:sinister carnival music in the distance reaches a sudden fever pitch: Oh hey, it’s the Oscars!

The red carpet ecosystem is a truly exquisite mixture of unbelievable excess and unbearable hassle. Joyce de Vries, in discussing the shifting visual vocabulary of iconography used by Caterina Sforza, used the term “the statecraft of appearances,” and I can’t think of a better term than that to encompass everything involved. Everyone here is sending a message. We can only hope to guess what they are.

And honestly, some of those guesses are above my pay grade – sometimes literally. I am continually unable to even guess the worth of the jewelry anyone is wearing – it routinely runs to seven-figure numbers on a single person, or Lady Gaga’s necklace this year, which clocked in at $30 million – and we are all continually unable to even guess the number of event staff, security professionals, personal assistants, and publicists required to make this thing lurch successfully through the day. All of that knowing that public scrutiny only gets more intense, and the news cycles get shorter. This year’s Fiji water girl meme happened in real time during the red carpet. It is a mess out there.

(And as always, in case you think I am writing this as a condemnation rather than an exploration, I wrote two novels, Persona and Icon, about the statecraft of appearances, so I am absolutely here because I love it. It is a mess, but it is my mess; we are in this together.)

The most interesting note for this red carpet is that it feels more unfinished than it used to. The Oscars used to be the pinnacle of red carpet season, where sartorial arcs carefully crafted by teams of stylists would finally pay off. However, in the last decade, the Met Gala has blown the curve, forcing a last-minute twist on hundreds of industry professionals who had to suddenly match their ongoing actress branding to an arbitrary homework assignment; it’s shifted things significantly, and this red carpet is positively littered with examples of trying to fold Fashion into the more traditional markers of red-carpet style.

But in terms of sheer dress impact, the Oscars is still the place for an actress to make the enduring statement, and everybody knows it.

Just a nice, calm place to make a fashion and charisma statement that will last forever.

The quest for Best Look is both helped and hindered by the fact that clothes are a language, and Hollywood is well aware. During World War II, Oscar attendees were asked to tone down the glitz to acknowledge the war. Last year, black was the Golden Globes dress code for well-meaning, questionably successful reasons. And during the golden age of the studios, costumers often dressed stars for the Oscars to preserve the studios’ preferred image for their actresses. (It also handily prevented any more evenings like 1936, when Bette Davis wore a suit as protest; she hated her Warner Brothers contract and didn’t feel much onus to look fancy for ’em. Later that year she took the studio to court; the suit was an opening volley.)

Davis isn’t the only person to stump the red carpet; there are several famous outliers in the designer-formal wear continuum: the Luise Rainer nightgown story, Demi Moore and Kim Basinger designing their own, Hepburn in her gardening grubbies. I’m partial to Joanne Woodward making her own Oscar dress, quietly horrifying everybody who was part of a glitz machine that was already very well oiled:

But even for those who stick to the general Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram of evening wear, fashion’s so cyclical all trends will look ridiculous, very canny, mainstream, outdated, retro, ridiculous, and canny. (Some trends are more easily dated than others; the ballgown/slipdress pendulum is fairly regular, the sculptural installations of extra fabric come and go.) And as the red carpet stakes continue to rise, a nice gown is no longer enough in the way it might have been 15 years ago; these gowns are silent auditions, and they are branding exercises, and that means that even trends are taking on an edge. Every dress is an arrow being shot through a wind tunnel.

So far, this year’s biggest trend has been the Slightly Too Busy Dress, as a reaction to second-guessing several years of sheaths in bold colors, but also a result of the Met Gala effect – an emerging attempt to style an actress as Fashionable rather than just beautiful and polished. That’s an increasingly important bracket when designer symbiosis is involved: Jennifer Lawrence spent several years in the Dior stable, and Alicia Vikander has done more than one cycle in full Louis Vuitton.

This year, the Slightly Too Busy Dress was everywhere, and a look through Too Busy Dresses of the past ended up utterly eclipsing the late ’80s and early ’90s for someone who really knew how to do it: Loretta Young in 1948, the night she accepted Best Actress for a movie that doesn’t even matter, because this dress has made me laugh out loud every time I’ve looked at it. Enjoy the shit-eating grin of a woman whose bolero is detachable in case she decided at the last minute that it was a little too much.

