Red Carpet Season is upon us again (known to celebrity assistants everywhere as Sweet Jesus It’s Happening), and the Emmys are the opening volley. Here begins the careful interplay of trends and personal branding that a majority of celebrities absolutely hate but has become so integral to the starmaking process that it’s a living thing by itself.
(I am duly wary of the miniature ecosystem that the red carpet has become, but I am also hopelessly fascinated by it and long ago stopped pretending otherwise. If you are interested in my clothes-nerd bona fides, I can point you to my flapper novel THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB, my political-pageantry duology PERSONA and ICON, and my run of CATWOMAN, where I had a lookbook for every issue, because I’m a monster.)
There’s always a Marie Antoinette vibe to the red carpet that’s a little unsettling. No way around it. (Inside, things get even more unsettling, as a room full of people wearing ACLU blue ribbons in support of free speech against an encroaching fascist government coo over Sean Spicer, primary facilitator of White House lies that is now, apparently, a hilarious footnote to his burgeoning career hosting a game show, and you scream into a pillow even though you’re not even watching this happen in real time because merely the idea of it means we’re beyond the point of parody now and the end times are just going to barrel over us as everybody shifts their ACLU support ribbons out of the way to clap louder for a Holocaust-fudging tantrum-throwing propagandist, and that’s just 2017.
Okay, I’m done. Clothes.)
But though the scale is surreal, the grammar is familiar; all fashion is language, and the red carpet is telling stories. Nearly all the weird stuff (including over-invested-in-Scrabble-night-vibes couple Filliam H. Muffman) is in pursuit of a story.
And when you’re on the red carpet you tell that story no matter what, because for an overwhelming half-hour, that is your job! It is a thing you must actively conquer! If you’re Priyanka Chopra, your job is to remind the entire red carpet that you are a marquee Bollywood name and you are appearing on American TV sets as a reluctant favor. You do that by wearing the glitziest available garment (usually with a sense of sharp edges), and then you pick a pose that works for the garment and you do not let go, whether that’s at the official photo point or the neck of the carpet with 80 weeping assistants, publicists, and jewelry security guards screwing up your shot on the way to the photo point.
She had this same shoulder action going on when she walked onstage to present. She is not going to miss a trick. She is not new here.
Honestly, though, it’s hard to even think that’s even a weird thing to do, after a certain number of red carpets. They are ruthless; if someone catches you at the wrong thirtieth of a second at the bottleneck, even though you are clearly not officially on call yet, you have to scramble for your signature pose while your date looks like he already knows how many stylists are going to be yelling at him for blocking the key architectural elements of your dress with his giant dumb body. The difference between Tipping Slightly Blue Steel Lookbook Model Audition and Carefree Young Actress Enjoying The Fruits of a Successful Project with Wistful Yet Alluring Detachment is a torso shift to from noon to eleven and a head tilt of about thirty degrees. You can’t afford to fuck up.
So, they won’t.
THE DARLING CAN’T YOU HEAR ME S-O-S DIVISION
Given that I laughed with delight when I saw her, Gina Rodriguez might be my look of the night. The Let the Girls Breathe look was everywhere on the carpet, but it’s so easy to overdo it. Never underestimate the ability of a red-carpet presence to look like she casually threw on a sequined frontless gown and took a two-block walk to the red carpet just to see how it was going while her favorite Dua Lipa song (“Begging”? It seems like “Begging,” this week) somehow magically played from every car as she went, and she arrived feeling the serendipity of it all and the joy of being alive in a hard world.
This is also a hallmark of Tracee Ellis Ross, who looks genuinely thrilled with pretty much everything she’s ever worn on a red carpet. (And rightly so – she has a slightly off-the-beaten-track style that still always manages to look balanced and polished even if it’s feathers from the knee down; as soon as you see her in something you think, “Oh, sure, of course!”, which, as we will find out, is not what you think when you see many of these other people. Say, Laura Dern, a really good actress who just doesn’t have the red carpet skill set in the same way.)
