The marvelous ecosystem of red carpet season has begun again. Every autumn, the gentle crinkle of several thousand square feet of carpet-preserving plastic wrap heralds the annual harvest of actors who return to these grounds every year in hopes of spawning more parts.
Lest you think I’m saying any of this to be holier-than-thou, let me assure you, I am serious as hell. It’s amazing to watch the edges of the frame and realize this thing is exactly as complicated as you might have once imagined it to be, only add about twice as many staff, invisible conversations with casting directors and designer labels, and a bunch of begrudging agreements with the press that mean everyone stands on the press dais and answers awkward questions and talks about how no red carpet is complete without the fresh zing of Trident. Trident, for all occasions! (The amount of respect I have for the machinations behind the forced-casual-glam of the red carpet is no joke; my latest novel, ICON, is about celebrity diplomats with conflicting agendas; it opens with a red carpet, for obvious reasons.)
The stakes of a red carpet are exactly as intense as they sound. Here’s Shiri Appleby, before and after the two seconds it takes her to relax her Hostage Eyes into TV-protagonist polish.
It’s a tiny shift of facial muscles based entirely on settling on a camera to look at; still, you can tell at a glance which photo is usable and which gets tossed out.
And in case anyone doubts exactly how prescribed this all is, this year People/Entertainment Weekly/maybe Time Magazine/definitely Trident Gum live feed gave you plenty of shots of the red-carpet sausage being made. A series of assistants ushering everyone one at a time into position for obligatory shots at half a dozen stops; a series of interviewers waiting for celebrities to be caught out of the current and funneled up to them for questions. By the end of it, the staffer at the end of the line was all but dragging celebrities down the photo-stop line. This shot of Grace Gummer looks like she’s leaning a little too hard into Slender Actress Pose, but it’s honestly just that she’s trying to make sure she gives the mandated exposure to a look that likely cost her/some studio real cash before she has to bolt down the carpet to get inside. (By the end of it the actors were literally running full-tilt into the gauntlet of staff on the far side of the press corral. Timing your arrival to seem laissez-faire/getting caught in limo traffic is a crapshoot.)
The evening’s winner? Priyanka Chopra, who swung her dress in such an impressive moment of Carefree Candid Fun that she took up 2, sometimes 3 slots in red-carpet slideshows when other people only got one.
The staff, as we can see, were mostly just calculating how much time this was costing everybody else. (This Emmys was well fucking oiled.) But you know what? That is their job; Priyanka Chopra’s job is to build a career in the States while continuing to deliver marquee glamour befitting her Bollywood-icon status, and she did her job.
She also leads us to tonight’s biggest category, which reached such a saturation point in a single night that I will be very curious to see if the SAG Awards or Golden Globes are a showcase of very specific, very different colors in an attempt to avoid it. (The other option is to play the numbers game, and that could be the reasoning behind some of this, too; a lot of people who might not rate a solo shot on the red carpet yet could get lumped into a Lady in Red category – for example, in a magazine or a useless blog.)
LADY IN RED DIVISION
Jessie Graff, stuntwoman, who wins this division by virtue of sheer wingspan, doing a quick figure study for comic book artists who need to draw melees in the middle of formal events.
Regina King. For absolutely no real reason, dresses like this – which have a back drape not quite large enough to be an overskirt – always put me in mind of 1950s hostess dresses, in which a hostess clipped a gigantic three-quarters skirt over a pair of pants (usually fitted and slightly cropped), as if to indicate the guests were just welcome enough that you’d get a little dressed up for them, but not welcome enough that you were going to take off your pants just to deal with them. That is exactly how Regina King is wearing this dress, and I love her for it.
Tatiana Maslany. This was a very simple take on the red dress, but that suspended-in-air effect looked great when she went up to collect her Emmy, so her team knew what they were doing.
Olivia Colman, in comfortable red jersey with a lovely 1930s silhouette and the best possible accessory: a sense of humor so awesome your costars can’t stop cracking up long enough to take the pres shots.
Portia Doubleday. “Not the most popular character on Mr. Robot, you said? Well, how about NOW.”
Kate McKinnon in exactly the sort of dress you wear when you’ve been in a movie and know you should look nice, but are not expecting an Emmy and don’t want to look like you’re assuming anything. (Whoops!)
