When Brie Larson chose not to applaud Casey Affleck as she presented him with his Best Actor Oscar last year, it was a small, personal protest that likely went unnoticed by most of the ceremony’s 33 million viewers.
Any other year, Affleck – who was sued in 2010 for sexual harassment – would be returning to the Oscars to anoint the best actress, but this is not any other year.
Harvey Weinstein may have been ousted from the Academy, and Affleck scrubbed from the Oscars ceremony, but as Hollywood continues to reckon with its culture of abuse and inequality, it remains to be seen quite how the growing movement for change will be acknowledged at these, the 90th Oscars.
But the story of the Oscars does not begin when the host takes to the stage, it starts on the red carpet outside; and as the women of Hollywood proved when they adopted an all-black dress code for the Golden Globes, what happens on the red carpet has never been more newsworthy.
Though it remains one of Hollywood’s most gendered spaces, women rule the red carpet, and in this particular forum, disparities in both pay and opportunity see women come out on top. Whether or not a sartorial protest can affect real change, the impact of the blackout was undeniable. By commandeering the one arena in which they enjoy supremacy for a symbolic act of solidarity, the women of Hollywood successfully hijacked the awards season conversation; amplifying their calls for equality, they steered the narrative away from what they were wearing and put the focus on why.
“The black gowns were so ubiquitous that any publication covering the red carpet had to acknowledge why they were being worn and discuss #TimesUp in at least a cursory manner,” explains Jessica Morgan, co-author with Heather Cocks of celebrity fashion blog, Go Fug Yourself.
“It’s easy to ignore a pin on a lapel, but it was impossible to overlook the fact that every woman at the Golden Globes coordinated her look. I think it was a very successful gesture.”
Over 14 years of providing incisive, witty red carpet coverage, for their own blog and publications like Cosmopolitan and New York magazine, Jessica and Heather have watched an entertainment industry sideshow evolve to become an industry unto itself.
As Heather points out, where celebrities are concerned, “Fashion is always speaking, but there can be a lot of acreage between intent and interpretation; a celebrity can spin their image a particular way, but that isn’t always how the world will read it. The blackout largely eliminated that ambiguity.
“Anytime you saw a crowd shot you were reminded of the dress code and what it meant.”
Fashion has always had the power to speak succinctly and eloquently to any number of issues, from the personal to the political, but in the age of social media, where we engage more readily with images over text, its currency as a tool of communication has never been higher.
From small style statements that highlight major global issues to individual expressions of self, celebrities have become adept at leveraging the visibility of the red carpet and using fashion to convey their message.
When Elizabeth Taylor wore a red ribbon to the 1992 Oscars, it put the AIDS crisis on the political agenda. When Princess Diana wanted to show the world she was not to be pitied in the wake of Charles’ admission of an affair, she stepped out in the infamous ‘revenge dress’ that steered the narrative in her favour.
When Hillary Clinton wanted to amplify the message of unity in her concession speech, she wore bipartisan purple.
The Suffragettes’ adherence to the feminine fashions of the day made their’s a fashionable cause, with ribbons and accessories in their adopted colours of green, white and purple sold at Selfridges and Liberty.
A century later, the emerald accents popular at the Golden Globes were a nod to that movement, symbolising the hope that women could enact change once again.
Some might argue that politics has no place on the frivolous red carpet, but the blackout illustrated what seasoned fashion observers have always known: that fashion and activism can go hand in hand.
“The blackout was a show of solidarity,” says Irish fashion designer Natalie Coleman, whose work is increasingly an outward expression of her deeply held feminist beliefs.
“The bravery of the women who spoke out allows other women to come forward, and that goes toward creating social change.”
The genesis of the movement, she says “comes from truth telling, uniting and changing – and fashion can be a wonderful mechanism for presenting unification between women.”
You need only look to the speed with which REPEAL sweatshirts became universally adopted symbols of rebellion and resistance to understand how true that is.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only,” Coco Chanel once opined.
“It has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
Never have those words seemed so prophetic.
At high profile events like the Oscars, the red carpet becomes a cultural snapshot; over the last 18 months, the proliferation of trouser suits, sustainable fashion, blue ACLU ribbons and gold Planned Parenthood pins positions Hollywood in opposition to the regressive policies of the Trump administration.
But as far back as the ‘70s, when Jane Fonda collected her best actress Oscar in a sombre YSL suit to protest the Vietnam War, women have been subverting their red carpet choices to express political, ideological and personal convictions.
In 1986, in her now iconic midriff-baring Bob Mackie ensemble, Cher showed she wouldn’t kowtow to the Academy’s stuffy sartorial standards, wise-cracking from the stage: “As you can see, I received my Academy booklet on how to dress like a serious actress.”
In her book Made for Each Other, Bronwyn Cosgrave outlines the history of fashion at the Oscars, marking Barbra Streisand’s controversial sheer jumpsuit in 1969 as the beginning of “a two-decade phase through which individuality and self-expression ruled the Academy Awards”; when actresses realised what they wore on the red carpet could be used to generate headlines.
And whether it’s Bjork asserting her individuality with her infamous swan dress, or Evan Rachel Wood opposing dominant ideals of femininity in a tuxedo, they’ve been doing it ever since.
Far from politicising the red carpet, the post-Weinstein ‘reckoning’ merely politicised the women of Hollywood enough to stand together and make a unified statement – not once, but twice, as the gesture was repeated at the BAFTAs.
Already, its potency felt diluted, so now the question on everyone’s lips is, will they try to replicate that impact a third time for the Oscars?
“I can understand the BAFTAs wanting to make a show of solidarity on British soil, but I question the efficacy of doing the same thing over and over again,” Heather says.
“I think the Globes was planned as a one time statement of intent,” Jessica adds.
“Everyone returned to sartorial business as usual at the SAGs, and I’m sure they will be wearing colours at the Oscars as well.
“In addition to the fact that I think they’ll want to avoid the public becoming inured to this, from a logistical standpoint, there are only so many black gowns in the world.”
Though actress Tessa Thompson, one of the founders of the Times Up movement, told IndieWire: “We’re looking at every event now as an opportunity to start a cultural conversation”, Heather argues, “At the Oscars, I’d like to see the statement come from words and deeds, rather than clothes.
“The conversation and the questions must continue, regardless of whether it’s pegged to any kind of fashion statement.
“If these same statements happen every time, my concern would be that people start to gloss over it, and that it becomes easier for celebrities to say, ‘I wore the right colour dress; I did my part’,” she adds.
“Words and actions will make the difference in the end, so let’s prove we can keep that going no matter what people are wearing.”