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Why the Oscars red carpet matters — and why it’s not really built for political protest

Celebrity fashion experts Tom and Lorenzo break down how one of the biggest events in Hollywood comes together.

89th Annual Academy Awards - Red Carpet
Taraji P. Henson crushes it at the 2017 Oscars.
Kevork Djansezian Remote/Getty Images

Hollywood’s red carpets have been the stuff of highly glamorized lore for decades. They are where stars — big and small and everyone in between — go to put on their most immaculate face and promote their current projects, show off their style, and, most importantly, make an impression on all who may be watching. To much of the general population, red carpets are where the magic of Hollywood goes to shine, and no event has more pressure to be its sparkling best than the Oscars.

Still: for as casual and effortless as red carpets often seem to be, they’re anything but. Each one has an entire ecosystem of painstaking work behind it, with celebrities, film studios, stylists, publicists, and designers all collaborating — but also jockeying to control — the images they’re trying to sell.

“They’re all fake!” Tom Fitzgerald exclaimed with a laugh earlier this week, when I called him and his husband, Lorenzo Marquez, to discuss what to expect from this year’s Oscars red carpet. Known simply as Tom and Lorenzo, or “T Lo,” to the devoted readers of their beloved fashion website, the couple has been dissecting the revealing subtext of red carpets for well over a decade, and they’ve become go-to experts on the art of celebrity publicity tours.

“I always think of [red carpets] as those Western sets where the streets are just a front and the back of buildings don’t exist,” Tom continued. “Just outside the camera ring, there’s just lumber and people with headphones on, cigarette butts on the ground. It’s not glamorous at all.”

To put the immense effort behind large-scale red carpets into perspective, Lorenzo said, “I always tell our readers to imagine having their wedding day every time they go out to promote something.”

“Imagine having your wedding pictures rocketing around the world in real time with millions of people looking at them as you walk down the aisle!” Fitzgerald added.

Despite the full-body shiver that idea sent down my spine, I nevertheless put my trust in Tom and Lorenzo to further break down just how much thought goes into a red carpet event. Here’s what they had to say about why it matters that the Oscars represent the pinnacle of celebrity fashion, how red carpets function as a publicity tool, and what we can learn from interpreting trends outside of the carpet itself.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

On what makes the Oscars red carpet particularly meaningful — and why it’s not surprising to see celebrities and interviewers avoid discussing Big Issues like #MeToo

Caroline

So what makes the Oscar red carpet different from any other? How did it become so important?

Tom

The short, pithy answer is that the Oscars are prom night and everything else is the homecoming dance. The Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the SAG Awards — all of that is lead-up to the Oscars. [It’s] the biggest night in the motion picture industry, and the award that means more to people in the industry. It has the largest global audience, it gets the most stars, people put on their A-games in terms of promotional style and how they present themselves. No one ever looks as good as they do on Oscar night.

Lorenzo

It’s the most televised [awards] event in the whole world. Because we’re here in the United States, we tend to know all these other awards, but I have talked to many people all over the world, and the Oscars are what they talk about. ... [They] even write down notes and copy the dresses to rip them off. A celebrity wears a dress, and the next day, the dress is knocked off everywhere.

Tom

Another analogy is that the Oscars are the Olympics, and every other show leading up to it is, like, the World Figure Skating Championships. It’s not that the other awards aren’t important, but they are part of the process of getting an Oscar. The Oscars are synonymous with Hollywood, synonymous with movies. You just can’t beat that kind of branding.

Caroline

Is it fair to say that people take fewer risks in terms of what they wear to the Oscars?

Tom

Very much so. But I don’t think actors or actresses generally take too many risks on other awards show carpets either; they tend to play the straight-and-narrow PR game. If you’re on that track, every awards show leading up to the Oscars is sort of an audition. You’re giving a job interview to see if you should get an Oscar, so everyone is pretty much on their best behavior.

So when [nominees] hit that red carpet on Oscar night, it’s full-on impeccable style. It’s somewhere between, say, princess fantasy meets socialite demureness. They’re not going to do edgy or trendy stuff. This will be the biggest audience of the year looking at them, so they don’t want to put anybody off.