Honestly, only this look could have prepared me for the night we were in for.

First – quite literally – was Billy Porter.

This is, it goes without saying, an incredible look. It’s a look that knows the red carpet is its own theatrical presentation, and skips over any insinuation that this is a carefree time by giving us the full power of a carefully chosen ensemble. This is an outfit that requires Wearing, and Billy Porter is up to the task in a way few others would be. (This is the Oscars. You can’t risk a Chlumsky.)

It’s truly a standout look. It’s also worth noting that Billy Porter arrived so early that the commentariat were still getting their photos slotted into the red carpet slideshows, so this outfit was literally the first of the night. It would likely still have made an impact had it come later in the proceedings – it’s not like you can miss a dress like this one. But the timing of red-carpet arrivals is as monitored and deliberate as everything else, and he arrived when he would be the only story going. Twitter was awash in his photo as soon as anyone logged in looking for red carpet coverage. Articles about his gown were being published while the red carpet was still in its first hour. The actual outfit is more than up to the task – there was no matching its impact, which is saying something given what people wore on this carpet – but the gown was far from the only decision to be made about Billy Porter’s night.

Also, Variety having those clips is as visceral a glimpse of what it’s like to watch this carpet as I could have asked for. Here’s forty-six seconds of what Ashley Graham’s night was like.

Ashley Graham is a professional who is likely used to being directed/shouted at, and manages to maintain her composure and show off the dress to best advantage, which in the face of that chaos is already more than most folks could manage. (The most Performance I’ve seen on a red carpet is still Cate Blanchett, which should surprise no one, but just holding one’s shit together is a demand on the red carpet, and at this point we demand not only composure but a sense of wry delight full of refreshing sound bites, after all this.)

But despite the odds, a lot of people were more than up for the task.

 

LOOKING GREAT DIVISION

Michelle Yeoh. After a slightly rickety start at the Golden Globes (beautiful color, off-balance texture), Michelle Yeoh decided to just double down on various iterations of magical figureheads: ice queen at the SAGs, Elven sorceress at the BAFTAs, and now full-on celestial monarch. The impression of weightlessness (with an assist of what looked like panniers, which just makes the 18th-century shape of the skirt even better) is sublime, and the long hair is to keep things from looking too fussily formal. Is any of this done lightly? God no, just look at that hand that isn’t even pretending to push her hair back from her face; her hair was designed by professionals and needs to stay right where it is, but also the jewelry needs to be visible, so this is what we’re all getting, okay? She’s going to do what she needs to do. You don’t become Michelle Yeoh by fucking around.

 

Rachel Weisz. “Top me, Daddy?” Rachel Weisz reads from her publicist’s Twitter briefing, in her warm-sticky-toffee accent, laughing heartily. “Goodness, that’s lovely of them! I’m sure I’d love to. Lesbians are so marvelous. Surely we can do something about it – just something small, do you think? How does a Daddy dress? Latex, isn’t it? I know there must be something. Just to show my support, you know. Something fashionable but with a little wink – we do all love a little wink, don’t we?”

 

Constance Wu. The thing that makes this photo, for me, is the whimsy overload of the pose combined with the ice-dancer face of Fuck This and Fuck You for the Suggestion, which is correct. This dress got a lot of Beauty and the Beast comparisons, and you can see why, though it sure doesn’t say much for the actual Beauty and the Beast costumes that this one’s so much better. But honestly, that’s not this dress’s problem. What this dress is actually up against is Michelle Williams Goldenrod, one of the most famous Oscar gowns in recent years, and that is much tougher competition. Constance Wu looks great, for sure, but the only reason to pick this particular color is to challenge that Michelle Williams dress, and generally it’s best avoided. (Greta Gerwig tried it a few years ago, and it didn’t then, and it doesn’t now.)

 

Elsie Fisher (left). Great look – the vest with the short pants is a deliberate Oliver Twist tweak on the lady tux. Her Golden Globes suit (right) was a prototype of this look, but it’s fascinating to see what’s gotten streamlined and tailored in the suit (no velvet bulk under a belt at the Oscars), and to see how Elsie Fisher handles red carpets after just one season of them. This is a wild machine, and it polishes nearly everything, sooner or later.

