Oh, we knew this day would come. The stylist gauntlet, the carefully crafted personas, the subliminal messages we’re meant to read into a dress being worn by a person who, the vast majority of the time, is a talented professional actor who desperately hates having to wear this dress and play some version of herself who’s somehow too charmingly artistic to care about awards even though she has to answer half a dozen questions about the half-million-dollar jewelry she’s wearing as someone on her styling staff tugs on her train so it looks good in photos: The Oscars.
The levels of navel-gazing and self-congratulation possible with the Oscars have yet to be fully plumbed by science. This year, given public outcry about a lack of non-white nominees (practically a calling card for this award), producers bedecked the red carpet with any vaguely-related PoC it could find, all of whom were looking into the camera with a collective You Know Why expression. Winner of this particularly awkward category: Duane Howard, probably.
And the red carpet is as complicated as always. (I will never be able to sort out my own feelings about it; it’s fine, I’ve accepted it.) It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem that can so easily flatten an actress into a series of names (often men – designers, jewelers) in a way that their male counterparts are rarely reduced. Think of the Mani-Cam and tremble. On the other hand, the red carpet is so absurd at this point that we survey the entire business with the wary eye of a producer, looking for obviously rehearsed answers, faux-candid bits, and any glimpse of authenticity; the red carpet is such a patently-false stage for any earnest discussion of character, and no matter who’s interviewing, it tends to feel like a really wretched OKCupid date spiraling out in flames if it goes on for more than thirty seconds. It’s just as well sometimes to get in, name your designer, blurt out “San Dimas High School football rules!” and keep walking.
Obviously not everyone will do that. Some people can still feel the magic.
This is Brie Larson, and she’s having an honest-to-goodness Moment; honestly, that’s still one of the reasons we tune in, too.
LOOK OF THE NIGHT DIVISION
Dorith Mous; photographer and model with a short film under her belt, who brought a Met Gala-level dress to the Oscars red carpet. The good news is, showing up wearing the hell out of a complete showstopper like this means we’ll probably see her at the Gala this year. The bad news is, how on earth is she ever going to top this dress?
Maybe it’s better to show up like Sunrise Coigney; she has a great sense of style and tends to show up looking like a slightly louche vampire lounge singer from the 1930s, which suits me just fine and suits her even better.
PUNK ENCLAVE DIVISION
I always feel a little sad having these without Lena Headey here, but what can you do when some people clearly want to be involved in Formal Punk Enclave business?
Obviously Dorith Mous is acting president during Lena’s absence, and Sunrise Coigney is Official Torch Singer, but that still leaves a lot of room.
Charlotte Riley clearly got her handbook – bold lines, the smallest air of recklessness in her hair (it’s down! Gasp!), a sufficient skirt circumference to catch attention and make sure someone has to look up her BBC credits and not just label her “Guest.” But you can tell she must be new, because she brought a date. Lena Headey would never allow it. Men wait in the car.
Kate Winslet. She had a similar idea at the BAFTAs – simple black with a twist – and this is a perfect escalation of it for Oscar purposes; the fabric makes this dress feel like something we’ve never seen before, which, given that it’s a strapless column with a train, is saying something. (She kept her hair down so you’d know she’s not invested in winning. The punk enclave keeps an eye on that sort of thing.)
Adepero Oduye. We could argue about the necessity of the self-material choker (not super into it), but I really love the color, the pattern, and the shape of the dress, and honestly if you’re going to have an evening sleeve you might as well make them individual capes, why not. (A larger cape would have been wasteful; the punk enclave never wastes.)
Julianne Moore. She was in the punk enclave a long time ago, before she married some old-money dude and had to leave them behind. All her gowns are respectable, now (you can’t run in these, old money never runs, they pay people to run for them), but every so often she’ll see someone making a face at what she’s wearing and think, “Still got it.”
Kerry Washington, the preppiest punk in town.
Margot Robbie is trying very hard to remind you she is a glamorous blonde from a Scorcese movie one last time before she has to commit to the Suicide Squad brand of punk and walk around with Jared Leto for what will probably feel like fifty years before the movie comes out. She is currently sitting in a swanky bar across the street from the punk enclave, casting the occasional longing look, knowing she isn’t ready yet…she’s just not ready.
Sandy Powell, easily outpunking everyone else here. (Jenny Beavan, who wore jeans and an Immortan Joe bedazzled moto jacket, is a close second.)
If “punk” means “requires a personal assistant to pee,” then Lady Gaga has this in hand. (I actually love the outfit – she looks like God in a really self-aware 1950s pastiche – but let’s be honest.)