The red carpet is all self-promotion; you’re trying to sell an image of yourself. So on Oscar night, someone like Margot Robbie is making a statement when she steps out on that red carpet. “You’re all looking at me, so here’s who Margot Robbie is.” It’s like a professional statement of who you are.

Lorenzo

There’s a major difference between promoting your movie or your product and going to an awards show like the Oscars. When you’re promoting the movie, you tend to embody the character, because you’re selling a product and want to make sure they see it on you — as opposed to the Oscars, when the product is you.

Caroline

Earlier this year, celebrities wore black to the Golden Globes in a widespread acknowledgment of the #MeToo movement and Hollywood’s then-newly announced Time’s Up campaign, and both were brought up often throughout the night.

But there’s no such plan in place for the Oscars, and previews of what this year’s ceremony might entail have made it seem like the Oscars’ producers don’t want to do what the Globes did, in terms of making the ceremony all about sexual misconduct and abuse in the entertainment industry. Instead, they’re trying to make it so people don’t feel like “they have to acknowledge it.” Why does this approach make sense for the Oscars in general?

Tom

When the Golden Globes’ Time’s Up protest happened, there was quite a lot of confusion. People have never really seen so many use the red carpet that way, so there was a lot of, “Why are they wearing black? Why don’t they do this, why don’t they do that?”

We said at the time that people were making a mistake assuming that the red carpet is anything more than it is. It always is and always will be a promotional event. You’re either promoting a project or promoting yourself; that’s what it’s for.

But don’t get me wrong: The Time’s Up initiative came off beautifully. [The campaign’s organizers] did a spectacular job of [ensuring] that. But there was no way this was the new version of the red carpet, that this kind of protest was going to become the new normal. I feel like the actresses involved felt like the Golden Globes was a good place to do it because [the Globes have] a more freewheeling atmosphere. It’s not as serious — and it’s not making or breaking your year the way an Oscars nomination does.

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Press Room
The cast of HBO’s Big Little Lies, awash in black at the Golden Globes.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Lorenzo

There’s also the commercial aspect of it. You’re still wearing everything that you borrowed.

Tom

Or that someone paid you to wear!

Lorenzo

You still have that debate going on. Like, okay, you have a message, you’re trying to promote bigger political and social issues here — but at the same time, you’re wearing $500,000 earrings.

I’m not saying you couldn’t do [a protest], but it’s a very fine line that gets questioned a lot. I also personally didn’t like the backlash that came with blaming or questioning female celebrities who didn’t wear what they were “supposed” to wear. You don’t want to create a situation where you’re promoting women but you’re also judging their choices.

Tom

And like Lorenzo said, there are agreements and contractual obligations made. If you have a contractual obligation with Louis Vuitton, and it’s the biggest red carpet night of the year, Louis Vuitton may not want you in a black gown. They might say, “No, let’s get you in something that represents our brand.”

I’m not saying anyone’s dictating the terms here. I’m just saying there’s money and agreements going on in the background of any red carpet, and the Oscars red carpet has the most money and the most contractual obligations swirling around. Mounting a fashion-based protest in that atmosphere is probably impossible for the actresses involved.

Lorenzo

Celebrities also tend to wear the previous fashion season’s collection, and sometimes they don’t have a certain color. So, [many of] the garments that they wore for the Golden Globes had to be customized to be black. It was interesting to see that attempt from the designers to make that happen, but I can’t imagine them going to that kind of effort for every single red-carpet event.

On the openly affectionate (and straight) stars of Best Picture nominee Call Me by Your Name and actors dressing to sell a movie’s specific vibe

55th New York Film Festival - 'Call Me By Your Name'
Armie Armie Armie, Timmy Timmy Timmy.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Caroline

I do want to ask you about something you’ve written about throughout the awards season so far. The stars of queer romance Call Me by Your Name, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, have been promoting the movie for over a year now, and it’s been so interesting to watch them go through cycles of being really affectionate — especially versus other straight actors in “gay movies” who have tended to play the publicity game by emphasizing that they’re not really gay. What’s your impression of how that cycle has played out?