 

Yalitza Aparicio. So, this is a lovely dress in a tricky color that she’s pulling off beautifully. (You can also tell she’s new to the red carpet because of the distinct “This is ridiculous” smile, but she’s right, so.) I do not quite understand why the red carpet branding for her has been so ingenue-y, given that she has such incredible energy in more unusual outfits that it seems a shame to waste that opportunity. (Her shoot for Bad Hombre is such a stunner.) It all highlights that summoning charisma for an editorial shoot and being shot-perfect on the red carpet are two separate skill sets. The red carpet brand for an actress is often its own creature; I expect only her next casting announcement will solve this mystery.

 

Olivia Colman. She’s had a season full of trains, and a season of looking slightly afraid of her train, but this is at least an unusual design for it; this isn’t my favorite of her looks this season, but I appreciate the attempt to make the evening sleeve look quirky, and this green still feels slightly different on a red carpet that’s had a lot of saturation/neutral divide the last few years. Smart choices.

 

Ruth E. Carter. I am super interested in the ways this outfit plays on late Elizabethan and Stuart overgown silhouettes (among other things) in stunning colors, while still managing to feel distinctly modern. (Great necklace, too.)

 

Glenn Close. This is why some people who can reasonably expect a win still dress simply rather than go for something Fashiony; there’s no shame in seeming surprised you won, but the biggest shared glance-and-nod on this entire red carpet was Glenn Close dressing like the Oscar she was here to collect, and of course she was, because she had it in the bag, because she’d spent the entire red-carpet season in toned-down suits and gowns that looked extremely Career Oscar and reserved and dignified while she collected awards, and she threw it all out the window at the very last turn for this cape with four million beads (four MILLION beads!) to show up and get her statue, and then she didn’t get it.

 

Nicholas Hoult. I am curious what happens to that sash when he takes his hand out of his pocket (there’s no way they’d trust an actor to keep that in position all night, it has to be fastened), but I love that the line of it is subtle around the chest and increasingly dramatic as you go, and though we’re making baby steps in terms of interesting menswear (lots of velvet and lots of color on the red carpet), silhouettes are harder to shake up, and I think this one is really interesting.

 

Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Zinzi Evans, Ryan Coogler. This cast, which has an extremely strong ensemble pressure, have all managed to develop individual styles while still making a complementary group photo. (Shows like GLOW occasionally have the “we’ll all look vaguely ’80s” agreement, but that’s once or twice a year, tops. The Black Panther crew have been on the promo circuit foreeeever. There are quibbles in these looks here and there, but I honestly can’t think of a cast that’s looked so good together for so long.)

 

Melissa McCarthy. A good look! Painfully close to The Krennic, but once you can get over that aspect of it and/or if you don’t care about Star Wars, the proportions of the waist are good, the v-neck is great, and the choice not to embellish anything on top was a good one.

 

Regina King. Simple column dress with one dramatic flourish in a color that looks great on her; she’s been here before, she’ll do this again, it’s a smart call every time. (And while it was adorable that Chris Evans helped her up the stairs, it also highlighted every fear I have about all the dresses that are hemmed at Puddle length.)

 

Emma Stone. I really like this take on snake-print, actually; the bodice is slightly I’m Auditioning for Dune, but so many people are currently auditioning for Dune that it’s hard to knock off points for that.

 

Gemma Chan. Firstly, here’s a pair of photos about what light does to color, which is always worth seeing if one isn’t totally sold on a single shot, as I wasn’t on the red-carpet color before I saw this balcony snap. Secondly, of all the people who have displayed the Met Gala effect all season, Gemma Chan has made the most concerted effort to get all the fashion-forward points of unusual necklines and colors while still going for horizontal-shot levels of skirt volume. She’s certainly worked each of them to death; we’ll know it paid off if she’s on the Met Gala carpet the first Monday in May.

And Gemma Chan was also one of the people who gave in to the carpet’s most obvious trend, which was unexpected (by everyone but Regina King, who did it twice already and had already moved on because she’s got this down to a science) but pretty hard to miss.

 

THINK PINK DIVISION

Angela Bassett. I refuse to believe she sat down in the car, despite what the skirt tells me – on the other hand, if she did, who the fuck will say her nay? Not I. Her in this dress embodies all the Victorian pearl-clutching about how pink was just too powerful a color for The Ladies to wield safely.

