Oscar voters have been predominantly white and male since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1929. In 2014, The Atlantic revealed that 94% of voters are white and 76% are men. Fortunately, the Academy has become slightly more diverse since the study was conducted. But many, including myself, are frustrated that white men continue to dominate voting panels. What impact, however, has this lack of diversity potentially had on red carpet fashion?
How the Academy’s conservatism impacts fashion
The Academy has been reluctant to make major changes to its voting panel over the past 92 years. It is hardly surprising, then, that most red carpet looks reflect its conservative ideals. Men commonly turn up in suits and polished shoes. Meanwhile, women tend to don modest floor length dresses. As Vogue demonstrates in its 2020 Red Carpet article, most are still unwilling to challenge these monotonous fashion trends. Meanwhile, celebrities flooded the 2019 Met Gala with bright, flamboyant, and innovative fashion choices, exposing the predictability and staleness of the Oscars red carpet.
After Jennifer Lawrence’s stumble over her outlandish prom dress in 2013, Maya Singer may have had a point when she suggested that “Actresses would feel more at ease on the red carpet if they looked more like themselves.” Cheryl Boone Isaacs once told The Times: “That was the industry: You’d scan around the room, and everyone looked the same.” Although she is specifically talking about the lack of diversity in the nominees here, there is clearly a general issue of stringent tradition at the Oscars, and this does not exclude fashion. As a result, women tend to restrict themselves to prom dresses and men clad themselves in black or white suits. Every fashion choice blends into the next. The Academy’s uptight attitudes impact the self-expression of celebrities, people who likely have personal stories to tell through their clothing.
The rare risk-takers
Thankfully, there is not a total absence of bold fashion statements at the Academy Awards. Cher’s iconic 1986 look featured a loud feathered headpiece and exposed the singer’s abdomen. It was a rebellious response to the Academy snubbing her performance in Mask. She told British Vogue that voters did not see her as a serious actress. She also disclosed that “I felt a bit sad that I presented Don Ameche with his best-supporting-actor award in that outfit. It seemed to make him a little nervous.” Unfortunately, Cher seemed to lose some of her confidence in her fashion statement. But it still forced the Academy to acknowledge her. Cher’s snub highlights how the Academy voters did not see a colourful, fashionable popstar as a capable actress. Ameche’s visible discomfort also emphasises how infrequently celebrities wear outfits that push boundaries at the Oscars.
More recently, Billy Porter defied gender norms by arriving at the 2019 Oscars in a ball gown. His confidence in the outfit did not waver. He told Vogue: “I want people to understand that you don’t have to understand or even agree with other people’s authenticity or truths, but we must all respect each other.” The actor was unbothered by the potential controversy the outfit would generate. Both Cher and Porter brought excitement to an awards show that many, including Carolyn Menyes in The Daily Meal, consider to be excruciatingly dull. It also appears that celebrities are becoming less apologetic for rejecting the Academy’s tired fashion trends.
Red carpet takeaways
Daring fashion choices are few and far between on the Oscars red carpet. Not many would argue against this. However, with the gradual rise of diversity in award shows, hopefully more varied costume designs will follow.
“As diversity in the film and television industry rightly begins to change the stories that are told on our screens, it stands to reason that diversity also needs to come into play behind the scenes, including in costume design, an area that often goes unacknowledged.”Freya Bainbridge
It is also unfair to assume that every celebrity represses who they are at the Oscars. The dresses are always stunning and many of the attendees have no qualms over wearing such beautiful pieces. But, as Porter rightly argued, self-expression should always be encouraged. Perhaps Jennifer Lawrence wouldn’t have tripped up the stairs in a more low-key outfit. Perhaps the dress was uncomfortable to walk around in? Or maybe she is just charmingly clumsy? But there’s no doubt that a number of celebrities would feel less flustered if their outfits spoke to them more personally.
Maybe traditional clothing will always dominate the Oscars red carpet. If it does, there is still an optimistic way to look at this. The dominance of traditional clothing means that the occasional risk-takers will continue to stand out all the more. Few will remember what celebrities wore to the 2020 Academy Awards, but you will be hard-pressed to find any red carpet fanatic that doesn’t remember Cher’s and Porter’s defiant moments. They are forward-thinkers and the Academy did not prevent them from speaking their truths and the slow but sure increase in diversity will hopefully produce a wider array of red carpet looks in the future.