Okay, so normally we’d make jokes about showing up at the Emmys to watch Modern Family win things, but thankfully that didn’t happen last night! Instead we’ll talk jokes about the red carpet.


(Here, Regina King, looking lovely, and at least 11 members of staff and crew in a single photo, at the far end of the carpet before things really get going.)

It is absolutely nonsense women tend to get asked who they’re wearing and not much else; while nobody actually wants Ryan Seacrest asking deep questions on the red carpet (imagine his face: “Tatiana, such great acting this year! Tell me, what inherent loneliness informs your work, and has your loneliness only grown since the show started filming?”), if men get real questions, so should women. On the other hand, the red carpet is an image ecosystem; sure, it’s a swamp, but it’s equally self-sustaining, and when so much is riding on it, people will get asked who they’re wearing, because that’s how anybody’s wearing anything.

That necessity sucks. Those who can get away with it (who don’t answer to showrunners, networks, managers) skip the spectacle; I’m fairly sure nobody got a picture of Frances McDormand until her acceptance speech. But tied up with the sublime hilarity of “Oh, Zac Posen and Tiffany” being worth a $20,000 dress loan, $100k in loaner jewelry, a hairstylist, a makeup artist, and a driver – before the event, where security, publicity, and logistics teams are making a month’s salary guiding everyone through the mass of humanity on that red carpet – is the fact that a red carpet is a delicate dance of image management that would probably terrify us if we ever actually knew how much it matters. And it does! It matters to see women of color on the red carpet. It matters to see older women. It matters to see women of different shapes. Is it all a ridiculous, vaguely sinister carnival? You bet. But turns out I love vaguely sinister carnivals, so they won’t scare me away that easy.

Take Jane Krakowski, who is such a dogged player of this game that the line between her and Jenna Maroney is functionally invisible. Is she mocking the high-fashion pose so often struck on the red carpet? She is. Is she doing hostage eyes as a joke? Maybe. Has she worn a strapless dress because she has the toned shoulders and flawless skin of a nineteen-year-old whose blood she might be drinking? Likely. Is she definitely making sure that despite the too-high detail on that bodice that could make her look hippy, you are not going to miss that she has a tiny waist? You’re goddamn right she is; what is she, new?

Often, the Emmys red carpet is the most prom-standard carpet; Emmys can be cyclical, and after a certain point you tend to play a long game. Julia Louis-Drefyus, appearing on her umpteenth red carpet among handfuls of awards, doesn’t even make this list because she wore a perfectly suitable black one-shoulder dress that joins the rest of her collection of perfectly suitable red-carpet dresses. You test out the trends and the showstoppers at the Golden Globes; the Emmys, then, can fade into the background. BUT NOT THIS YEAR. This year, some people came to PLAY.

CAME TO PLAY DIVISION

Joanna Newsom, with the look of the night. I KNOW, I know, it is an odd garment. Conceptual at best. At worst, high fashion icing experiment. But you know, despite seeming unsure how to inhabit it in still shots (the only person I’ve seen wearing something like this like it was jeans and a tee was Cate Blanchett at the 2011 Oscars), she clearly loved it while in motion, and it was so different than the last few years at the Emmys that I love it on principle. My other, slightly bitter, reason to love it is that it’s definitely a Joanna Newsom Dress, right in line with her floaty-weirdo aesthetic. She clearly knew she was going to run into Andy Samberg’s Nameless Wife Syndrome and made sure interns at fashion magazines across the land would have to Google her name to fill out their “WTF is she wearing” headlines. Clever shit.


Christine Marzano, who got that same memo and thought, “I refuse to be Stephen Merchant’s Girlfriend all night. What if I dressed like a stained-glass-themed comic book villain from a Kevin Wada painting?” It worked out.


Tatiana Maslany, in a white tux that’s not too tight and not overly showy (no more cleavage than many other dresses), and is notable largely because after being snubbed, she opted to show up in the sartorial equivalent of “If you insist,” and it looks amazing on her.


Kiernan Shipka! She’s always had a good sense of style on the carpet even as a wee thing, and she’s opted for a slightly-oddball but really chic personal style as she’s gotten older. This looks like a blend of a Star Trek diplomat and one of the photoshoots in Funny Face. I love it, even though Twitter clickbaits all night were like “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT’S UNDER KIERNAN SHIPKA’S DRESS,” and to clarify, 1) gross, what are you doing, and 2) pants. It’s pants. Dress over pants has been a thing for about 60 years. We’ll be fine.


Taraji P. Henson, in probably the worst shot possible of this dress, which only looks good because Taraji P. Henson is wearing it (the bodice is amazing, but that skirt..? It might have registered on camera better in plain mesh instead of odd lace, but as it is it only looked good when she wasn’t moving, and she loved it waaay too much not to move). But it is definitely not a standard Emmys dress, and she is wearing the living fuck out of it, so it counts.


However, you don’t have to take a risk on the Emmys red carpet to look good; in the last couple of years, as red carpets continue to build their own vocabulary, just looking good is often good enough.


LOOKIN’ GOOD DIVISION

Jamie Lee Curtis; minimal, sleek, amazing.


Lena Headey, who continues her unbroken streak as leader of a punk enclave with this Punk Full Formal number, and draws others to her.


Kate McKinnon, heir apparent to the punk enclave, underplaying herself for the moment because she has a long game: Ghostbusters, then an HBO show, then a nice dark comedy for indie cred. She’s looking into the future; she’s seen it all.


