“And the Academy Award for Red Carpet Moment goes to…” Tellingly, when we asked vintage fashion expert Claudine Villardito to share her favorite Oscars fashion moments, they were not from last Sunday but decades ago. All photos ©Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
When the Academy Awards began in 1929, the ceremony was attended by 275 people and lasted only fifteen minutes. Today, fifteen minutes would hardly get an actress halfway across the red carpet. So what changed?
For one thing, the carpet itself. In the first 24 years of the awards, there was no red carpet and there was no live media coverage (therefore no live audience), which resulted in a more modest event than our modern Oscars. The Great Depression and outbreak of war mitigated ostentation, as the Academy formally requested stars dress in dark, somber and American-made clothing out of respect for the country’s struggling population.
When the awards were finally televised in 1953, a war-weary public was eager to see celebrities personify American victory and prosperity through more lavish clothing. Designers obliged by producing some of the most notable dresses in Hollywood history, including Grace Kelly’s ice blue satin evening gown and Audrey Hepburn’s white matelassé party dress, which were seen by tens of thousands thanks to broadcast television. Nevertheless, images were transmitted in black and white, so much of the clothing’s drama was lost to the homogenizing effect of the colorless picture.
When the red carpet made its first appearance at the Oscars in 1961, it was little more than a narrow swath that guided attendees to the theater entrance. However, it provided a focal point for Richard Blackwell, who had inaugurated his Best- and Worst-Dressed Lists and began diverting the public’s attention away from the ceremony inside the theater and toward the spectacle outside. By the time the awards were broadcast in color five years later, the red carpet – now 16,500 square feet and custom-dyed a proprietary blend of reds and oranges for maximum vibrancy on screen – had become an ideal backdrop for personal expression, which the stars used to their full advantage.
To wit, in 1969 Barbra Streisand made headlines as much for her Best Actress Oscar as she did for her outfit – a bell-bottomed, sequined Scaasi pantsuit that appeared transparent under the bright lights of flashing cameras. In 1970, Elizabeth Taylor upstaged then-husband Richard Burton’s Best Actor nomination by wearing a 69-carat diamond necklace and an Edith Head-designed violet dress that matched her eyes. Finally in 1979—the year after Diane Keaton accepted her Best Actress Oscar for Annie Hall in a menswear-inspired suit—the first red carpet “pre-show” aired in Los Angeles, hosted by none other than Regis Philbin.
Today, red carpet fashion has become an institution with the power to make or break a designer’s, stylist’s or even an actor’s career. (Did anyone notice the Clooneys’ conspicuous absence from Sunday’s Oscars after “Glove-gate” at the Golden Globes?) Will the focus on women’s red carpet fashion ultimately discourage experimentation and self-expression? It might. In recent years style critics have lamented the overuse of “safe” design tropes and with a few notable exceptions, many of the gowns at Sunday’s Oscars were differently-colored versions of the same four dresses. And a backlash against the incessant, “Who are you wearing?” has spawned a Twitter campaign, #askhermore, that seeks to re-focus attention from how an actress looks to the quality of work she does.
Both of these are conversations worth having, but I haven’t heard anyone talking about the effect that the red carpet scrutiny has had on men’s fashion. While actresses’ choices have become safer, actors have begun experimenting with the wardrobe staple that seemed unchangeable: the tuxedo. In fact, Sunday’s Oscars saw so many interpretations in different colors, fabrics and cuts that the rare traditional black tux/cummerbund/bow tie looked utterly outdated. My choice for Best Picture? The one of Eddie Redmayne in his navy McQueen tuxedo, thanks.
• Claudine Villardito’s Tucson boutique Black Cat Vintage is open Saturdays 11 am – 4 pm through and by appointment. Or shop online at www.blackcatvintage.com