Tom

There definitely was an undulating public affection thing going on with the two of them. One of the great things about Timothée and Armie is that they do seem to really like each other as people and colleagues. Maybe they’re faking it — they are actors — but their sort of easy male affection is unusual, especially for straight-identified male actors promoting an LGBTQ-themed project.

Personally, I found it very refreshing. We’re of a certain age here; we’ve been looking at gay films and Hollywood for a long, long time. I can remember back in the day when actors who played gay were so uptight about it, and had a really hard time being a heterosexual person talking about gay behavior. With Armie and Timothée, there’s the fact that they’re of a generation that doesn’t come with as much baggage when it comes to “playing gay,” or being affectionate with each other, or being mistaken for gay.

And on a purely style level, they both like fashion. It was fun to see two actors — and ergh, I hate saying this — ostensibly “dress gay.” Those colorful skinny pants, the impeccable fit; both men consistently dressed in a way that I would’ve found perfectly acceptable for gay brunch on Sunday afternoon.

But that’s me as a gay man reading something into it. I don’t know if that was a stylistic choice, if there was someone behind the scenes saying, “Let’s get you all dandied up in colorful outfits because the audience for this movie is mostly gay men, and they’ll appreciate that.” But if that’s the case, it was smart thinking.

Lorenzo

I go back and forth on that. I appreciate that they had a more relaxed approach in terms of the way they dress and behave on the red carpet, but at the same time, you have these straight men playing gay again on the red carpet. If you’re trying to promote the idea that it’s okay to be [yourself], maybe just be yourself on the red carpet. I don’t know.

But I do understand that at the same time, they’re promoting the movie. They wanted to create that atmosphere where it’s okay to be gay, and of course the fashion choices kind of represented that as well.

Tom

One of the things that has really shifted in the past few years of the red carpet is the idea of dressing to the aesthetic of the film. The best possible example of this is the Black Panther promotional tour, for which everyone has dressed more or less in Afrofuturist-style fashion. They’re not necessarily dressing in character, but they do remind you of the look of the film.

You’re also seeing that with A Wrinkle in Time, as Storm Reid stepped out in this full-on princess outfit. When the Star Wars films are being promoted, all the stars are dressed in black and white, because that’s the color scheme for Star Wars. When the Avengers films are being promoted, the actresses are often in primary colors, because that’s very comic book-y.

So with Armie and Timothée ... of course there are no separate rules for gay and straight men dressing up differently. Obviously, some gay men dress exactly like straight men and vice versa. [But] there is a sense of them getting dandied up slightly, to sort of remind you that they’re playing gay characters without coming in too hard on it.

On Hillary Clinton inspiring a pantsuit resurgence — and why that resurgence is likely over

21st Annual Hollywood Film Awards - Press Room
Dakota Johnson tried on some Hillary for size in November 2017.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Caroline

You’ve also talked a lot about how lady tuxes made a big comeback last year, possibly because of Hillary Clinton. Do you see that continuing to be a trend in 2018?

Tom

That was going to happen regardless of how Hillary’s election played out, because the runways leading up to 2017 were full of pantsuits. And I do feel like that was a Hillary thing, because prior to two or three years ago, the idea of a matching pantsuit on any woman under the age of 50 was considered a little too mature. Then, around the time Hillary announced she was running, some of those styles were walking the runways.

We’re two months into 2018, and I’m making my prediction now, much as I’m disappointed to say it, that we won’t see much of that going forward. I think it was somewhat of a brief vogue in response to everything going on post-election, not to mention everything going on in the industry with the Weinstein allegations. It was a time when a lot of actresses collectively were like, “I really don’t feel like putting on a dress tonight.” Which was very understandable! But I feel like that cycle might be on its downturn now.

