It’s a rare moment when a celebrity steps onto the red carpet in an outfit they’ve worn before. In recent awards ceremony history, only a few brave souls have done so. In 2018, the practice had a moment: Tiffany Haddish’s $4,000 Alexander McQueen gown became her punchline during the awards cycle, Cate Blanchett was praised for recycling her 2014 Armani gown that same year, and Rita Moreno wore her 1962 Oscars dress for the Academy Awards.
In January, Joaquin Phoenix announced that he would wear only one Stella McCartney tuxedo on the 2020 awards red carpet to promote sustainable fashion. For the Joker star — an awards favorite — this move fits in with other aspects of his moral philosophy; he’s an outspoken environmentalist and animal rights supporter.
This man is a winner… wearing custom Stella because he chooses to make choices for the future of the planet. He has also chosen to wear this same Tux for the entire award season to reduce waste. I am proud to join forces with you... x Stella#JoaquinPhoenix #GoldenGlobes pic.twitter.com/Ymbkl78ecN— Stella McCartney (@StellaMcCartney) January 6, 2020
The red carpet has increasingly become the place for celebrities to make bold political (if not performative) statements in favor of causes like climate change and Me Too. Because it’s 2020, the urgency of the impending climate crisis hasn’t escaped Hollywood. Celebrities have spearheaded fundraisers and founded charities for the cause (looking at you, Leonardo DiCaprio), but relatively few have cut back on new awards attire.
Phoenix’s decision makes a statement about waste in the fashion world and on the awards season’s many red carpets, but it also highlights an awkward reality about expectations for male and female stars in Hollywood; namely, do most people even realize that these men were picking up new tuxes for every show? And if not, does that undercut his message?
The replies to Stella McCartney’s tweet about Phoenix’s choice are not what one might call supportive: her claim that he’s a “winner” is met with responses ranging from a sarcastic “how brave!” to an equally flip reminder that firefighters and charity workers exist.
As a regular person who enjoys awards shows, it’s surprising to me that male actors don’t have just one or two tuxes they rotate throughout the season. It’s a widely shared opinion that — other than Billy Porter — men’s red carpet attire stylistically pales in comparison to women’s. Phoenix’s 2020 re-wearable ’fit is a simple and classic well-tailored black tux topped up with a bow tie. Fashion-wise, it isn’t a red carpet highlight, but it fits with his history of red carpet looks (mostly: more black tuxes).
That’s a strange thing about red carpet fashion: These outfits are intended to be worn once by celebrities, whether they’re very expensive or time-consuming to make or even totally forgettable. Within this system, Phoenix really is bucking the status quo.
However, it might be more difficult for an actress to repeat a gown, according to Moya Luckett, a media historian at New York University. With modern red carpet attire, most high-profile celebrities are at the whims of their stylists, management companies, and the fashion houses they’re contracted under.
“With the end of the studio system in the 1960s, actors and actresses became free agents, signing with talent agencies who then partnered them with stylists and designers to help with publicity,” Luckett told me. Prominent actresses could be restricted from repeating an outfit due to promotional contracts with designers, she added. They’re also likely to be subjected to harsher fashion scrutiny than their male peers.
“The red carpet revolves around fashion so much more than the film,” Luckett said. “Even with very popular male stars like Phoenix, Timothee Chalamet, or Jared Leto, they’re given far less attention [by the press] than their female counterparts.”
Television and, lately, social media has turned the red carpet into a spectacle, where the celebrities’ appearances are sometimes more important than the films themselves, Luckett said. “The idea of wearing the same dress multiple times is difficult, especially if a star is contracted with a designer to promote their work throughout that year,” she added. Actors and their styling teams need publicity, and the red carpet is often the easiest way to get that attention.
Phoenix, however, has garnered attention by promoting the causes he cares about this awards cycle. The actor’s acceptance speech for best actor in a motion picture drama at this year’s Golden Globes put his fellow celebrities and their private jets in the spotlight, and he recently participated — and even got arrested — at a climate change protest. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Phoenix is responsible for the plant-based menus debuting at several award shows. Similarly, McCartney, the actor’s partnered designer, has a history of working with sustainable design choices — not using animal skins, recycling textiles, and being somewhat transparent with her company’s sustainability efforts. As Luckett explains, “the decision fits in perfectly with both of their brands.”
The concept of sustainability on the red carpet isn’t new. Some celebrities at the Met Gala in years past have participated in the Green Carpet Challenge by wearing sustainably sourced goods or rewearing a certain accessory. The practice is still niche among most celebrities, although Hollywood stylists are becoming more aware of the public’s eco-friendly sentiments, Cate Blanchett’s stylist told the Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “We need to get the word out to get rid of this ridiculous notion that dresses cannot be worn twice,” she said.
For now, Joaquin Phoenix appears to be the only popular outfit-repeater on the 2020 red carpet. Unless, that is, you count the red carpet itself at the Golden Globes, which the Hollywood Foreign Press Association wants to use again.
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