The Glossy: Oscars and the Male Gaze, R.I.P.
Forget The Slap. Let's remember the red carpet, a sea change worth memorializing
Let’s face it, it’s been hard to focus on fashion in the aftermath of the head-spinning Oscars debacle Sunday night. Not to be too flippant, but the slap heard and seen ‘round the world was also an affront to what is the peak red carpet moment of the year for the stars — and their stylists. It’s a chance to be talked about for days if not weeks on end, and to be cemented in the visual memory of billions of people around the world.
For a lucky few, the images become iconic and show up each year in a roll call of top Oscar looks, next to Julia Roberts in her black and white vintage Valentino, Gwyneth Paltrow in her pink Ralph Lauren and Bjork swathed in swan (by Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski).
But in the hours before The Slap, there was a stunning red carpet, both in its looks but also its multiple statements. In the two years since the last Oscar go-round, the world appeared to deteriorate in so many ways, yes, but also fundamentally evolved in its views of gender identity, sexuality and expectations. (‘Don’t Say Gay’ is but a rallying cry for those on the right uncomfortable with major shifts in our culture increasingly becoming the norm.)
And in a night where the world saw an act of violence that was, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called it, “toxic masculinity,” with Will Smith’s aggression reflecting a “patronizing, paternal attitude infantiliz[ing] women and reduc[ing] them to helpless damsels needing a Big Strong Man to defend their honor,” we also saw Kristen Stewart became the first Best Actress nominee to ever walk the red carpet with her same-sex partner, fiancee Dylan Meyers. And host Wanda Sykes took to the red carpet with her wife, Alex Sykes. And after that prelude, it was also the night that “a queer, openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina who found her strength in life through art,” as she put it, Ariana DeBose, accepted her Best Supporting Actress award, clad in Valentino with sparkling De Beers diamonds at her neck and wrist befitting new Hollywood royalty.
Contrast that with the Oscars not that many years ago (2013 to be exact) when the centerpiece of the evening was Seth MacFarlane’s cringe-y “We Saw Your Boobs” musical number, where actresses in the audience, including Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, were forced to face the cameras and try to laugh it off as MacFarlane belittled some of their best work.
For me, thinking back to my styling days in the ‘aughts, MacFarlane’s juvenile song-and-dance serves as an uncomfortable reminder of that Weinstein era when “sexy” trumped all else — and what was deemed “sexy” was always in the eye of the male beholder. Even if he didn’t control every part of the entertainment industry, Harvey set the tone in Tinseltown — and it really it was just a continuation of what Hollywood had always been about: the women who were stars, no matter how big, were under the thumb of the men, and beholden to them in one way or another. Getting a Maxim cover was considered an important part of any marketing campaign.
By the early 2000s, what that meant most of the time when dressing a female celebrity was that the look had to be provocative. I remember fitting after fitting where it was a determining factor and, yes, many actresses embraced it wholeheartedly. And that was okay, if that was part of their image, and they wanted to play with that perception, I was onboard. But thinking about it now, so often it was because they wanted to look especially and obviously alluring so that a producer (all of them male) would notice them, that a director (same) would consider them for a part, or that the boyfriend or husband would approve.
Like the time I dressed a starlet in a form-fitting and kind of loud black print dress and her fiancé at the time nodded toward me when he saw her, practically leering, “I think we’re going to have to keep him around,” gesturing towards me.
In the photo studio, the photographers were mostly straight men (and we’ve seen some of them #MeToo’d out of the business). I had a good run with one of them who was always looking for ways to get a woman subject’s clothes to halfway come off. I’m no prude but a magazine editor friend who was often on set with us and I would roll our eyes all the time when the lensman started in.
Yup, it was all about the male gaze: sexual politics wrapped up in celluloid fantasies. And ever had it been so in Hollywood, empowering the men and objectifying women regardless of their talents.
So, to paraphrase Joan Didion, I was more than happy to say goodbye to all that. I’d rather think about the joyful tableau that is hopefully emblematic of the new era of expression on the red carpet and beyond: a proud DeBose receiving her award, flanked by Daniel Kaluuya in a vivid green Gucci tux jacket and H.E.R. in a waterfall of Carolina Herrera by Wes Gordon chartreuse crêpe.
You can’t help but smile at the exuberance in that pre-slap image.
By the way, Valentino had a very good night Sunday, and even given the transactional nature of the red carpet these days, each of the house’s notable looks seemed to authentically represent the person who wore them. Beyoncé glowed while looking on at the Dolby in an extravagant yellow gown and cape combo and Zendaya, put a youthful spin on Sharon Stone’s iconic GAP white shirt 1998 Oscar look in a cropped version with a sparkly skirt. (How things have changed: in 2015, Zendaya’s dreadlocks were derided by E’s Giuliana Rancic on the Oscars red carpet: “Her hair looks like it smells like patchouli oil or weed,” Rancic said on-air.)
Now at the helm of the Italian fashion house, designer Pierpaolo Piccioli has been on a mission to redefine the haute couture, “to keep the codes, but change the values” as he said recently. And he has just that, with a pronounced emphasis on diversity of race, size and shape on the runway and in anointing Zendaya as the advertising face of the house.
There were two other looks that everyone was talking about and will certainly find a place in future rundowns of great Oscar looks. For one, Stewart’s Chanel pairing of a blazer and short-shorts — with heels on the carpet and cute loafers inside —instantly redefined the house in the popular imagination and that is no small feat. It capped an awards season full of daring looks worn by Stewart that once and for all blew any dust of the image of the venerable Paris maison. I say good for her, and also well done to her stylist Tara Swennen because it isn’t always easy to be creative in a heritage house with such indelible codes.
The other most notable turnout of the night was Dune’s Timothée Chalamet in a sparkly cropped tuxedo jacket complete with lace cuffs over nothing more than his bare chest and a stunning diamond Cartier Panther pendant. Louis Vuitton creative director Nicolas Ghesquière borrowed the look from his Spring ‘22 women’s runway, which also strikes me as a first for a male star at the Oscars.
Beyond the night’s rule-breakers, there were many gorgeous looks at the awards and various viewing ceremonies and after-parties, but the sheer number of them makes it sort of a haute couture data dump and outweighs any change of individual commentary. And while I understand that a woman might want to change out of a statelier Oscar ensemble into something short and danceable for party-time, I find it all a little much.
Listen, I get that it’s another photo opp in this digital age, but I still question the fact that many of the stars showed up at the Vanity Fair party in a completely different, full-length gown than they had worn earlier at the ceremony — a sort of excess that belies the fashion world’s lip service to sustainability.
But enough carping. Thankfully there’s a new generation of stars that doesn’t hold to that old calculus and they are dressing for themselves above all else. And hey, we made it all the way through this column without talking about The Slap too much. So even as Oscar night tries to clean up its tarnish, the radical shift in fashion for the better is what I’m choosing to take away from the 94th Academy Awards.
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