Viola Davis’ brand of Strong Column of a Color You Only Wish You Could Pull Off is going strong, but I really like this draped 1930s variation on the silhouette; a little dreamy without trying too hard to be a mermaid hem. (Also note how the clutch keeps drawing your eye back up to her lipstick. We’ll come back to this later.)
Yara Shahidi almost always looks incredible, and her casual styling of this weedy shipwreck of a dress is no exception.
Tatiana Maslany has developed an unassailable red carpet tactic; wear something classically simple bordering on the plain – a black off-the-shoulder sheath, a white suit – that’s been impeccably tailored, and then just show up gently smiling, because if you want to see her flexing muscles about something you can watch her portray fifty-seven different people on Orphan Black. She has less than nothing to prove to anybody here.
The boys of Stranger Things. It’s very interesting to watch how their image has moved in relation to Millie Bobby Brown, who was tapped as It Girl instantly and has been very carefully polished since. For a while, the boys were the counterpart to that – the ones who still got to be kids while she grew up in a hurry. Recently, though, they’ve been getting some similar attention, and this grouping (not coordinated but harmonious, each getup reflecting the personality of each boy like they’re superheroes who use distinctive costume design so audiences can tell them apart) is very interesting.
Millie Bobby Brown, who is still not permitted to be in a photo with the boys until they’ve done at least two consecutive seasons as Burberry models.
Shannon Purser. Watching the Barb Thing happen in the wake of Stranger Things was fascinating. Her death was one of the season’s big tells in terms of where it was putting its emotional energy (I even wrote about it), but the way the show’s advertising leaned into it in retrospect as if it was something they’d ever taken seriously meant it was easy to get tired of her. Not before she got a nomination, obviously, but it’s clear that there’s a ceiling on how far Barb is gonna take her. This dress is a suggestion that she knows that, and is taking advantage of every chance to wear a fancy dress she loves while the getting’s good.
Compare with castmate Natalia Dyer, who’s wearing red-carpet standard issue that suggests she’s playing a long game, even though this dress has almost no personality to it, because a dress like this requires a particular red-carpet personality to make the look happen. This dress is wearing her and just hitching a ride. (Unrelated, I would LOVE to know if they were trying to coordinate colors at all or if they both showed up and, somewhere off camera, a stylist brawl broke out.)
Also unrelated: Samira Wiley, who manages to wear all her dresses with aplomb even when the actual garment isn’t my favorite. And this one isn’t my favorite, but it’s a smart choice; crisp lines, listening to trends but a little unusual for the evening in a Power Girl sort of way, with a cut that draws your eye up to her face. (It’s really interesting how the tiny train and earrings work with that slightly tricky neckline to frame her face and quietly de-emphasize the boob window as focal point.) This is the dress of someone who’s willing to Do The Thing on the red carpet, and is ready to level up from Supporting as soon as someone wants to give her an in.
I also laughed out loud when I saw this, because of course. What other color was Handmaid’s Tale actress Yvonne Strahovski possibly going to wear? (I like this look better when her knee is tucked in and the line of the skirt is a little more settled, but the point of this look is to remind everyone that underneath those Gilead designs she’s still very marketably shaped, so she’s doing her job.)
Tessa Thompson is Happening; she clocked her time in indie movies and prestige TV and is about to be in the next Thor movie and is palpably making Plans for after that, and at this point it’s clear that the elusive It is going to happen to her; this Bifrost-disco number is the deliberate sartorial expression of being at the cusp of that certainty with the fun of not quite being there yet. (Spread this skirt wide enough and you get the landscape-oriented shot that everybody needs as their headers and take over the carpet in a single flick of your wrist; Tessa Thompson knows what she’s doing.)
“Hello. I’m Jane Fonda. I look exactly how I want to look. Don’t like it? Fuck you.”
Nicole Kidman, who wore this dress purely because of how the skirt would move as she walked up the stairs to get her Emmy, and that neckline would look so good when they cut closer for her speech. (There is genuinely no other reason for Nicole to break with the puddling-sheath look she’s honed for years except to quietly distance herself from who she usually is on the red carpet until she can decide if winning an Emmy feels good enough for her to visually become part of the television crowd. She wore this to win in.)
