It’s time for the BAFTAS, which are always sort of pleasantly transparent about the fact that the red carpet is Pretty Weird.
(Turns out that Cirque du Soleil was there for a reason, and it was a Shape of Water aerial dance number, and you should probably see it, but it would have been just as fitting without the reason, somehow. Awards Season has become a thing that merits secondary entertainment. And why not? The carpet is always wild; let the bug contortionists have their turn.)
Normal red carpet show below. And honestly, this is just as weird. (I talk a lot about the ecosystem of all this and how those who appear are the top of an iceberg of red-carpet labor and intent, but it’s always nice to have moments like this, in which Margot Robbie is the only celebrity in this shot, to illustrate the point.)
And the BAFTAs know that. The show will do this red carpet business, because that’s an industry now, but it works so hard to be the event equivalent of Maggie Smith Face that this carpet does different things than a lot of other red carpets. If you’re a young UK actor who wants to get photo time in the UK against A-listers who increasingly show up to this event, then you do what you have to do. Otherwise, this is the one where everyone tacitly expects an evening sleeve on anyone over 35.
But this is also the first BAFTAs since the Time’s Up and #metoo movements have become something big enough to dictate the color scheme of a red carpet. (Except the Duchess of Cambridge, of course, who wore olive green – “with a black belt,” many outlets noted breathlessly, trying to guess if it was possible that was a gesture of secret solidarity or just an accessory, which is a level of image-making that takes decades to really set in; the royals have this on lock.)
I’ve talked about my ambivalence about all this in my Golden Globes recap; while any movement is good movement, and using a platform is great, there’s an unavoidable level of performativity that you have to tackle, and we’re still in the first flush of it all, when it all seems very important but also risks feeling trendy.
If you wanted some non-celeb direct action, Sisters Uncut took to the carpet to protest May’s proposed Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill. But Andrea Riseborough brought Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, a co-founder of UK Black Pride, and Gemma Arterton gently towered over her guests, Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis, two of the Dagenham strikers, and the whole carpet wore black, so.
That’s not nothing. It’s just…complicated. Let’s just look at some dresses.
A thing about the BAFTAs is that because there’s not a lot of pressure to be particularly fashion-forward or Special Issue of InStyle Polished at this one, very few people look actively bad; you can always just default to a Nice Dress and call it a night. And the thing about black dresses is that things that would otherwise read as slightly tacky/too overtly prom (say, Lily James’ dress) tend to read as Fine. So that means that most things hover someplace in the Looking Good Division, you get a very small No Thanks division, and the rest of the pressure is to either telegraph exactly what you’re after on the red carpet, or to have fun with it.
So let’s skip right to the messages!
SENDING OUT AN SOS DIVISION
Lupita Nyong’o is very hard to top for sheer style on the red carpet. (Fashion is what a team of professionals put you in; style is how you wear it.) She always looks both thrilled to be wearing the dress, and like the dress should be a little bit grateful. Take this dress – velvet and chiffon, turtleneck and straps, panniers and tabard and train – which would completely overwhelm most people who wore it; the fact that she looks as casual and relaxed as she does is honestly a magic trick.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I love this dress – a modern silhouette that’s also vaguely ’60s, with vaguely-’60s beading that actually ends up just shy of saints’ armor instead, which is where most fashion should end up if it possibly can. The hair is ever so slightly schoolgirlish, but it (and her very subtle makeup) are meant to highlight that sense of the saint – its job is to looks modern and sleek without being either too retro or too severe, and it works very well in that very tricky middle ground.
Naomie Harris. She’s been turning away from the traditional red-carpet gowns for a while now; they’re not all winners (the candy-striper pants were a risk that didn’t quite pay off), but you get the sense that she’s part of her own dressing process in a way that’s always interesting. And I happen to really like this jacket; I enjoy the tuxes abounding on the red carpet lately, but I also enjoy evening pants that do something slightly different, and the proportions on this are just right. (She also has one of the only big necklaces of the night; this was a year for minimal jewelry, perhaps because of the implied solemnity of the all-black dress code.)
…unless you’re Anya Taylor-Joy, who is really canny on this carpet, and just wore a gold tiara for fun. She’s still in a small enough publicity orbit that the BAFTAs are her home carpet, so to speak, but she’s becoming the 21st-century scream queen. Her next project (reteaming with Witch director Robert Eggers for Nosferatu) is going to cement the title, and potentially push her past the indie circuit. Until then, it’s smart to dress like an indie darling but still tilt slightly toward what the Oscars and Globes carpets are doing. This dress is meant to be noticed (particularly on this more-conservative carpet), and she is designed to look like an ingenue who stepped out of a boudoir scene in a silent film, from head to toe. Do I only like it from the waist up? Yes. Is this look doing everything she needs it to do? Yup.
Saoirse Ronan. This a little bit ‘everything all at once’ (with some almost hilariously casual beach hair, like the rest of it is fine but an updo would be Too Much), but if you’re young enough to wear a feather mini with the evening equivalent of a chunky turtleneck and mesh so fine it looks like an Instagram filter, why the hell wouldn’t you? (I do wonder if everyone agreed she was going to be the bridesmaid this time and so she’s going with looks like this because it’s a fun way to be remembered without being The Thing You Were Wearing When You Won. Then again, Frances McDormand wore a dress covered in a lipstick-smear print complete with lips and applicators. The rule is, wear what you can get away with. And Ronan can absolutely get away with this, so here we are.)
