It begins: Red Carpet season, in which stylists and PR reps throughout the land bring in the Red Carpet Harvest and carefully apply their dresses to the brands of various celebrities who must all pretend that none of this is a bizarre competition for greatness on this carpet and, simultaneously, any number of secondary clandestine objectives, while holding their arms nonchalantly and making eye contact with six cameras at once. It’s some glitteringly sinister shit, and we all love it so much that we’ve made sure it will continue to exist and require actors to develop a completely different skill set just to manage it.
I’m ambivalent about red carpets. I mean, obviously I’m fascinated by them, because just look at me, but even as I muttered about how the Cannes Shoe Uprising of 2018 needs to be the first step toward normalizing red-carpet flats (it will never happen, probably, but god, these heels are all brutal, at some point in this red carpet cycle I will definitely snap and pull out some historical shoe pictures and outline why), and right in the middle of trying to be cynical about the ways every red carpet makes such stringent and disproportionate demands on women, I got a look at Gwendoline Christie, in a lovely color that suits her and a nice sweeping evening sleeve:
And muttered without even thinking about it, “Who let you sit down in the car?” It’s an osmosis of rarefied public appearance standards that’s likely unhealthy to be worried about. On the other hand, if you’re wearing satin, you have to lie down in the car, so.
And as always, the particular skill set for navigating the red carpet – a completely different skill set than acting – means that some red-carpet dresses end up wearing the person. There’s actually less of this as we go on; the estuary years of red-carpet awkwardness are largely behind us (except the Met Institute Gala, which is an annual estuary that ruins many, many people). At this point, the level of scrutiny is too high for most people to risk tackiness, and everyone’s either retreated to safe-but-polished silhouette, or they’re already spectacular at red carpets and can wear anything they want, ever.
Take Tracee Ellis Ross, in the header, and below.
This photo contains my favorite thing about any red carpet, which is the teeming morass of support staff who are too stressed to care about the cameras whatsoever, and my second favorite thing about any red carpet, which is someone who can make that backdrop look like a shot from a Vogue editorial. Tracee Ellis Ross has Wearing Clothes on lock as a skill set; it’s always a pleasure just to watch her work the step-and-repeat. She manages to make it look both natural and dynamic.
Other people do fine, but don’t quite master the Dynamic part. That’s perfectly acceptable – the photos are what linger forever – but it also means you can spot a signature pose from fifty paces.
Elisabeth Moss. If it works, why change it? Keep that pose. Keep that pose for the whole carpet. Keep that pose…forever.
Then there are those who can play the red-carpet game and just choose not to. Michelle Dockery’s on that list this year. The dress itself is…nice. Is it a little ingenue for someone who’s been moving into grittier parts on purpose? A little. Is it a beautiful garment? Yeah. Did she go down the entire red carpet resentfully flicking the overskirt at the behest of shouting photographers, making resigned I Hate This And You eyes, as if she knew where this Carolina Herrera was going to get her and just settled in for what had to happen?
But obviously, even including these brief branding overloads, I admire the strategy that goes into the red carpet, which I know just enough about to realize there’s probably eight more layers of unspoken shit I’m missing underneath. I’m still trying to sort out the hierarchy of arrival times, which can be such a make-or-break element of an appearance.
Take Angela Sarafyan. She wasn’t winning anything tonight, and she knew she’d be up against Evan Rachel Wood’s army of suit-tailors and Thandie Newton’s incandescent indifference, which are both red-carpet gold. So she wore a stunning monster dress, and showed up early. She was the slideshow highlight on red-carpet liveblogs for a good hour before bigger names started to take over. Mission accomplished.
Occasionally, though, the pressures of the red carpet get even more pointed because they take one of the hidden properties of a red carpet (secret audition) and turn it on a much larger and more fraught topic (how fast are kid actresses Ingenued?). The boom in young actors on the red carpet has begun to drive home the difference in the developing public images of kid stars. Here are Stranger Things’ Noah Schnapp and Gaten Matarazzo.
They look good. There’s clearly personal style developing here, and an appropriate amount of effort considering the carpet. (All these kids have great suits.) But The Suit is essentially an ageless garment for boys; they can wear some very minimal variation of this for literally the rest of their lives, and always seem the right age for what they’re wearing.
Meanwhile, the girls of Stranger Things have to navigate the eternal Scylla and Charybdis of child actresses, dressing too young and dressing too old. Millie Bobby Brown’s team has already gotten some blowback from media for dressing her too old at the Stranger Things 2 premiere and the Golden Globes. However, she’s a burgeoning fashion darling, which means she can hardly wear something juvenile. She’s shot her first Calvin Klein campaign. She’s in it now.
So, what do you wear when you want to look sophisticated and polished but don’t want to hear any more blowback about being oversexualized?
Yup. That’s exactly it.
The team for Sadie Sink, who looked more or less her age at the Golden Globes, has decided that was too young. They’re aiming higher.
