Robbie, in a saucy Saint Laurent number that was part Studio 54, part Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface. There was plenty of daring, though, and a high-necked trend which verged on a cleavage backlash. See: Felicity Jones in Alexander McQueen, silhouette as square as lego, and Scarlett Johansson in Versace. (Some producer in the audience, surely, is right now dreaming up a movie with Johansson-as-hot-sea-creature-who-saves-the-planet.)
But it’s not just Hollywood power-players who actresses are out to impress. The fashion industry itself is both a global tastemaker – defining who is hot and who is not – and a serious payer, when it comes to perfume and makeup campaigns. Therefore, wearing something really fancy and properly fashion is not, in any way, a whimsical move. Julianne Moore in Chanel stepped the fashion content up, at just the right moment, for the night she joined the Oscar hall of fame. Lupita Nyong’o likes to wear something that is both traditionally feminine and yet stands out – just like her. Last year it was princessy, but with a Prada twist. This year she wore pearls – encrusted all over, in a shimmery Calvin Klein sheath.
For serious fashion points, you can’t beat a designer debut. Cate Blanchett wore a black Maison Margiela gown, the first time the label has graced the red carpet since Galliano took over as designer. The dress itself was, by Blanchett’s standards, a little forgettable; the message was all in the label. Sienna Miller, continuing a renaissance which has gained traction by her back-in-style status – she was seated next to Anna Wintour when she attended the Calvin Klein show in New York, which is never a bad sign – was the first to wear Oscar de la Renta on the red carpet since Peter Copping took over the design studio.
There was no Björk swan dress – those were the days, right? – but this is the Oscars, and where there are winners there must also be losers. And this year, those were the women who didn’t get the memo. See: Jennifer Aniston, who after all that hard work eating actual food and giving up blow dries for her role in Cake set herself back with a pale, beaded, blah dress. Also, Gwyneth Paltrow in sugar pink appeared to have come dressed as herself the year she won the Oscar, which might be something she needs to talk to her therapist about. Or it might be the first move in a brilliant strategy, which will see her back up on the podium next year. It’s the Oscars. Underestimate the dresses at your peril.
This article was written by Jess Cartner-Morley, for theguardian.com on Monday 23rd February 2015 07.58 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010