OPINION: When did the Oscars stop being about self expression?

Though the Oscars is one of the highlights of the year – only upstaged by the Met Gala – the fashion is getting more and more subdued each year.

When Nicole Kidman stepped onto the 1997 Oscars red carpet in a satin chartreuse John Galliano design, she unwittingly changed the event’s fashion. At first, her opulent choice prompted ridicule from some fashion critics, it’s no coincidence that in the years following Nicole’s bold Galliano moment, stylists and designers became practically enmeshed in celebrity red carpet fashion and culture.

Though European designers have long been entangled with red carpet fashion, particularly at the Oscars, over the last 25 years of The Academy Awards you’d find yourself hard-pressed to find a celebrity who is not wearing haute couture, let alone dressed themselves.

This year’s Oscars were no exception to this, the red carpet saw a deluge of black, silver and nude-coloured designer gowns – with the occasional pop of colour from America Ferrera or decadent pattern from Fran Drescher.

Nicole Kidman unknowingly shaped today’s Oscars red carpet fashion with her 1997 John Galliano gown. (Photo: Getty)

“It’s clear that on the runways, black is the new black and this has evidently found its way to the Oscars red carpet,” says fashion expert and author of Oscars Red Carpet, Dijanna Mulhearn.

“A higher note of elegance at the Oscars is in order over and above the medley of colours that delight us at other awards events in the leadup to The Academy Awards.

“I for one, love the strong silhouettes in a variety of textures making a show this year and I’m equally relieved to see the return of the ‘red’ carpet to add to the dramatic flair.”

Whilst the Oscars positions itself as the pinnacle of the awards season – and therefore elicits only the most elegant of fashion – the problem is not within the fashion itself, but that what celebrities are wearing doesn’t say something. This trend towards impartial and inoffensive red carpet fashion feels like a major disservice to what has historically been an event that has witnessed everything from protest outfits to sartorial dressing.

celebrity red carpet fashion
Whilst the dresses and fashion at this year’s Oscars were gorgeous, the general aesthetic of the event felt inoffensive and unexceptionable. (Photo: Getty)

In 1939, a miffed Bette Davis used the Oscars red carpet to her advantage to make a silent ‘protest’ against her working conditions. At the time, the film industry was entrapping actors into laborious and predatory contracts and Bette Davis attempted to fight her own contract in court and lost. 

So instead, that year at the 1936 Academy Awards, she accepted the award for Best Actress for Dangerous in a maid’s uniform. The costume, which was intended for the film Housewife (1934), silently signalled Bette’s philosophy that actors were being treated like ‘hired help’.

Later, in 1986, Cher also used the Oscars red carpet to metaphorise the ultimate act of rebellion against The Academy for their egregious ‘snub’ of her role in Mask

With the help of Bob Mackie, Cher showed up in the ultimate ‘revenge dress’ featuring a feathered headpiece, a satin robe, a sequined skirt with a sharp scalloped hem that poked the hip bones, and a tiny bralette. Cher ensured that just because she hadn’t been nominated, it didn’t mean she couldn’t attract all of the attention.

Cher used the Oscars red carpet for the ultimate act of defiance in 1986. (Photo: Getty)

And that calculated risk paid off, because the following year, the powerhouse vocalist landed her first ever Oscar win.

Similarly, Australian costume designer Lizzy Gardiner made her own sardonic statement at the Oscars in 1995. Lizzy turned up to the prestigious affair wearing a gown made entirely out of American Express gold credit cards that was originally intended for Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Though she claims the outfit had no double entendre behind it, its surrealist nature left it open for total interpretation.

From a criticism of celebrity wealth to a cynical and symbolic representation of the money pumped into red carpet fashion, Lizzy’s dress became a focal talking point of that year’s awards – even if she didn’t mean it to be. 

Lizzy Gardiner made a sardonic statement in this fabulous American Express dress from the 1995 Oscars. (Photo: Getty)

And though since the late 90s, we’ve certainly seen flashes of celebrity self expression and protest fashion on the Oscars red carpet (think Björk’s infamous swan dress and the 2018 Time’s Up protest), it is increasingly becoming a fleeting concept.