Lorenzo

In general, the red carpet has become more casual. In the past, it was always gowns, gowns, gowns ... but in general, there are a lot more actresses now being politically and socially active, and they want that to be represented when they’re on the red carpet. It’s not that gowns can’t represent that, but I’m sure as a woman, you want more options.

On how 2018’s red carpets might interpret the eternal debate of “sexy versus sexualized”

'Red Sparrow' - Photocall
Jennifer Lawrence’s look versus that of her male Red Sparrow co-stars during a recent photocall sparked a minor outrage cycle.
John Phillips/Getty Images

Tom

One more thing I want to bring in from this week that I think shows where we’re going with the red carpet is the minor kerfuffle over Jennifer Lawrence showing up on a rooftop in a plunging Versace gown. We may be in a period where that sort of in-your-face sexual expression on a red carpet is not what the audience wants to see.

A year ago, no one would have questioned her in that gown. But when she’s surrounded by men and they’re all dressed casually for the weather, all the conversations we’ve been having in the past year — about actresses, how they present themselves, and the pressures put on them — have forced this moment where the public is starting to question certain things about presentation.

I don’t know where this is going, but I suspect smart stylists are looking at that and wondering if they shouldn’t go for something more demure. So I don’t think pantsuits are going to be the big story of 2018, but I do think modesty is.

Caroline

That’s interesting, especially after hearing Natalie Portman talk at this year’s Women’s March about how she felt like she had to make herself more demure to stave off people sexualizing her. So it’s kind of weird that now we’re maybe seeing that happening for a very different reason.

Tom

Natalie Portman even admitted that she sort of forced herself into styles and fashions that she didn’t love but felt she had to wear to keep this image under control. So having these discussions is really good, because I think it opens up how women on the red carpet can express themselves.

There’s this assumption with someone like Jennifer Lawrence, who is one of the biggest Hollywood stars in the world, that she was forced into a gown like that, or that there was social pressure for her to wear that gown. That’s what pissed her off in the long run, that she felt like people were taking away her agency by having that conversation. [Lawrence wrote on Facebook that the backlash was “sexist” and “ridiculous,” because “everything you see me wear is my choice.”]

Ultimately, I do think that’s a good conversation to have. What’s making actresses feel like they have to dress this way for the red carpet, or are they fully expressing themselves when they do?

Lorenzo

But at the same time, I hope that we find a middle ground where women can wear whatever they want! I don’t want us to be in a place where we just switch from very revealing or form-fitting dresses to loose gowns where you don’t see any hint of skin. I don’t want women to feel uncomfortable for wearing a revealing dress. Women should be able to have strong opinions and be powerful, even in a dress.

Caroline

Right. But I think it will require a higher level of creativity. Like, I love a good lady tux, but it’s become a pretty basic go-to when someone doesn’t feel like wearing a gown. You mentioned Black Panther earlier; the red carpets for events surrounding that movie’s premiere are a good example of what I mean. It didn’t include too many women in pantsuits or tuxes, but there were so many dresses that nonetheless felt more like armor.

Premiere Of Disney And Marvel's 'Black Panther' - Arrivals
All hail Lupita Nyong’o, Wakandan queen.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Tom

From a red-carpet perspective, Black Panther was probably the most important promotional tour in years. I think a lot of stylists looked at that and went, “How can I incorporate that kind of energy and thinking into my work?”

Most of the female principals were still coming out in gowns — and high-end ones! — but they had a certain message and strength underlying them. That custom Versace Lupita [Nyong’o] wore the first night, that purple gown, had a neckline that plunged down to her waist. So it was hardly demure in any sense, but it had that heavy gold-armored metallic piece as a yoke. That focused all your attention and gave her such a regal strength that the fact of the plunging neckline almost didn’t even register. It was more about the overall effect.

So when we talk about powerful looks on the red carpet, it’s not about measuring how much fabric was used or anything like that. When you look at that Lupita gown, that’s the perfect example of a woman serving up pure glamour, pure sex appeal, but also coming off incredibly strong.

Lorenzo

We always use that line Nina Garcia always used to say on Project Runway: “It has to be aesthetically pleasing!” If you achieve that, then you’re gold.