After 90 Years of Oscars, There Are No Fashion Rules

The Oscars recognize achievements in film, celebrating the images that light up the silver screen and transport us into other worlds, escaping into the richness of the stories played out for us. Red carpet fashion parades attempt to do the same thing — to allow the average citizen to step into an evening of glitz and glamour, of idealism and escapism.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching the stars of Hollywood pose in front of the flashbulbs in their dazzling gowns and sleek tuxedos. It wasn’t that I aspired to be just like them, or that I envied their celebrity lifestyle. For me, it was all about the clothes. I bought my first People Magazine so I could tear out the full page spread of Julia Roberts’ vintage Valentino gown that she wore to win for Erin Brockovich.

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That was the same year Bjork stunned the world with her infamous swan dress. What a simpler time, when an obscure singer wearing a strangulated goose tutu could take up a news cycle for a week. *sigh*

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For years I pored over “best and worst dressed” lists, and even wrote my own. I read all the stylist reviews and watched all the red carpet recap shows. It was fun to see people immersed in the fashion industry dishing about taffeta and diamonds. Did any of it really matter? Of course not. But that’s the point — for just one night, we got to gossip about whether Nicole Kidman was going to show up with parrots on her shoulders, then go back to our everyday lives.

It’s all meant to be fun, and I’ll be the first to admit an annoyance with how fashion criticism has taken a serious turn over time. As a woman I appreciated the rise of #AskHerMore (because duh — of course women should be asked about their work and not just their clothes) but as a fashion lover, I was miffed that the stars weren’t being asked anything about what they were wearing. Chris Rock said in his 2016 Oscar monologue,

“They ask the men more because the men are all wearing the same outfits. Every guy in there’s wearing the exact same thing. You know, George Clooney shows up with a lime green tux on and a swan coming out his ass, somebody would go, ‘What you wearing, George?’”

On top of that, I and the majority of those watching hours of red carpet coverage aren’t watching because of our passionate investment in the film industry. We just like pretty dresses.

That said, it’s important to acknowledge the direction of the winds changing. The extent to which fashion criticism is deemed “acceptable” is not what it once was. Some might attribute it to a stronger desire for political correctness or giving in to “outrage culture,” but commentary that was once considered good-humored is now unwelcome and offensive.

The widely popular E! show, Fashion Police, learned this first hand. Once headlined by the brash Joan Rivers and always towing the line of decency, the show fell apart a few years ago when Giuliana Rancic said Zendaya’s dreadlock style looked like it smelled of patchouli oil or weed.

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If Rancic had said her hairstyle didn’t seem to match her gown’s formality, no big deal — that’s just a matter of opinion. But de-valuing a hairstyle that has significance in black culture was a step too far, and the show no longer airs.

This year, braids and locs were proudly on display.

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Even without such a racially-charged misstep, I’m not sure fashion review shows have a great chance of surviving in the long term. Whether or not an outfit is considered “good” is far more subjective; it’s almost as if, after 90 years of Oscars, we’ve hit the point where anything goes.

CNN’s docu-series American Style puts it quite plainly: there are no fashion rules anymore. Modern style is all about embracing diversity and representing all ages, genders, sizes, and colors.

“There is no fashion designer that dictates what we wear anymore. Christian Dior dictated what women wore in the 50s, Balenciaga in the 60s, Calvin Klein and Ralph and Donna decided in the 80s. Now what’s embraced is being yourself.”

The Academy Awards this year proved that point more than ever. No one felt confined to a satin gown or a classic Armani tux.

Billy Porter made waves as the first man to don a tuxedo ballgown to the ceremony.

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Most of the men didn’t go so far as to put on a dress, but many expressed their personal sense of style through fashion-forward jackets and shirts.

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This time around, the women were wearing the pants.

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It should be duly noted that these ladies are not the first to wear pants to the Oscars; Barbara Streisand and Diana Ross won Oscars in pants, Céline Dion wore her infamous backwards tuxedo in 1999, and Angelina Jolie surprised the world with her Dolce & Gabbana white suit. That said, a woman in a suit on the red carpet used to be an anomaly, whereas this year it broke free and became commonplace.

Other women wore dresses that no one expected. We saw Rachel Weisz, who is usually hailed for her traditional elegance, wear a latex jacket over her gown.

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Then Lady Gaga (for whom latex is like a pair of blue jeans) showed up in a traditional black dress with gloves and a mature up-do, dripping in diamonds last seen on Audrey Hepburn.

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Putting aside those who went against stylistic conventions (or simply what we’ve come to expect from them) how is a fashion reviewer supposed to pass judgement on someone’s personal style? Sure, it’s been done for years, but it’s not like we’re seeing Bjork’s swan dress on the carpet these days — there aren’t really objectively, obviously bad looks anymore.

Which is better? Regina King’s sleek, sculptural sheath…

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…or Kacey Musgraves’ floatey, feminine frock?

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You simply can’t qualify either of those looks as being better than the other. Of course, you can have your own personal opinion, and I certainly do. But panning a dress (or the person wearing it) just because it isn’t your cup of tea feels like a thing of the past.

Red carpets will always welcome an escape from reality and a lighthearted look at the fancy finery, but this new era ushers in an opportunity to celebrate fashion — ALL fashion — for what it is. After 90 years, we’ve finally decided that fashion is what you make of it: if you feel you look great, then you look great, and no one can tell you otherwise.

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