See also: Elisabeth Moss, whose red carpet looks are a rainbow of fleshy neutrals I will never quite understand, but at least this one has some interesting seaming and some structure, so that’s a step up! (Obligatory note that I recapped THE HANDMAID’S TALE at Vice; she was much better in the show than this dress is on her.)
Anna Chlumsky wore a draped bodice last year on a red carpet, and leaned forward .05 degrees because she was breathing or something, and ended up on everybody’s Worst Dressed list as Dumpy Loser Mysteriously Receives Invitation to Serious Event. Nobody on her team is letting that happen again. Nobody.
Hey everybody, Lea Michele is back! I mean, not like BACK back, like, not like she NEEDED to come back from anything, obviously, she’s still so young that when she jokes about being able to rent a car alone everybody still laughs (not that that’s a joke she tells a lot, because that’s insecurity, and she did not sign up for the Clay Smoothie Cleanse TWICE just to let insecurity and negativity drag her down in between jobs, you know? That’s not how things go for Lea Michele. She makes her own luck, like a winner). And not like she needs a signature pose to cover her nerves, or that she was ever sensitive to criticism about her prior red carpet dress choices that tended toward being A Lot even before she started trying to get her head barn-owl levels of over her own shoulder, but tonight she’s wearing a subdued silhouette with just a little nice embellishment, because when you come back onto TV on a new show (just coming back, she doesn’t need A Comeback, this is just her returning), it’s sometimes nice to just start quietly and not make a big deal about anything and just be relaxed, because only losers freeze up on the carpet and Lea Michele is a winner.
Hey everybody, Michelle Pfeiffer has this covered. She’s all set.
Honestly, Michelle Pfeiffer is so all set that she gives off a vibe of being ready at a moment’s notice to drop some wry but genuinely well-meant advice to anyone who asks, which got me thinking about the best sort of person to run into on the red carpet if you’re nervous. The answer is, quite sensibly, Galadriel; this year, we have some options.
THE GALADRIEL AUDITIONS DIVISION
“What do I see? Oh, sweetheart.” Galadriel exhaled gently, her cigarette smoke curling through the branches of the trees that still clung to Lothlorien Scenic Overlook. She said no more; Frodo didn’t think he understood how much she saw, but he was just the concierge, and the concierge didn’t ask questions of the lady who owned Lothlorien Towers Hotel, even if she’d bailed on her own party and had him drive her out here as soon as she saw what he had in his hand. He had the feeling the ring he’d found was about to get him in more trouble than he could handle.
Jaimie Alexander. Galadriel took the ring young; it turned her to the dark, but not as horribly as everybody feared. She just gave up some of that three-words-a-minute Elvish patience she never really wanted anyway. Fuck the world of men, you know? Sing your songs of the golden past for ten hours a night if you want to, but the birds die every winter just the same and not even that ring is going to do much about it.
Sonequa Martin-Green. Arwen marches to Lothlorien on foot, meets up with the company there, and spares them about seventeen problems while Gandalf is missing, being the only part of that Fellowship with the tactical foresight God gave a waffle. (She also keeps the Evenstar. Her token of love is that your ass doesn’t die going over the waterfall. You’re welcome.)
Isse Rae. The time? 1925. The place? Elessar Nightclub, where Galadriel sings three sets a night to a rapturous audience and then dances until the soles of her shoes wear out. (She’s welcoming enough as these things go, but during her stage patter she tells people their fortunes in passing; she’s right so often it kind of scares people.)
So Frodo drops the ring in the river, and the sun sparkles turn into Sarah Paulson Galadriel, and she warns him about the Men at the Gate, and then he wakes up in a cold sweat not realizing he’s only on the first episode of American Horror Story: Argonath and he’s going to get eviscerated in Mordor like five times while Merry and Pippin navigate topical politics. (Sarah Paulson eventually revealed to have been secretly drugging everybody’s water the whole time, set to a Lady Gaga cover of Pepsi Cola’s “Hit the Spot” jingle, though that doesn’t solve any of the major plots.)