Sally Hawkins. Her red carpet tour this year has been offbeat stuff that she appears to like a lot and wears extremely casually; this is the Time’s Up version of that, in that it looks like a 1930s evening gown worn by someone slightly sensible, but it also looks like a Thundercat went to town on the bodice before she left the house, in an extremely relaxed and no-pressure way, which feels about right for her vibe.
“If I think I’m happening, I’m happening,” Emma Roberts whispers under her breath at every station on the step-and-repeat. “If I think I’m happening, I’m happening. I will happen. My ’80s throwback silhouette is as sleek as my hair but is cocktail length to show that I’m not taking this red carpet TOO seriously. I am making it happen. If I think I’m happening, I’m happening.”
At least she avoided the real drama on this carpet, which…well.
HOUSE OF MIRTH DIVISION
Jennifer Lawrence, dressed like that moment in every Edith Wharton novel when the well-to-do upper-middle-class heroine realizes she’s accidentally orchestrated her own downfall by rejecting love and trying too hard to grasp for society’s approval only to lose it anyway, having betrayed herself in the process, and now she has to carry on knowing her life is an empty spiral from here out. (Somewhere in there, Gemma Arterton probably died from a broken heart? She was also dressed like she was Born Ready for this sort of thing to break out.)
Letitia Wright, a society ingenue who manages to sidestep the same scoundrel who probably ends up bringing Jennifer Lawrence to the point of disaster; at first Jennifer Lawrence and her circle of society friends (see below) make fun of her sweetness, but when it counts, Letitia Wright navigates the treacherous waters just fine. (I love this dress so much for her; glitzy but in a really fun, slightly unusual way, the whimsy of the bees offset by the tailored belt, minimal jewelry so nothing competes with the dress. Just a really solid look.)
Octavia Spencer, society dowager with a kind heart and a nose for the potential danger of gossip that Jennifer Lawrence misinterprets as officious interference at a crucial juncture; by the time she realizes the error of her ways, there’s nothing Octavia Spencer can do. She must keep a distance from Jennifer Lawrence, in the same way her slightly-too-much sleeves must keep a distance from her arms.
Florence Pugh, boldly leaping past any semblance of social propriety to be the sort of scandal-breaker spoken of throughout the novel only in whispers; later, in her quiet agony, Jennifer Lawrence will reflect how lucky Florence Pugh was to know that it’s worth betraying society for your own happiness; everyone else figures it out too late. (Florence Pugh was a powerhouse in Lady Macbeth, and is of the Anya Taylor-Joy mold, where she’s just enjoying getting to dress one step to the left of center for a few more years, until things get serious and she has to start Cultivating a Look.)
Ruth Wilson, a Young Lady Journalist probably coded as lesbian with every possible turn of phrase that 1896 allowed; she broke the story that’s currently sinking Jennifer Lawrence and is desperately hoping her lipstick means that no one will look at her shoes.
Caitriona Balfe, the one who actually dropped the scandal in Ruth Wilson’s lap just to mess with Jennifer Lawrence because that’s just the kind of person she is. So far up the social ladder that she doesn’t risk any repercussions whatsoever. Riches corrupt, you know. (That shoulder doesn’t look like it’s designed to fall so much as it looks like someone yanked it down moments before the cameras found her, but this is far from the worst thing she’s worn, and as always, she is selling whatever it is as hard as she can.)
Haley Bennett, false friend who is clearly gunning to be the woman who marries the American tycoon who’s currently divorcing Jennifer Lawrence (breaking off the engagement? Divorcing? Engagement? You pick), and who will make a gigantic social success of herself, through whatever sly means are necessary. First move? Don’t even let anyone see the front of your dress. Keep ’em guessing right from the off.
Kristin Scott Thomas, vague society friend on the fringes of Octavia Spencer’s social circle, cast out by the narrative for being too dour who has been through this entire downer-period-piece thing so many times that she’s actually beginning to strain at the fourth wall any time she has dialogue; pictured here laughing directly toward the reader as she finds out the story isn’t over yet. (Also, I love this dress. Is it slightly ecclesiastical? Yes it is, thank you for noticing.)
But even in a red carpet with so much drama going on, a few duds must fall.
NO THANKS DIVISION
Greta Gerwig. This is an excellent example of No Thanks; it’s a perfectly well-executed modern take on the ’60s that didn’t manage to do something as interesting with it as Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s look did, and I don’t like it because the 1960s are a hard sell for me personally and the Giant Daisies On Everything of the 1960s is maybe the hardest sell in that decade. This is a beautifully done look. Greta Gerwig and her team did nothing wrong. I just sighed every time I looked at it.
Lesley Manville, accomplished actress, doesn’t need this and doesn’t like this, and this dress is very clearly delivering both those messages. (I will wonder for the next year and a half if Daniel Day-Lewis assisted in the fashion process for people associated with Phantom Thread, but…maybe not this time.)
Margot Robbie. Look, she wasn’t around for the first ’90s, so she’s going to take the second ’90s and run it into the ground, and she’s thrilled about it, and that’s all there is to it. You can’t explain to anyone that the velvet second-’90s, which has come back in interesting ways, and the grunge second-’90s, which has become part of the new landscape of athleisure and street fashion, are the parts of the ’90s worth bringing back in a way the sleeveless halter mock turtleneck isn’t. Unless you’ve seen ten years of sleeveless mock turtlenecks, you can’t understand. She’s so young yet; her day will come.
And finally, Allison Janney, managing to get JUST the turtleneck part of the mock turtleneck, which is impressive in its own way, which is whatever way things are impressive when they are bad.