 

Helen Mirren. Honestly, picking lipsticks for rich pink gowns is clearly incredibly hard, because I keep noticing when it’s been done poorly, but that’s the only false note in this look, which manages to be both understated and four shades of pink at the same time. The big old slaps of jewelry help keep it from looking bridesmaidy or childish, which is a smart call, and she really looks like she loves this whole look, which can only help sell it.

 

When Sarah Paulson wears a tricky dress, she always looks like she is just waiting for someone to go “What the fuck are you wearing?” so she can go, “I KNOW, RIGHT?” and laugh and just enjoy how ridiculous fashion is and red carpets are, and that attitude really helps her carry off a lot of looks she really shouldn’t be able to carry off. It’s arguable whether she achieves it here, but she looks like she knows that, too.

 

Kacey Musgraves is SERVING…cotton candy at the State Fair. (Look, the skirt is fine, and I can see the neckline and shoulders in a Met Gala way, but those wristlets are Full Costume and not in a way she can sell.)

 

Linda Cardellini. “But there are so many people on the carpet this year who know what they’re doing,” said Linda Cardellini (played here by a team of styling professionals). “Sure, I’m in a nominated movie, but people might not remember in time! The red carpet goes by awfully fast. What I need is something eye-catching. Something impossible to miss; something that really says, Take My Goddamn Picture. Pink, you say? Interesting. Interesting.”

 

Do I blame Linda Cardellini for this? Not at all. No one is here just because they love dressing up for a no-stakes time. You are here because you are trying to say something. (Whether or not you mean to.)

 

SENDING OUT AN SOS DIVISION

 

Marie Kondo. Of all the people sending a message here, hers is perhaps the most intense – after only one season of a TV show (on Netflix, a loaded platform), she’s on the Oscars carpet, it’s that intense. The dress itself is unrelentingly soft, flowered, feminine – almost unbearably sweet. But it’s pink, rather than the white she uses as the signature color for her work with clients. She heard about all your racist nonsense on Twitter, and she’s just going to wear this gentle pink to remind you that the white-shirt client business is her being polite, and she isn’t always that way, and she’s on the Oscars red carpet and will only get more successful and more invited to amazing things, and that’s something you should all just keep in mind, that’s all. Anyway, have a lovely night. Sleep well.

 

Did you know Brie Larson has a movie coming out in three weeks where she plays a space-based superhero? Well you do now, asshole. (Her entire personal brand has been pointed toward this movie for about two years. I am so curious what will happen to her aesthetic once the movie’s out and she’s gone on to something else. How long a shadow will Captain Marvel cast over her wardrobe? The answer: It’s a Marvel contract. She will be riding those sartorial connotations for seventy-two years.)

 

Shangela, with an assist by Jenifer Lewis. Shangela’s silhouette is kind of a throwback to 2014, when the structured mermaid reigned supreme, but the proportions are appropriately theatrical and the embellishment is bold. The hip peplum nudges this into Too Busy, but Shangela knows exactly what she wants – full feminine glam in every particular – so the peplum very nearly works. (Jenifer Lewis’ suit has a solid cut, perfect shoulder embellishments, a great color, and absolutely the wrong fabric. The line between fahsion-forward metallic and the NCC-1701-D is a thin one.)

 

Amandla Stenberg. This is someone both carefully celebrating their youth (The Hate U Give came out last year, a prime YA part), and carefully auditioning for more adult dramatic roles. And look, we can talk about the irregular gathers on those horizontal seams if we have to, but that bodice is a memento-mori flapper with a ribcage of forty thousand beads and fantastic hair, and I’m not made of stone.

 

Awkwafina. This is someone transitioning from comedian to ensemble-cast player and potential indie darling, and this is the outfit you give someone to suggest to casting directors they’re vaguely rebellious but stylish, and ready for promo; her anecdote may have been the flask in her clutch purse, but this is still a glitzy piece of business. Love the tone-on-tone. The bow takes it from Playful Vintage Suit Vibe to Full Costume, but that’s not something that anyone on her team would have been unaware of. They wanted this look, and this is the look they delivered. (I could wish for makeup that was either slightly more vibrant or slightly more deliberately androgynous, but that’s a small wish.)