Laverne Cox. Somebody had to be the Galadriel who could take this shit to space; Laverne Cox is willing. Her ship is a generation ship, hundreds of years old with most of the original crew, and she must protect Lothlorien from nosy spacefarers trying to steal the secrets of their suspension-pod technology and recreate the power of agelessness without the wisdom of long life. When Frodo and company finally dock, she tests them to make sure they don’t merely seek immortality themselves. (Frodo convinces her; some of the rest are allowed on sufferance; Boromir is forced to stay on Middle-Earth Covert Vessel FELLOWSHIP, a move which everyone but Boromir understands.)
As she greets the hobbits, Galadriel turns her back to Aragorn, who sits awkwardly consumed with lust for the rest of the evening.
Okay listen. The hobbits are community-farm nerds from upstate, the ring is a stockbroker toggle that makes Frodo more and more concerned with tax rates the closer they get to Wall St., Aragorn quit being a lawyer to fix up motorcycles in a garage in Jackson Heights, and Ellie Kemper is Arwen, the society daughter and Instagram sensation who could never forget him. (“Evenstar” is the password to the wifi in her penthouse.)
Robin Wright is Galadriel. Galadriel is also Batman.
Honestly I would have pegged Robin Wright as someone who was ready to show up to the Emmys in evening pants. (Not just because it’s easier to Batman in pants; stylistically it felt like that option had come up on the wheel.) She didn’t, which is fine – and as it turns out, plenty of other people did.
THE DUAL GARMENTURE DIVISION*
*The best term for pants ever invented? Maybe.
The thing that drives me up the wall about Evan Rachel Wood is that if she wanted to just wear impeccably tailored classic suits, she would have sharp, recognizable silhouettes and it would be great. (She looks great here, there’s no two ways about it; the fit on all her suits is stunning.) However, I can’t see her without thinking about last year’s quote that made her sound like she was Amelia Bloomer amid slings and arrows and not the tenth woman on a red carpet that year alone to be wearing pants (not counting Janelle Monae playing with menswear for a few years before that). Anyway, professional actress looks great and is slightly self-serious, news at eleven.
Kathryn Grody. This is a secret favorite outfit from last night, because the concept is that she just kept adding translucent tea-length tunics until she looked like a little gray bird that has been stabbed and is now bleeding out, and said, “There we go. Now it’s perfect.” (She was right.)
Lena Waithe. A very fun jacket over classic tux architecture. Always great.
Lily Tomlin. I appreciate the fact that someone handed her a lovely and easy-wearing evening suit and then also handed her about six pounds of diamonds to make sure everybody knew that SHE knew it was a fancy event, as if she might otherwise have been unaware.
Pamela Adlon, looking like the Executive Director of a punk-band nonprofit in a way that works, even with the This Season on Bravo pose.
Claire Foy. “What I really want is something with all the architectural hassle of a tailored strapless jumpsuit, plus the additional hassle of a ceremonial one-shoulder train an assistant will have to pose separately from me at every photo stop. Do you have anything in that?”
Claire Foy is one of the people I feel bad about dinging, because she’s always trying to gently push the envelope of her personal brand to see how it works, and honestly she’s a good enough actor that she could soar through these for the rest of her life with a standard-issue something in slightly different colors. It’s just as well she doesn’t settle, no matter what I might think of a particular garment. But sometimes Claire Foy looks incredible, and sometimes Claire Foy is lucky she had pants on because it’s the only thing that spared her the No Thanks division, which is a place you did not want to be this year.
THE NO THANKS DIVISION
Mandy Moore knows exactly why she’s here. She usually falls into the “nice but not particularly memorable” section of the red carpet, which is fine if you’re an actress on an ensemble show but sometimes just not enough when you are Mandy Moore, Performing Brand and Disney Princess. So, this is what happened, and – she knows. If you zoom in on her eyes it is just a vortex of regret in there. “Structured, yet youthful!” someone told her during the try-ons, and she listened, and oh, she knows better now.
