At the 75th Golden Globe Awards this Sunday, attendees who wish to stand in solidarity with Time’s Up — the formal Hollywood initiative to combat sexual harassment within the entertainment industry and beyond, announced on New Year’s Day — are encouraged to wear black to the awards ceremony.
This “blackout” is supposed to sweep the red carpet like a bomb cyclone up the East Coast, an unmissable show of unity and purpose with the air of gravitas that only forgoing the rainbow can supposedly provide.
As Eva Longoria, one of Time’s Up’s 300 actresses and female industry members, told the New York Times, “This is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment.” In that vein, media outlets that typically provide red carpet reporting are reevaluating their practices for this show.
The Times’ coverage plan includes deploying Jodi Kantor, who co-wrote the investigation that broke the Harvey Weinstein story, to provide readers with context about sexual assault allegations. The paper notes it will still make space for “us all to look at cool dresses and tuxedos,” noting that “this is more useful than exploitative, as red carpet coverage is mostly of women, about, by and for women.”
Meanwhile, New York Magazine’s The Cut declared it won’t be ranking fashion this year: “We will only identify which designers dressed which actresses, in whatever colors they choose to wear, because that feels like relevant information. Ultimately, we’re doing this out of respect for the cause and in acknowledgement that, well, the game has changed.”
Longoria’s is a telling turn of phrase, as it indicates both that fashion and solidarity are mutually exclusive enterprises and that one need not look to the 2018 Golden Globes for a fashion show. But unless Longoria is just grabbing a this-old-thing out of her closet — this seems unlikely — her dress, along with all the others littering the carpet this Sunday, will indeed provide a fashion moment. And why shouldn’t it? Is that not what a red carpet is for?
It’s always a tricky thing, Making A Statement with your clothes. It becomes trickier still when those clothes are designer gowns that you may or may not be contractually obligated to wear, and/or be compensated for wearing.
Because even when nominees decide to multitask and use their on-camera time to draw attention to a worthy cause, the red carpet is ultimately “a PR exercise” built on a complex foundation of financial arrangements among actors and designers, according to Tom Fitzgerald, half of fashion-critiquing team Tom and Lorenzo.
“Everyone on that red carpet has a stylist they paid a ton of money to, and that stylist has relationships with major fashion, jewelry, and accessories houses, and in a lot of instances, the people on the red carpet themselves have financial relationships with fashion houses for which they will get paid,” he said. “None of that has changed and none of that is going to change, because there’s too much money on the line. So any political protest in that arena is limited, because there’s agreements behind the scenes to do all this stuff.”
Even now, with #MeToo flooding all your feeds, “It’s still the entertainment industry, it’s still the fashion industry, it’s still the red carpet, [which] been a mainstay of Hollywood since the 1920s.”
That said, neither Tom nor Lorenzo is opposed to using the red carpet as a “venue to make a symbolic gesture toward this massive social change that’s going on.”
Over the century or so that stars have participated in red carpet pageantry, there have been a handful of moments when these types of political symbols popped up and, if nothing else, raise awareness about the issue of the day. Take the AIDS ribbon: Created by costume designer Marc Happel in 1991, who in turn was inspired by the yellow ribbons tied around trees to honor service members in the Persian Gulf War), the AIDS ribbon made its large-scale public debut at that year’s Tony Awards.
The red ribbon — meant to evoke the color of blood — was initially smaller, but once celebrities agreed to wear in on camera, the Visual AIDS team hustled to make “bigger, flashier ribbons that the camera would capture.” It was a hit — even though the actors who wore them didn’t actually explain what the ribbons were for, so taboo was the disease at the time. In the year that followed, stars wore the AIDS ribbon at the Emmys, the Oscars, and the Grammys, which sparked an interest among school and church groups and beyond. In 1992, the White House launched an office of national AIDS policy. The New York Times declared “The Year of the Ribbon.”
“I can’t quite shake that subtext of: ‘As a way of protesting sexual harassment and sexual assault, we’re going to change the way that we dress.’”
That same year, the breast cancer awareness ribbon made its debut. Today, you can’t peel off a yogurt lid in America in the month of October without spotting a pink ribbon on the foil. But the modern ubiquity of ribbons-as-awareness-motif “started, really, on the red carpet,” Fitzgerald said, decades ago, and were later adopted by the masses.
In these dicey-for-democracy times, it’s almost more of a faux pas to show up without your cause of the day on your lapel. In the post-election awards season, red carpets were lousy with ACLU ribbons and Planned Parenthood pins. All of it, Fitzgerald said, “is perfectly within the realm of red carpetry.”