But honestly, the carpet this year had only a few categories. Instead, the vast majority of attendees was trying to play the image game at the beginning of a long season, position themselves as strongly as possible for what lies ahead.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE DIVISION
Sarah Hyland. You probably barely recognize her; if you do recognize her, you probably don’t care. This outfit is a bold sidestep in trying to make you care: a cross between 18th-century panniers and a 1950s bustier-and-sash Hepburn silhouette, with the obligatory Red Carpet Pants that are the provenance of bold young ladies and don’t-give-a-damn-any-more older ladies. I can’t tell you if this outfit has actually worked for her image, since it – like most of her outfits – is wearing her rather than the other way around. But damn if she’s not trying.
See also: costar Ariel Winter, also being worn by her dress. However, I want to make a note that at first glance I thought the Deco Winterland vibe worked but the hem of the lining was in a weird place and it was likely, as a look, not going to be worthy of mention, except then one of the style sites asked readers how the “18-year-old” looked in this outfit, clearly implying that she was showing too much skin, so here is Ariel Winter, who needs to be more fastidious about getting full linings on her nude gowns in future so there’s not some random horizontal cutoff in the middle of her vertical lines, but otherwise should do just as she pleases.
Someone wearing the living shit out of her dress: Sarah Paulson, who, according to this dress, has played her last supporting role, showed up purely to collect an Emmy, and is gunning full-throttle to become a stealth Cate Blanchett.
Someone who has no other option than to wear the shit out of her dress because the designer is her date for the evening: Emily Ratajkowski, whose pose is as overworked as the hem of that dress. (I enjoy Zac Posens sometimes! The hem of this dress is not one of those times!)
Yara Shahidi. Fresh and sharp and a fantastic use of the evening-coat silhouette. One of my favorite looks of the night.
Tracee Ellis Ross, looking effortless and elegant and lovely.
Lily Tomlin, doing the “I’d rather be as comfortable as possible” song and dance with panache. (I love a good evening coat.)
Laverne Cox, in some gold-beaded grandeur. (It’s interesting how, in a red carpet with so many bright solids, the tulle/beaded/metallic overlay dresses take on new interest. It’s been four months since the last red carpet. This regeneration cycle wastes absolutely zero time.)
Kristen Bell. Can take or leave the top half; the bottom half is a really smart call. Again, without a ton of pattern on the red carpet, it stands out, and the bright colors are of a piece with the vibrant tones of the evening but suggest more personality. (I would love to know if someone was assigned to make sure the skirt was arranged so you could see that bird in every shot.)
Kerry Washington is on a mission with maternity formalwear. It comes and goes. I love everything about this look but the cutouts; understanding and supporting the gesture of being proud of a pregnant body is still not going to make me like them.
Viola Davis, with the glee of someone realizing they can get used to this, because they’ll get to be on red carpets a lot. The dress is a bold choice – hot pink is not for the faint of heart – but it’s a great silhouette and there’s just enough interest on the bodice to keep it out of the solid-color doldrums. Not my favorite look of hers, but very smartly done.
Which brings us to Constance Zimmer.
I don’t mind this dress, actually. The pattern is interesting, the shape is clean and simple, I get it. The problem with a dress like this is that the more you lean into the pink the closer you get to awkwardness. (I don’t think Constance Zimmer gives one shit about seeming younger; I think it gets harder to convince people that’s not the goal in direct proportion to how much of your outfit is hot pink. See also: Viola Davis, where a slightly purple lip and a neutral clutch make a difference.) That purse, which would be a burst of life against a solid color, just cheapens this dress. And the lipstick seals the deal. The way to carry off a hot pink embroidered overlay is to seem like you don’t even know you have it on.
The Stranger Things kids, including Millie Bobby Brown (the next New Young Thing now that Kiernan Shipka and Maisie Williams have leveled up). They are all having a blast and I hope they end up in a weird studio-system deal with Netflix where they get to reunite every 5 years and do a completely different project just to hang out again.
Not a period piece, though, please; this red carpet reminded me I’m not ready.
THE ’70s BROKE OUT AND ONLY I SEEM TO THINK THIS IS A CONCERN DIVISION
Sometimes it’s fine when the ’70s break out. Padma Lakshmi’s not worried; why would she be?