Why? Well, there’s a few explanations for this. Perhaps the most obvious explanation for a lack of self expression on the Oscars red carpet is due to the fact that most A-list celebrities are usually tied up into lucrative contracts with top-tier designers. 

These days, just about all celebrities are brand ambassadors for a label, and within these lucrative contracts are stipulations that the celebrity must wear their clothes at events such as the Oscars. Whilst this is merely a mutually beneficial agreement that sees celebrities diversify income and designers put their clothes in front of millions of eyeballs – there is a loser amongst all of this: the indie brands.

When Halle Berry stepped onto the Oscars red carpet for what would be a historical win as the first Black woman to win Best Actress in 2002 – the fashion had to match the momentous occasion. Halle turned up in a stunning floral and mesh gown that had been created by the then-little known designer Elie Saab.

Oscars red carpet history
Halle Berry’s momentous 2002 win also helped to make the designer Elie Saab a red carpet mainstay. (Photo: Getty)

The brand was merely four years old when Halle donned the wine-coloured gown for the Oscars red carpet and now, twenty years on, the label is a mainstay of celebrity and red carpet fashion.

Nowadays, with so many celebrities bound by contracts and agreements, it feels like every red carpet is an endless runway of the same handful of designer brands.

Whilst these dresses and gowns are undeniably beautiful, we’re not seeing many celebrities reach for indie designers anymore. But when they do, they are assured to create iconic Oscars moments. For example, in 2019, Billy Porter made waves when he stepped out in a tuxedo-gown hybrid for that year’s Oscars ceremony.

It was a truly bold and spectacular move, particularly as men’s Oscars fashion tends to stay quite homogenous and repetitive. But perhaps more importantly than the statement the tuxedo-dress itself made, was the bold ingenuity of the dress’ designer, Christian Siriano, who at that point was considered an indie designer.

Oscars red carpet history

celebrity red carpet fashion
Billy Porter not only bucked the norm by wearing a tuxedo-dress, but also by opting for Indie designer Christian Siriano over a conglomerate fashion label. (Photo: Getty)

Another reason behind the dimming glimmer and opulence of Oscars fashion could also be chalked up to the decline in viewership. In the last decade, Oscar viewership has halved going from 40 million in 2014 to a mere 19 million in 2023. 

And this apathy towards the Oscars continues into the digital space where we seem to be interacting with celebrity awards shows less and less. 

This, combined with the fact that we can watch and form parasocial relationships with our favourite celebrities 24/7 through social media, means that the Oscars red carpet is no longer the forum for the kind of self expressive fashion that it once housed. 

If viewership isn’t to blame, perhaps there’s a more altruistic explanation for the monotonous fashion on this year’s red carpet. As we hurtle towards an impending recession and with atrocities and war ravishing countries around the world, perhaps there was a conscious decision to pare down the opulence this year.

But with this in mind, the question is, if we won’t see celebrities express themselves or their opinions on the Oscars red carpet… or even the Met Gala… then where? Or will we at all?

celebrity red carpet fashion
If the red carpet is no longer a forum for opinion and experimentation, then where do we find it? (Photo: Getty)

With the kind of contact that we currently have to celebrities you would think that now, more than ever, we have unfettered access to famous people’s true thoughts and opinions, but in reality, the opposite is true.

Now, more than ever, celebrities are impenetrably polished. The era of a celebrity’s public persona only being accessible through red carpet appearances is long-deceased, and the illusion that this access has been replaced with social media is just that – an illusion.

If we are to think of fashion as the most expressive tool in our arsenal which we use as a visual extension of who we believe we are, then the plethora of black and neutral gowns at this year’s Oscars that were controlled by a small minority of fashion labels is the total antithesis of this philosophy.

With the red carpet being one of the few spaces where fashion is truly able to be its most experimental, outrageous and creative self, I’ll be crossing my fingers for a more vivacious and unabashed approach to Oscars fashion next year.

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