To Fitzgerald the issue is not, you know, the issue. The point of contention is not the message but the medium: Really, black?
“The idea that everyone is just going to wear black — that’s not actually a symbol!” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a dress code, and not even a very interesting one. Because I would wager that one-third of your average red carpet is black anyway. People default to that color… It’s not going to be this watershed fashion moment.”
The irony feels obvious. Black, the most non-color color of them all, is what you wear when you don’t want to make a statement. It’s the most basic of basics, the sartorial equivalent of a factory setting. Asking everyone to wear black on the red carpet is like throwing a theme party where the theme is “dress like you’re going to a party.”
Kathryn Simon, publicist and brand developer at Kathryn Simon Creative who has written on color in fashion, is similarly underwhelmed by black. “It’s so tired. As a statement in fashion, what are they saying with this blackness? It doesn’t have any meaning for me in this context… It’s not very innovative to me. I’m not sure what it’s saying. I’m powerful because I can wear black?”
A better choice, in Simon’s view, would be to wear white — which she described as “much more declaratory.” White demands attention, Simon said, while black does the opposite. She brought up Shonda Rhimes, one of Time’s Up’s founding members. “What does she have Kerry Washington wear all the time [on Scandal]? White. Because she’s commanding. She doesn’t wear black.”
Fitzgerald agreed that “white would be so much more dramatic.” Recall that suffragette chic Hillary Clinton busted out for big campaign moments, or the color the overwhelming majority of Western women wear for their weddings, a most high-visibility fashion event.
Cue People, which reports that “There’s some backlash to the wear-black mandate. Some feel women should celebrate their newfound power, strong voices and the future by wearing a wide variety of brighter shades. Instead of distracting from the real issue with a mandate to wear one particular color. There will be big important speeches, no doubt, and they will make a much better statement.”
Robin Givhan, the Washington Post’s fashion critic, struck a similar tone when she first wrote about the black dress initiative, which she called “a feeble form of protest.”
Black “drains women of their individuality and paints the issue at hand with a single, nuance-free stroke,” she wrote, arguing the women would be better “seen and heard” in bolder, colorful attire. “Wear red. Wear retina-searing fuchsia or yellow. Wear sequins and rhinestones.”
In an interview, Givhan pointed to several examples of women making choices that helped them stand out rather than blend in on the red carpet. For instance, Evan Rachel Wood wore a custom Altuzarra silk pantsuit to last year’s Golden Globes “because she wanted to show that a woman doesn’t have to wear a dress on a red carpet to be glamorous and feminine and feel beautiful and all those things,” and Bryce Dallas Howard has worn off-the-rack dresses at several awards shows, highlighting the lack of designer options for women who wear anything over a size 2. Those choices weren’t a rejection of the red carpet, but an embrace-slash-exploitation of the forum, Givhan argued, and all the more meaningful for it.
“There was such power, I think, in that individuality,” Givhan said in reference to Wood’s decision to wear a tux. What’s more, that tuxedo “led to a conversation that was interesting and, to use another hashtag, it gave people something else to talk to her about.”
More troubling than the color palette, in Givhan’s view, is the message, however inadvertent, that “the proper response to sexual harassment is to change one’s attire.” As she wrote last month:
Taking the fizz out of fashion is also regressive. It smacks of sexism to say, even indirectly, that fashion — that quintessential realm of women — must be shunned in order for women to be taken seriously or in order for them to say something serious.
Since then, she’s seen Time Up’s expanded platform and thinks its to-do list — which includes a legal defense fund to help less privileged, lower-income women facing sexual misconduct — is “great and spot-on.” But her stance on the uniform-as-protest hasn’t wavered.
“[It] still reads like a misguided notion to me, in part because of the fundamental thing that’s being protested, or that they’re raising awareness about,” said Givhan. “I can’t quite shake that subtext of: ‘As a way of protesting sexual harassment and sexual assault, we’re going to change the way that we dress.’ And I think that has really unseemly and disturbing connotations.”
For Givhan, it’s all a little close to asking a woman who was sexually harassed, well, what were you wearing? “It is such a serious and complicated issue and I think that it seems a bit off-topic to turn a dress into the enemy, or this hurdle that has to be overcome. I question what message is being sent by looking at fashion and weaving it into the problem.”
