Red-carpet revolt? No, the Oscars will always be about the dress

Actresses and designers want publicity. This drives the Oscars obsession with fashion and it will never change

I read an article earlier this year in an American newspaper that said “a revolt” was beginning on the red carpet among female celebrities. Did this revolt happen?
Caroline, by email

Oh my God, Caroline, how could you have missed it? It was veritable bloodshed at the Oscars, I tell you – bloodshed! Julianne Moore decapitated E!’s Giuliana Rancic for asking “Who are you wearing?”; Reese Witherspoon stabbed Ryan Seacrest when he tried to put her hand in the mani-cam, and Patricia Arquette turned up in a burlap sack, flummoxing fashion editors who weren’t sure if she was making a statement or was this made-to-order Balenciaga? Behind all the carnage, the rest of the female celebrities marched down waving banners and chanting slogans: “No, no, we won’t go, the red carpet is a load of bull!”

I jest. Nothing of the sort happened. There has been talk for some time of an imminent red-carpet revolution, including, I’m proud to say, in this very column, which last year promised a full-on massacre of entertainment journalists. The New York Times, which always takes its editorial direction from this column, followed a year later (try to keep up, New York Times!), promising that “On the red carpet, a revolt builds over pageantry.”

And did this revolt happen? In all honesty, it did not. There were some half-hearted changes from the Oscars red-carpet coverage this year – E! ditched the mani-cam and there was a vague attempt on the part of some entertainment journalists to ask female celebrities about something other than their dresses. #askhermore, urged the social media hashtag (and you just knew there’d be a hashtag behind this, didn’t you? It’s a wonder how the suffragettes got off the ground without one). Unfortunately, no one remembered until it was too late that the only subjects most US actresses like to talk to journalists about, when not shilling clothes, are their amazing charitable contributions, how wonderful and amazing everyone they work with is and what an incredible calling the acting profession truly is. Great TV this does not make, and while watching women being commanded to flaunt their manicures wasn’t much fun either, I don’t think anyone watching the Oscars was convinced we’d arrived at a long-term solution.

It is, clearly, ridiculous that actors are expected to gussy themselves up like My Little Ponies to go to what is essentially an industry event, and that careers can be made and broken by the choosing of a dress. But that is the nature of the beast that has been built by the media, fashion designers and, yes, female celebrities working in cahoots, and not one of them is willing to break this bond. After all, celebrities have long since crossed over into being fashion models, as a glance at the covers of fashion magazines, which are now dominated by actors, not models, proves.

Reese Witherspoon was especially outspoken this year about the need for actresses to be asked about more than their clothes: “Let’s hear their stories!” she battlecried before the Oscars. As she finished battlecrying, she put down her megaphone and posed for a photo in her Oscars outfit, which she tweeted, detailing the source of everything she was wearing, from her dress to her jewels to something she referred to as her “glow”. The other female celebrities were similarly keen to give shout-outs to their designers. Perhaps those are their stories?

And just to prove that nothing’s really changed, E!’s indefatigable Rancic was so characteristically tenacious in her fashion criticism about the Oscars that one particular opinion verged on racist when she snarked that US actor Zendaya’s dreadlocks looked like they smelled of marijuana. Rancic later apologised, although in today’s social media climate I’m not sure if she felt bad about the racism or the failure to #askhermore.

Reese Witherspoon 2015 Oscars
To the barricades? Reese Witherspoon at the Oscars. Photograph: Broadimage/Rex

No one looks to the Oscars for guidance about movies. If your innocence wasn’t destroyed when Crash won best film, then it must have been when Boyhood didn’t. For heaven’s sake, have you seen the people of the academy who vote for this? They make the Republican party look demographically diverse. No, the Oscars has become completely about the clothes, and this is because the media cover the event, female celebrities know they can get extra publicity by looking good and designers will take any free advertising they can get. The morning after, I turned on the TV in Los Angeles and, while reading analysis of the dresses in the New York Times, the LA Times and the British press, I was able to flick between – no exaggeration – five TV programmes debating the merits of the dresses. No one, it seemed, was too interested in the actors’ “stories”, but they were all fascinated by Julianne Moore’s gown: some of them liked it and – waddyaknow! – some of them didn’t, suggesting fashion analysis is not the objective scientific study it is sometimes portrayed as being.

I recently interviewed the wonderful Angela Lansbury. She recalled that, the first time she went to the Oscars, in 1945, there was no press on the red carpet. She wore a simple dress she’d bought, took her mother as her date and got on with her night. No matter how many social media hashtags are coined, the media still values female celebrities by their looks, and so do the vast majority of people who consume the media (not you. You’re far more intellectual). So, until the media stop covering the red carpet, it will always about the dress. And when will the media stop covering the red carpet, obsessing over actress’s looks and reducing them to show ponies? I can exclusively reveal that it will be at 10 past never.

Post your questions to Hadley Freeman, Ask Hadley, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Email ask.hadley@theguardian.com

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Hadley Freeman

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