But sometimes you realize Constance Wu, one of the most beautiful women on this red carpet, let someone dress her like a 1995 movie about 1975, and then you aren’t quite sure what to do. (Great silhouette and I love the colors on her, but just..not in this fabric, or as part of this look. It’s a look that was clearly designed to evoke exactly this! You don’t do that ponytail/hoop combo otherwise! I just will never understand why.)
Ellie Kemper, looking…like someone from the late ’70s got a nice haircut before she went out. I wish I could come up with some kind of through line for all these, but I will be honest, the late ’60s and ’70s are Not My Bag, and every time I see it on someone who clearly knows what they’re doing I have to just understand that this era charms some people in a way it has never charmed me.
Take Alia Shawkat. Perfectly chosen and styled as someone who’s a little too edgy to actually buy into the Emmys but still wants to look sexy enough for people who require their young leading ladies to be glamorous. Her makeup is lovely, and I like the purse, end of list. But “I like it” and “the look was conceived and executed with certainty of purpose” are totally different things, and it succeeds at the latter.
On the other end of the spectrum, Gwendoline Christie, wearing a garment. (She’s so charismatic on the carpet that you tend to just enjoy how much she enjoys whatever she’s wearing, but try describing this dress to someone and see what you get.)
Maisie Williams, who has the advantage of being young enough that you can show up in something that looks like the time Sue Perkins and Giles Coren tried to live The Good Life at Christmas and they got totally wasted and Sue’s wig nearly fell off, and still make it clear you don’t really care and are mostly just having a good time.
The thing is, my personal feelings about those looks don’t change the care and precision that went into them. Which is more than I can say for some of these; these are mysteries forever.
I HAVE NO ANSWERS FOR YOU DIVISION
Anna Chlumsky. I mean, several people were involved in this decision. At least three people vetted this dress for an event that would be smothered in cameras and that lasted several hours. She was going to have to put on this dress and walk in front of them all. And yet, here we are.
Michelle Dockery has been invited into Fashion Circles, so a lot of her choices are either amazing or slightly weird in a way that’s considered amazing by the people who matter. For instance, some people might have said, “I’m not…one hundred percent sure that with a skirt like that we really need a ruffle right over each boob with a belted peplum cascade to visually weigh down the bodice.” But we are not in Fashion Circles, and there are some things we’ll never understand.
And Laura Carmichael, Edith-ing herself one last time.
But honestly, the thing I liked most on this red carpet was the early-in-the-season vibe where so many of the women seemed as if they were dropped into a noir just in time to dispose of their meddlesome husbands, and they were straight-up looking forward to getting asked about it.
“I’M SURE I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE IMPLYING, DETECTIVE” DIVISION
Sophie Turner. “My husband? Goodness, you don’t say. No, I hadn’t heard a thing about it – I’ve been home all night – and me in my nightgown, I’m so embarrassed. Just a moment, Detective, while I…make myself a little more presentable.”
Neve Campbell. “A detective? How common. No, I shan’t be answering any questions at all. You may take it up with my solicitor.”
Natasha Lyonne. “Yes, Detective. I remember the last time I saw him. That sort of thing is a moment you never forget. Take a seat – curtain isn’t for ten minutes, we have time.”
Keri Russell. “My husband? Oh, that’s tragic. That’s just tragic. One moment, Mr. Rhys. There’s a detective here with questions about Charles. You know, questions. About Charles? Well, the ceremony can wait five minutes, can’t it? This won’t take long.”
Carly Chaikin. “Dead, huh? That’s a shame.” :exhales cigarette smoke: “That’s a real shame. The old man was growing on me.”
Taraji P. Henson. “Dead? Is he? Well, well, well.”
Kathryn Hahn. “On Tuesday, you said? Oh, yes, of course – I was sewing unnecessary sheer ruffles onto the top of my best dress so it looked like a sexy American Girls apron. Why do you ask?”
Robin Wright. “My who? Sorry, I can’t hear you, the crowd’s kind of noisy and my set’s starting. Good luck with whatever it is!”
Angela Bassett. “Is he? That man can’t even die without bringing me into it. Well, go on.”
Kirsten Dunst. Not a word; just that slow, satisfied grin until one of her husband’s finger bones falls out of her mouth.
America Ferrera. “I beg your pardon – you said you saw my husband? But Detective, my husband…he’s been dead for seven years.”
“Husband? Well, you found the old bastard at last.”