Olivia Wilde. “Did I do it? I showed so much skin! Am I punk now? Did I do it? This is punk and not awkward, right? I mean, look how casually I’m smiling! Did I do it?”
Rooney Mara. :gently disgusted and lengthy sigh, dutiful cocking of knee:
But honestly, if we’re going to talk about punk, we have to talk about one of the most slyly aggressive moves on the carpet this year.
Daisy Ridley. I rarely get into red-carpet designer politics, largely because they’re insider baseball past the point of mattering, most of the time; no one at home is actually meant to remember who anyone was wearing. However, when you are Daisy “suspiciously Keira Knightley” Ridley, you have been rocketed to stardom in a very carefully curated way alongside the release of Star Wars; her red-carpet track record for premieres and pressers definitely has a strategy behind it. And she chose to show up at the Oscars in Chanel. On one level, this is a worldwide stage on which to remind people you’d look great in a period piece, which is always smart if the reason you’re famous is for running around space in some grubbies. On another, a suspiciously Keira Knightley-looking young lady showed up at the world’s most famous red carpet wearing a brand that has made Keira Knightley one of its most famous faces. That is honestly kind of an amazing gauntlet throw.
It’s been a few years since we could do this, after a few cycles of Everybody Guessing the Trend Color, we have enough variety to bring back Roy G. Biv, which is a nice way to classify perfectly good dresses that are clearly meant to catch the eye, and leave behind subtler messages the longer you look.
ROY G. BIV DIVISION
Charlize Theron. “Didn’t nominate me for Mad Max, eh? That’s all right, I’m still poised for any Hollywood Golden Age movie you’d like to throw at me, because I am a Sophisticated Actress who is Ready for a role that will get me the kind of Critical Respect that results in a second Oscar and I don’t want another win where everyone gasped that I gained ten pounds in that movie where I was a serial killer. Sorry about the Huntsman sequel. I am a Very Respected Actress.”
Alicia Vikander. Man, this was a marvelously planned red carpet run for someone contractually obligated to wear Louis Vuitton. No matter how you felt about her dress on any given red carpet (for me it’s been hit or miss), she played the Golden Globes like a garden party, wore 70s sequins to the SAGs, floor-length leather armor to the BAFTAs, as if out to prove she could wear anything. It mostly worked. For the Oscars, she took a smart, hard left into Charles James territory by showing up in a carefully poufed ballgown that suggests THIS is the red carpet she’s taking seriously; it looks fresh and young, a dress at the very beginning of its long and prestigious career.
Rachel McAdams was not going to win an Oscar last night. What she WAS going to do was quietly suggest that she is back in fighting shape after a few years of oddball movie choices that slightly tarnished her early prestige. That neckline is the neckline of someone who is not going to be getting up from her seat this time; that train is the train of someone who wants to be here again.
Saoirse Ronan, who I guess is tired of ingenue roles and is making a play for Grown-up Mess in a Disco Movie. (I will be honest, this is such a departure from her floral column dresses all season that the only reason I can think of for such a departure is either a quiet middle finger to the Academy or a secret audition for a role I don’t understand yet.)
Brie Larson, who DEFINITELY knew she’d be walking up to accept an award tonight, and wanted to go up there as a beautiful blue princess of the sea whose ruffly tendrils would flutter behind her as her bodice provided just enough visual interest to look good above the podium.
Reese Witherspoon, who thought, “What if I did something different from my usual strong column of color to stand out on a sea of increasingly-modern red carpet dresses?” and regrets it a little, but she is a consummate professional and is hoping if she smiles hard enough you just won’t notice that her origami bodice cups don’t quite work. (I bet she warmed up to them as soon as she realized you can store Girl Scout cookies in there.)
Naomi Watts, wearing a dress that looks like the nightclub in an ’80s noir, and I’m fine with that.
Emily Blunt, who is wearing the sweetest Homecoming dress imaginable, perhaps in an attempt to make people think “Man, that doesn’t seem right, where did I last see her?” and then remember Sicario and what a great job she did in that. (She’s also sorry about the Huntsman sequel.)
Honestly, I’m not a giant fan of Emily Blunt’s dress, which is perfectly fine (and god knows maternity fashion is hell), but I am grateful she at least went with jeweled accents instead of what happened the second I turned my back: florals.