Christina Hendricks, who is just dropping by the punk enclave on her way back from some glitzy nightclub to deliver a killer party invite; it’s at her weekend estate, they’re going to have a blast.


Carrie Brownstein, in an outfit I cannot possibly be impartial about after the tux searches I’ve done for Selina Kyle. Thumbs up. Red carpet tuxes forever.


Elisabeth Moss, deciding not to risk another awkward neutral for her last Mad Men carpet, is the prom queen who got bored with her date, grabbed his keys, and drove out into the desert to hang out with the punk enclave.


Lady Gaga, who used to be part of the punk enclave before she married a very old rich man for his money; now she’s on the board of half a dozen companies who had better never cross her, and she stashes a tiny dagger in that hip shelf.


Kim Dickens, who I imagine having the following phone discussion with her stylist before this dress: “I don’t want any fussy stuff. I just – what? Sure, you can find a little sparkle. A LITTLE. Nothing fussy. I don’t like fuss.” Two years from now a recording of that phone call will win her an Emmy.


Kristen Schaal, who probably had the following conversation with her stylist about this dress: “Wheeee!”


Sarah Paulson. Sometimes I am a sucker for dark glitz in clean lines, so this was a no-brainer, and she looks remarkably comfortable for someone who can’t lift her arms. (I am less sure about the hair; I get the futuristic wet-look idea behind it, but eeeeh.)


Viola Davis; not my all-time favorite of hers, but it looks lovely and so does she.


And Angela Bassett, who looks like the spiritual guide in a stylish cartoon about a team of magical heroes who moonlight as minor royalty in a fantasy landscape. Angela Bassett is the dead-but-immortal queen who appears to them like a projection on a waterfall and offers them sage advice and sometimes – sometimes – tough love.



PRISM POWER

Our heroine: Danielle Brooks. Power color: trick question, she’s the heroine, so it’s probably Prism. Her power is channeling energy into any number of crime-fighting uses, but also into running her duchy, which is thriving.


Samira Wiley. Power color: Fuschia. So openhearted that she sometimes talks villains right out of their villainy.


Laverne Cox. Power color: Blue. Can control water, which is probably handy whenever they need to summon Angela Bassett but aren’t near a waterfall.


Gina Rodriguez. Power color: Blush. She can speak to plants! Every allergy-looking skirt flower on this thing secretly does her bidding.


Uzo Aduba. Power color: Also fuschia. (By the rules of cartoon shows she’s probably Samira’s twin sister.) Controls fire and light, which is why her dress either looks like sudden nightfall or couture singe.


Sophie Turner. Power color: indigo. Let’s give her the power of a piledriver punch, why not. (Her power is definitely not picking out lip color that looks good, that is for goddamn sure.)


Gwendoline Christie. Power color: gold. She’s their Spring-Heeled Jack; can cross a league in a single step and barf blue and white flame! (That one’s not on me, that’s the Victorians.)


Padma Lakshmi. Power color: chartreuse. Power: whatever it is, it’s a new thing that she invented. (I wish she looked like she felt a little more stable in the bodice; she has that Red Carpet Concern face a lot of women have when a dress has enough scaffolding that you’re preeeetty sure nothing’s going to happen, but just in case you haven’t consumed solid food for two days and you’re not planning to breathe much.)


David and Jessica Oyelowo, who appear in a Victorian time-travel episode as a PRISM of the past to help our heroines close the time portal before it’s too late!


Joanne Froggatt. She doesn’t have any powers, she’s just around, but with that outfit and that “please let me join whatever fun game you have, literally anything, please just befriend me” face, Danielle will find something for her to do.


Allison Janney, their ally in the Queen’s Palace. (She’s an architecture-bender; that illusion-netting detail is actually just part of her ancestral estate she carries with her all the time.)


Jessica Lange is their royal nemesis, Duchess Charlotte D’Oehsent-Cahrr.


Their magical nemesis? Who else but Lady Spectrum herself, Jaimie Alexander! Look at that entire outfit, from hem to facial expression. Nailed that audition.


THE NO THANKS DIVISION

So here’s a thing about Kerry Washington; she takes some great risks on the red carpet, and that’s always fun. However, recently some of them have seemed like great ideas on paper and somehow faltered a little at the last second, and this is no different. “What if it was an elbow-sleeve sheath dress…out of chain mail?” YES. “What if it the epaulets were metal flowers?” YES. “And futuristic silver shoes?” YES. “And the skirt had really stiff metal flowers that draped oddly so the fluidity of the chain mail was totally ruined and it started to look like really stiff knitting with metallic cupcake liners on the bottom?” …huh.


It’s a very different kind of “No thanks” than, say, Laura Prepon, who looks like the costume departments of Reign and Children of Dune had an unholy child with a boob window, and she agreed to wear it because she lost a bet.


The thing abut Laura Carmichael is that her style is usually very good – maybe not groundbreaking, but rarely have I looked at a dress of hers and thought, “That shit right there is an Edith.” To honor the show’s farewell season, one assumes, she is breaking her decent streak and wearing this.


And Maisie Williams, who has literally cosplayed a Doris Day bathrobe/slippers outfit, and while there’s something kind of great about that, cosplay only works if everyone gets it. That said, it’s pretty sleek and the length is killer; she’s young, she’s having fun, she’ll be fine.


“They’ll HAVE to talk about me,” said Heidi Klum, frowning at the Project Runway ratings on her phone, pacing back and forth. “What can I do to make sure people are talking about me? There must be SOMETHING I can do.”