This is actually a very good look; it has some high-fashion, mature touches (largely the armored shoulder effect), but doesn’t run the risk of looking revealing. However, if this is her new image, then her days of wearing flats are probably over.
Meanwhile, Priah Ferguson is not yet at whatever PR/branding threshold pushes you from flats to heels; her outfit is cute (a little ice-skater, but not at all in a bad way), and she looks very age-appropriate, which took me momentarily aback considering I’d also flagged the others as more or less age-appropriate. The red carpet is a shimmering void that inevitably warps our standards of grooming and expectations about appearance.
Anyway, let’s see who looked good! (Almost everyone; this terrifying machine is well-oiled, by now.)
KNEW WHAT THEY WERE DOING DIVISION
Q’orianka Kilcher. What a look. On previous red carpets, she’s played it more casual. This is a deliberate step up into big-league red-carpeting, and she nailed it. Incredible color, sleek but not overwhelming rib cutout with that cascade of hair drawing the eye right down to it, dramatic hem without going too stiffly mermaidy. Even the matchy-matchy lipstick is perfect for this. Strong contender for look of the night.
Zazie Beetz. Another strong contender for look of the night. There’s something very silent-film-vamp-playing-a-space-queen about this in a way I really dig – those deep-cut jeweled shoulder drapes, that incredibly rich ombre velvet. It’s really unexpected, and she’s wearing the hell out of it. It manages to be a costume without looking costumey. Neat trick.
Samira Wiley. Are you kidding me. This is incredible. Even split between 1935 torch singer and 2135 torch singer. (This is not my favorite pose of hers – she’s very good at wearing a gown like a tee shirt and i would have liked to get a photo of her taking a little less care, but then I realized I was being the monster here, so.)
Thandie Newton. At first I thought this was the sort of bold move you pull when you think you might not win and you want people to remember you anyway; the more I look at it, the more I think she might have known it was her night, and wanted something that would take the stairs behind her. A cape would have been too much, of course, but a gigantic stole…perfect.
:whispers, since this isn’t a catwoman color but I am going to be on my bullshit about this forever: catwomantopthreecatwomantopthreecatwomantopthr
Constance Wu. This dress is perfect for her—she’s had the disco thing going for a couple of years, and her team has decided to give her a little more edge now that she’s proven at the box office. Great move to keep the metallic, though. She loves it, and I love it, and honestly this face of absolutely-unconcealed disdain is the best possible accessory.
Adina Porter. The seventies are everywhere on this red carpet, and this is a deeply 1970s silhouette, but the almost brittle lemon color (set off perfectly by that lipstick) and the slightly offbeat draping make it feel new. Very striking effect all around.
Yvonne Strahovski. I really dig this look; it’s an unusual silhouette (though our second instance of this flappy evening sleeve!), a slightly unusual fabric, and a sleek color. Great combination.
Keri Russell. Objectively this dress is too much for the Emmys. We know it, she knows it, her team knows it. But she also knew that The Americans was going to be robbed of its long-overdue Emmy recognition, which means this is the dress equivalent of showing up to your ex-husband’s funeral in…also this exact dress, so it’s perfect.
Rachel Brosnahan. Sleek, a little visual interest on the bodice but nothing so complicated it could look fussy, Old Hollywood silhouette, eye-catching color, statement earrings. Smart, smart, smart.
Dakota Fanning, who technically has the exact same brief as Rachel Brosnahan down to the statement earrings, but who managed a totally different look. I love this on her; really fresh, uncomplicated lines but with enough pleating that it’s got somewhere for the eye to go, stunner earrings. This is an outfit designed to make you forget The Alienist (couldn’t risk a ballgown this year), and it really works.
Joey King, who figured (rightly) that Kissing Booth got completely swallowed by To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before but still has to show up, decided to get eyes on her through sheer circumference. Not a bad idea; we’re here looking at her. Netflix should be proud.
And Jenifer Lewis, who knew exactly what she was doing when she wore Nike on the red carpet in support of its sponsorship of Colin Kaepernick. Is it red carpet standard? Eh, this is all an illusion, might as well get to talk about police brutality all the way down the press line instead of who you’re wearing.
And though this level of casual is deliberately unusual for the red carpet, we are living in a renaissance of the evening pant, and honestly, it’s great news. The more variations there are, the more entrenched this trend becomes, and soon, pants.
Pants everywhere. Pants for everyone. P a n t s.
OH PANTS DIVISION
Evan Rachel Wood. I rolled my eyes the time she waxed poetic about red-carpet suits like she was the first person ever to have thought of them, but there’s no denying she wears the fuck out of a red carpet suit. This one’s more vampiric than her last few, and thus empirically better, I don’t make the rules. (And full marks for bringing Amanda Nguyen as her date; the trend of bringing activists to the red carpet seems to have diminished, so it was noteworthy that Evan Rachel Wood has stuck to it.)
Mary Steenburgen. I love all the small details about this outfit that bring it together – the blouse and shoes picking up two different tones in the suit, the floaty cuffs, the shape of the pendant. Not every formal suit has to be a tux, but it can be hard to find examples of versions that really work. She’s found one.
