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The Year on the Red Carpet

It was the year public figures crept back into the spotlight, first with a tiptoe out of doors at the presidential inauguration, then a socially distanced red carpet at the Oscars — and then a full throttle, ball-gowns-to-the-max explosion of pent-up dressing up at the Cannes Film Festival, as if to compensate for the previous year of enforced isolation.

No longer were our celebrity avatars Just Like Us, stuck at home in sweatpants, T-shirts and Tevas; they had become vessels through which we could peacock vicariously. Skirts got ever larger, suits evermore unbound, gender differentiation increasingly irrelevant and the definition of just who got to send a message with what they wore ever more expansive. The basic black tuxedo and the little black dress turned into relics of the Before Times. Who wants sartorial understatement when you’ve been forcibly muzzled for months?

Instead, give us color, personality and a bugle bead (or 10) as symbols of a new age; vehicles of unfettered self-expression. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. Maybe the 2020s really are going to be the 1920s redux. Either way, the sheer visual statement-making lit up our feeds.

When Amanda Gorman rose to the lectern on Jan. 20 to read her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at Joseph Biden’s inauguration, her sunshine yellow Prada coat and cardinal red headband seemed to symbolize the brightness and hope of her words and the promise of a new dawn — and new role models.

Harry Styles in not one but three feather boas at the Grammys — purple, green and black — sent searches for the accessory up 1,500 percent in 48 hours, according to Lyst. “Clothes are there to have fun with and experiment with and play with,” he told Vogue in an interview the year before, and he has been living out what that means ever since, inspiring legions of fans to follow his lead and dress up for his concerts, transforming the tour experience into an explosion of id. And identity.

Speaking of: When Deb Haaland was sworn in as secretary of the Interior, making history as the first Native American to lead a Cabinet-level agency, she also made history by eschewing the usual Washington uniform of fruit bowl-colored trouser suits in favor of traditional Indigenous dress. She wore a dark jacket over a sky-blue, rainbow-trimmed ribbon skirt embroidered with imagery of butterflies, stars and corn; moccasin boots; a turquoise and silver belt and necklace; and dragonfly earrings. It was yet another sign that we were entering an era in which the personal statement, as reflected in dress worn for moments that will be captured for posterity, was turning into the biggest trend of the year.

When it came to big, no one could beat Carey Mulligan’s gold Valentino couture skirt and bandeau top at the Oscars, the first real (if socially distanced) red carpet of the year. Essentially a portable form of social distancing, it took what had been a warning sign of the pandemic (stay six feet away!) and transformed it into something beautiful.

Colman Domingo was similarly unmissable in a hot pink Versace tux, a choice that set the tone for a year in which men stopped taking a background role on the red carpet. Instead they strode forth in plumage as eye-catching as any ball gown, insisting on their own individuality. Begone the penguin suit of old. Enter the age of anything goes.

There was no better example of that shift than Spike Lee, the first Black director to be president of the Cannes Film Festival jury, who showed up for the occasion in a custom wardrobe by Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton men’s wear. From an opening fuchsia suit with matching sunglasses to a final look bathed in shades of sunset; a black suit with bright red buttons, black shoes with red laces, and a green, red and black beret; and a “houndstooth” suit with a pattern actually made from little basketball players, he defined what independent style actually meant.

That baton was picked up by Timothée Chalamet, who helped promote his films “The French Dispatch” and “Dune” by dressing if not exactly on theme (phew), then in as eclectic and arresting an array as possible. He swapped Tom Ford silver moiré for a glittering Haider Ackermann for a Stella McCartney mushroom toile de Jouy for a zippered Alexander McQueen — in case anyone was in doubt that his image was his to control. No brand owns him.

Billy Porter may have been the pioneer of gender-agnostic fashion on the red carpet, but this was the year Lil Nas X established himself as its champion provocateur. Case in point: the infanta-ready gown by Andrea Grossi he wore to the BET Awards complete with mega-skirt, corset, cropped jacket and suspenders, all printed with references to war and religion. Later he changed into a flared floral suit from Richard Quinn (and changed again for his performance). Like his controversial “Satan Shoes” collaboration with MSCHF (and his Twitter feed), his styling rewrote the status quo.

This was the year, after all, that a new generation of tastemakers came to the fore. See, for example, the pop star Olivia Rodrigo at the White House meeting with President Biden and his team to discuss a campaign to promote vaccination among Gen Z while wearing the uniform of her peer group. Her vintage pink bouclé Chanel suit symbolized two of their signature obsessions: thrifting (for its sustainability implications) and the ’90s (that time before social media).

For sheer visual drama, though, no one could top Zendaya, who (with her stylist Law Roach) set a new standard for making an entrance. That was never more true than at the Venice Film Festival, where she appeared in wet-look nude-tone Balmain molded to her body and worn with a 93-carat emerald necklace from Bulgari.

The combination was as stunning as Emma Raducanu’s triumph as the first unseeded player to win the U.S. Open women’s tournament. Her talent, age (18, at the time of her win) and multicultural background (a British citizen, she is half Romanian and half Chinese) made her a heroine for the moment. Her taste for fashion (she attended the trophy ceremony in Chanel — and sneakers) just reflected her ambitions.

The year in fashion could be summed up in two outfits worn at the one-time-only Met Gala in September. First, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a surprise appearance in a white mermaid gown by Aurora James of Brother Vellies with the graffitied message “Tax the Rich” spray-painted on the back. It became the talking point not just of the party, but of the week, taking the idea of wearing your position on your sleeve to a new level.

Then Kim Kardashian appeared in a head-to-toe black Balenciaga body stocking and gown, effectively turning herself into a meta-comment on her own cultural ubiquity: Even with her face erased, and no words spoken, everyone knew who she was. Together, the two women demonstrated the yin and yang of how social media, fashion and politics combined to define our shared experience in 2021.

It was Jennifer Lawrence, though, who gave a nod to what’s next in 2022 when she appeared at the premiere of “Don’t Look Up” in full pregnant glory and golden Dior, like the promise of an even more glittering future. Dress for it, and it may come.

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