 

Emilia Clarke. There’s nothing actually wrong with this dress. The color is nice, though not as standalone as I think her team was clearly expecting. The draping is fine, though not as fluid as they might have wished. It’s perfectly lovely, but the Oscars as a whole have shifted just beyond this, and she knows. But her anecdote, according to the red carpet announcers, was that she’d dyed her hair that day with a box color all by herself! That is the anecdote of someone who felt like her dress was enough on its own.

 

Amy Adams, who swore an oath to wear increasingly complicated dresses this season until she won something, and having run out of architectural elements to stump you with, she just wore a Magic Eye painting and called it a day, because she hates you and can’t be bothered to do more.

 

Chadwick Boseman. What an incredible jacket! Love the colors, love the texture. Love the idea of really long tails! Feel these needed to be cut slightly thinner or slightly wider, since the drape kept getting lost and just looked like wide-leg pants unless he was in motion, but I love the risk of it, and it’s another shift in silhouette, which I love to see. (Could do without the scarf, but clearly no scarf makes me happy, so their styling teams must do what’s in their hearts.)

 

Serena Williams. A lovely dress that’s about five clicks more Goth Glam than she usually goes for; I’m curious why, and I like it very much.

 

Someone whose message absolutely sent: Lady Gaga, whose fashion sense has gotten increasingly minimal (for Gaga levels of minimal) while her pose repertoire has rejected any simulacrum of naturalism in favor of a series of practiced resting places that are designed not even to look like human emotions, but to look like the medieval-painting equivalent of a human emotion, just before everybody started using fixed depth and everything was still stylized in two dimensions. This one is “humbly overjoyed to be winning Best Song while humbly losing Best Actress,” with her hand covering her $30 million necklace so she can do another big reveal any second.

As it happens, I enjoy the dress she chose to do this in. The tan and gloves, on the other hand, are somehow pushing the look from Old Hollywood Glam toward Father’s Second Wife is An American Heiress and Lord Taunton’s Sons Cut Me at the Racing Club Last Week Because of It, which is also fair enough. She was not alone in this.

 

STEPMOMS: THE MOTION PICTURE

 

Maya Rudolph, who’s been outcast from the Think Pink division purely to appear here, is the stepmom who initially embarrasses you. That ruffled-bedskirt cape! A matching ruffle on the dress! Why is it happening? This is probably what she wears to your Homecoming dance, and you can’t even acknowledge her, and it breaks her heart but she understands; she already loves you too much to ever hold it against you. Soon, however, she accepts your troubled best friend as a member of the household without a second thought, and you realize she’s the warm, caring tough love you always needed. (Amy Poehler is your mom, a gruff all-business type who has to relearn how to be there for you, but she’ll learn. She’ll learn.)

 

Octavia Spencer. Junior year of high school is hell; your anxiety is out of control, your first try at the SATs were a mess, and your grades are in danger (and without the grades you have no scholarship and without the scholarship you’re screwed and honestly no wonder you’re spiraling out). But Ms. Spencer isn’t going to take your anxiety lying down; before you know it she’s recommended a therapist, put you together with an SAT study group, and called in your father to discuss your options for an extra-credit project over winter break. Your father (Chris Evans, probably?) came to school to check up on you. He wasn’t prepared for Ms. Spencer, whose meeting time was conveniently just before the Winter Formal — and her with no date! Boom. Stepmom.

 

Charlize Theron. Your father’s been on the Continent since ’29. He hasn’t written you, not once, in four whole years. “Of course he hasn’t,” says Stepmother as she slides on her bangles, “he’s very busy and doesn’t have time for your childish prattle. Now pass Stepmother the Python Diamond and make yourself scarce – the party’s starting any minute.” (There are so very many parties; Mr. Snivelmens from the boarding school has been three times to your house for tea, and you can see him through the banister, if you peer hard enough. Nanny’s been telling you about her sister’s cottage, up in Scotland; “It will have to be there,” she says, every time she folds up another of your jumpers or counts out her wages or looks at the train tables.)

 

Jennifer Lopez. Your father came home from the market in town with no seeds at all, only a mirror that he traded an old woman at the crossroads for the little goat Gunther you loved so much; the mirror is cracked, your father said, with an apologetic smile (fathers always know when they’ve made a bad bargain, but old women at the crossroads are not to be gainsaid). But still, he said, there might be something to be got from it. One night, the old woman had said, you might look in this mirror and see what you need most. A cache of hidden seeds; a flatiron; a stepmother.