Issa Rae. Also very good at making red carpet clothes look effortless. I really like this take on evening pants; there’s just enough fabric in the train to give it equal visual weight to the pants, and the beading is a great touch.
Tatiana Maslany. This looks like a Kevin Wada redesign of an X-Man who appeared twice and is getting reintroduced, and there’s not a thing wrong with that.
Leslie Jones. Is iridescent pastel my thing? It might shock you to learn it is not. Does the colorway work together? It does. Do I appreciate a joyful, well-tailored suit? I do, and so does Leslie Jones.
Felicity Huffman, in the ’90s-slipdress of evening tuxes. I mean that as a compliment.
As we go down into the circles of red-carpet purgatory, it gets harder to sort out what works and what doesn’t. Some of these are great! Some are very nice! Some are…slightly less so! They’re here not because they’re bad garments, but because their styling is somehow more personal than the people using this carpet to send a particular message, and therefore subject to the quirks of a real person. Sometimes odd, always interesting.
YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY DIVISION
Regina King. Do I like it? No; Ninth-Grade-Homeroom-Jock-Trapper-Keeper-Green is always going to be a hard sell for me, and the more of it there is, the harder a sell. However, this silhouette looks great on her and she must dig the color enough to wear it, so who the hell cares.
Allison Janney always looks like she’s spiting one particular person with whatever dress she’s wearing to a certain event. Somewhere, a former showgirl who did Allison Janney wrong shivers in air that’s gone suddenly cold, wondering why she could swear she just heard someone call her name.
Character actress Margo Martindale. This Evening Cardigan we see on women who don’t want to get into kimono territory can go a number of ways; this way is slightly filmy but with a nice weight, and the overall impression is professional but polished. Perfectly acceptable.
Amy Adams, this year’s Nicole Kidman; trying to look a little too good for TV, but not like, rudely too good for TV.
Claire Foy. “I’d like a little visual interest,” she said, thoughtful. “But not too much. Nothing gaudy. Like a cuff? But not around the front, that’s so brash, all that cuff. Perhaps just under the arms. Almost like nothing at all, but then something, you know? Like I was taking my dress off and forgot, only very fashionable, or like I folded a washcloth around it to protect it during makeup, and forgot to take that off. This dress must be a visual meditation on lost things, you understand. Yes. Yes, I believe that might be perfect.”
There is also very clearly a long and intense dialogue that happens between the Sarah Paulson who chooses the dress and the Sarah Paulson who wears the dress. Sometimes that dialogue is an enthusiastic call and response between two entities who love and trust a garment. This is not one of those times.
Sandra Oh. I love her so much that I couldn’t put this dress in No Thanks, where we all know it belongs, because I want to think that the sketch was really compelling and looked like it had better drape, or enough fabric to go all the way around the skirt, or a fabric that wouldn’t look so overworked the moment someone tried to put sleeves into it. You’ll be nominated again next year, Sandra. I bet your dress next year is going to be great.
It really is a telling result of the last few years of this industry leveling up that the new failure mode of the red carpet is, largely, to be boring or to let your dress wear you. Rare is the person who will risk being tacky on the red carpet. But not everyone! Some people are brave enough to look at a bad dress and say, “Yes. This one. This is the one I choose to wear on purpose in front of God and everyone.” We salute them.
NO THANKS DIVISION
Samantha Bee, ambassador from Betazed.
Maya Rudolph. This is so close to a really fun dress. Slightly more fitted and it would be Audrey Hepburn at the hotel bar in How to Steal a Million; slightly more cocoon-y and it would be structural. As it is, it looks like a burlesque take on Mrs. Potts, and while that’s probably exactly the kind of thing Maya Rudolph would knock out of the park if you asked her to play it, it doesn’t do much in a picture.
Alexis Bledel. This is one of those dresses fashion people describe as “challenging,” as if this dress is actually a commentary on the ways crime shows perpetuate the cycle of violence against women by showing it as an inevitable weekly doom and thus reinforcing the idea of women as culturally disposable. I understand what this dress is supposed to be doing. I’m just not sure it’s doing that.
I do not know what Emilia Clarke is smiling about, but pretending to enjoy herself in this is some of the best acting she’s done.
Tiffany Haddish wore exactly the dress she intended to wear. This is not an ensemble that happens by mistake. Why she made that choice, we may never know, unless she told someone why she made that decision, in which case I’m just not going to look it up. (Update: Because the internet is full of Internet People who will look things up for you and then inform you for you, yes, this dress is in honor of the Eritrean flag. It explains the colors, certainly; it does not explain the dress.)
And last of all, the incomparably unconcerned Laura Dern.
Your realty’s beyond compare, with rolling locks of blondish hair, with strings of pearls and bustiers of jean. Your satin blouse it hurts my eyes, but even still I can’t disguise how much I want to buy a house, Jolene.