“I can understand the desire to want to create this visual image of solidarity,” she said. “But I also think that it’s unfortunate that there is this connection being drawn to the notion that you can’t show up in a pink sparkly dress and be taken just as seriously as if you showed up in a black dress.”
“I hope some of them are in plunging necklines and tons of diamonds. To make this statement doesn’t mean you have to stop being a movie star.”
Fitzgerald didn’t completely agree. Though he said he understands where Givhan is coming from — “You think about black as something you put widows and nuns in, traditionally. There’s a sexlessness implied with that color choice.” — he reasoned that women aren’t being asked to cover themselves up at the Golden Globes any more than they typically would.
“If they show up in these high collared, long-sleeved prairie dresses, that’s a muddled image,” he said. “If they show up in black sequins and sheer dresses—if they are still glamorous and are expressing themselves through fashion and aren’t restricted by a sense of propriety” that undercuts the notion that they’re combating harassment with modesty.
For his part, “I hope some of them are in plunging necklines and tons of diamonds. To make this statement doesn’t mean you have to stop being a movie star.”
In case the never-ending reel of nightmare fodder that is the multitude of stories about Harvey Weinstein and his ilk’s grotesque misconduct didn’t make this inescapably clear: Women in Hollywood, even those at the tippy-top of the A-list, are still subject to indignities and insults at every level—creative, financial, personal—that their male counterparts, by and large, are not. The highest-paid actress of 2017 was Emma Stone. And she was paid less than fourteen men.
“The level of control even the most powerful women in the industry have, it’s largely illusory, or it comes with a lot of drawbacks to it,” Fitzgerald said. “Even Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, they still have to deal with this level of humiliation in all aspects of their career.”
But there is one place in Hollywood where women command more power, attention, and money than men do: The red carpet. “Cate Blanchett, Reese — these women step out on the red carpet and they are queen of the universe for five minutes,” Fitzgerald said.
It seems fair to assume that many of these actresses would rather be the power players in all aspects of their career, particularly the more substantive parts, like, I don’t know, the acting part, and the part where they get paid for the acting they do. But they’re seizing power where they can, and the red carpet is one sphere where their dominance is indisputable.
“I understand why they’ve latched onto this venue, because they have a lot of control in this silly, shallow, little venue,” Fitzgerald said. “They have five minutes in front of the world to just talk… [So with Time’s Up], they’re forcing the conversation in other directions. I support that, I really do.”
Years ago, Givhan was interviewing Joan Rivers about the art of red carpet coverage. (Rivers is to the red carpet interview what Tonya Harding is to the triple axel: The first American to nail her move in competition and earn a nation’s love and hate for all that followed.) Rivers showed Givhan a massive three-ring binder for an upcoming awards show. Givhan remembered being stunned “by just the sheer volume” of names and facts to keep straight, “and then to try to come up with something thoughtful to ask this endless parade of people.”
“I’m not saying that it’s brain surgery, but it’s a lot different from sitting down and having a one-on-one. So I think [people need to keep] the context in mind,” she said. “Not for nothing, they’re often referred to as the step and repeat.”
“The average person” probably doesn’t get “the very strange nature of the red carpet,” Givhan said. “It’s not a setting that is conducive for thoughtfulness, because the interviews are quite short, there’s so much going on, you have to move from one person to the next person quickly. It’s such an unnatural place to have a conservation that is, in any way, particularly thoughtful.”
Not to say there is zero room for intelligent thought; red carpet pros know how to get a message across in under a minute, to maximize that minimal time. But audiences should remember that the red carpet is what it is — or, more importantly, it isn’t what it isn’t: It’s not an editorial, a lengthy interview, an hourlong panel. It is, above all, a visual medium, not a verbal one. And do you really want to see these soundbites replaced with ad hoc Ted talks?
“It’s so easy to be critical of this as a shallow gesture, but we have to remember: the red carpet is shallow. It’s not a place of depth! It’s image based,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s purely a marketing exercise: to get people to tune in, to buy a ticket, to buy an album. That’s all that it ever was.”
And people are tuning in specifically for the fashion. Fitzgerald pointed out that, amid dropping ratings for the Oscars, the “only consistently popular part” of the awards show is the red carpet.
“We’re fully supportive of red carpet becoming more than just a fashion parade,” Fitzgerald said. “But if it stops being a fashion parade, I think the public is not going to be all that interested in looking at it.”
Imagine the Academy Awards: Business Casual.
“I think people who are cheering this the most are the people who don’t care about red carpets,” Fitzgerald added. “People turn in for certain reasons, and those reasons are not social change.”