OH MY GOD WHO LET YOU ALL WEAR FLORALS DIVISION
This is how you know I should not be taken seriously as a fashion blog; there are whole arenas of fashion where you can show me things and I will have no idea if what you are showing me is fashion-forward or someone trying to play a trick on me. (Right now flare crops are a thing that’s happening, and literally every time I see them I think someone has suddenly grown taller as part of a wish they made at the Zoltar machine, because that still makes more sense than anyone saying, “What I’d really like is to have a lot of fabric swirling around my calf area – but JUST the calf, I need that knee area locked up tight. You get me? YOU GET ME?”)
So when you tell me “The dress is covered in really textural flowers,” I make a very polite very blank face until you show me the final product, because that description can mean so many things, and so few of them are good news.
Priyanka Chopra is one of those bearing glad tidings. We’re skirting a little Adam and Eve with that one groinal fern on such a sheer net, but she carries it off perfectly fine, and the weight and texture of these very botanical-manual flowers make them feel bold without losing the detail of the silhouette. She looks amazing.
Amy Poehler. Technically this is probably one of those times when being a short person wearing a heavy shift dress with evening sleeves, a cape, and botanical sequins could work against you, but honestly if you’re going to wear a floral you might as well just go for broke. (And her giant ring is one of the reasons I rarely tackle jewelry on the red carpet; it looks perfectly fine with the entire look given that it exists, and obviously it was a well-considered piece that was meant to stand in for the entirety of her jewelry, but if I had been in charge of this look and someone was asking me “But what about just ONE ring, maybe like the width of a mini Altoids tin, just to anchor the look?” I would point emphatically at the person in an evening cape and floor-length botanical sequins and say, “Are people going to MISS her otherwise?” and then I’d be fired.) In conclusion, I like this more than I should.
Someone tricked Jennifer Jason Leigh into wearing this powdery-pink ingenue nonsense. “Perfect for a comeback!” they promised, yanking the zipper closed. “You’re SO poised for greatness right now. This is just like, reminding people you’re not so old? I mean, not SO OLD, obviously, just like, that you’re still here and ready to be acting! Plus you should probably look romantic so people forget what you looked like by the end of Hateful Eight, ha ha!” Judging by the look on her face (which I love so much it’s frankly worth the entire rest of this ensemble), she is going to find them after this ceremony and explain some things.
I have said before that Cate Blanchett can wear practically anything with ease, and this is still true. And this dress has plenty of strengths; a great cut for Best Actress gravitas, an amazing color to bring out her eyes. I get it. However, if you ask me, “sweetly arbitrary, bountiful 3D flowers that somehow avoid looking like a craft project and instead leave only a breathless impression of the goddess of spring” is one of those lines that’s so thin you can count the number of times it’s been achieved on one hand. This is not one of those times. (However, her mastery of Red-Carpet-Specific Persona Acting is perhaps unrivaled; she occasionally hits a ceiling about this nonsense – the “Do you do that to the guys?” response to the pan-up a few years back, etc. – but when she plays, she Plays.)
Chrissy Teigen. Honestly, this floral is over-the-top Victorian-poetry-book-border lovely and I would give it full marks anyway, but apparently she was also sewn into this dress on her way out the door, which means she was willing to wear this dress despite the likelihood she would be unable to eat or pee for the duration, and since the Oscars loves to reward visible suffering, surely she deserves a place on this list.
We are rapidly approaching the pop-culture-attention-span moment when you can tell a young person “Heidi Klum used to be a judge of fashion on a nationally-televised competition show about fashion design,” and they will absolutely not believe you.
Isla Fisher. It’s fine, okay? It’s fine! I don’t know! Does it look slightly like the wallpaper in some incredibly fancy bathroom in a Vogue Home spread? Sure, but that’s just how florals tend to turn out, you know? Is it anybody’s fault? Probably not! This is all fine, probably! Jesus Christ, florals!
THE LEFTOVERS DIVISION
When you have something to say but there’s no point in a whole category.
Whoopi Goldberg showed up in honest-to-goodness Bette Davis cosplay; I’m kind of into it? Why not.
And finally, this year’s red carpet worry. Jennifer Lawrence is clearly being groomed and polished by a team of people who do not have her personality or her best interests at heart (this entire look could be transposed wholesale on half a dozen A-list young women, which is not what you want in an Oscar winner). That face is positively crying out for escape. Do not let David O. Russell keep making a joke out of you, Lawrence, goddamn! Take two years off, don’t listen to anyone who even breathes the word “franchise,” stop giving interviews, erase Bradley Cooper from your phone, and wait for something that will remind people what you were capable of in Winter’s Bone instead of the Mop Movie. It will be okay; this dress is not.