Neve Campbell, in a dress that literally made me click and drag the second layer of fringe on her legs because the point of effective fringe is to have it part of a continuous visual line that’s pleasingly interrupted in action, not to alert everyone that you have fringe, and also some mesh.
Kathryn Hahn is a very good actress. I am now just openly begging her not to dress herself any more. (I include any part of the team of professionals assigned to help her wear clothes; the hair and makeup team can stay, they seem to be doing fine, but you have literally created an outfit where the eye, desperately seeking shelter, must at the very last second force you to ask, “Do those shoes have fake-fur sideburns?” Nobody should have to ask that at the end of a garment like this. Just start over.)
Debra Messing, eternally sealed in plastic, like Will & Grace should have been.
Samantha Bee. This is a great color and, I think, most of a good silhouette, except that it’s genuinely hard to tell what the silhouette is meant to be under the satin. (I actually think the satin insets below the waist – and maybe even the bodice front? – are fine; the sleeve caps draw your eye away from her face, which can’t be ideal, and the satin train threatens to push this from Impressively Complicated Insets to “Remember Bavmorda in Willow? But like, more executive.”
There are some dresses that don’t deserve a lot of nice things, but are too baffling to simply be bad. They’re clearly executed as part of a larger concept; it’s just that the concept itself feels somehow misguided. It’s like when you go to the high school dance and you decide that just wearing a formal dress would be boring and so you dress like a cigarette girl with a vest and a skirt and stockings and the whole thing and even if that was a good idea (it was not) the only thing you remember is how you had let your mother talk you into a body wave that looked not unlike a Lagotto Romagnolo, except with none of the charm.
These are those.
THE HIGH SCHOOL DANCE NEVER-MENTION-IT-AGAIN DIVISION
Reese Witherspoon, taking a moment to retreat inside herself and try to remember if Elle Woods said anything about whether a satin blazer minidress was inappropriate for law school and/or showing up to collect kudos for your producer-actor co-credits. Elle didn’t, but she should have. (Still, we can all see the shift from the actress gowns to something more power-lunch-y is deliberate. Work hard or die trying, girl.)
Carrie Coon. This is what happens when you bring in a picture of a Florence in the Machine magazine editorial and an Elle Fanning retrospective and say, “Something like this!” and someone in the prom store says, “Oh, of course,” and brings this out, and fluffs the skirt and talks about texture and drape, as everybody else working in the store hangs out nearby and holds their breath waiting to hear if Susan can win the backroom bet by actually getting you to buy it. And sure, Susan is kind of an asshole, but also, you don’t have to wear this if you don’t want, Carrie. You’re excellent. You don’t need to wear what feels like thirty? Thirty five? Square feet of nude tulle to establish that you were present. No one can make you.
Shailene Woodley was that girl in the theater department who was too cool for the actual theater department and clearly just wanted to collect anecdotes for later, so she only showed up to the auditions for modern plays (no musicals, no Shakespeare), and she was vegan and constantly eating a snack food with VEGAN somewhere on the wrapper (this was before you could get to the Whole Foods bulk aisles all the time, she had to make do) and “hm”ing from a distance whenever someone showed somebody else new shoes (they might be leather) even though no one ever asked her anything, and while everybody else was getting Delia’s catalogs she ordered her winter formal dress from Free People because her dad traveled a lot (you don’t think there’s really a connection, but she always, always said it like there was).
But I didn’t want to end this red carpet with Shailene as the last thing you saw, because I care about you as a reader. Instead, let’s end on something I love with my entire heart, and my favorite division for personal reasons: Catwoman Top Three. (It is a very small division: Thandie Newton, Ruth Negga, and Rachel Weisz.)
This time, Catwoman Top Three got personal.
Catwoman in Issue 35, “Comfort to the Hurt of the King.”