Amid the COVID-induced postponement of major award ceremonies and film festivals, the Emmys have taken a different approach: to go ahead, virtually. In a letter to nominees, they announce a dubiously paradoxical dress code for the night: ‘Come as you are, but make an effort’. You can be certain that winners will be announced. Reactions will be recorded. Statuettes will be delivered. But what of the time-honoured tradition, synonymous with showmanship and spectacle, that receives more fanfare than the awards themselves? A convention that gave rise to expressions like ‘red-carpet treatment’ and ‘roll out the red carpet’? A scarlet stretch of floor, able to transform the event into a stage for the world’s most celebrated designers?

Much has been made of the uncertain future of catwalk shows amid the global pandemic. The industry has been scrambling for short-term solutions - take Carine Roitfeld’s virtual runway show in aid of amfAR, which saw the likes of Karlie Kloss and Joan Smalls strut up and down their living rooms. London, Paris and Milan Fashion Week went digital, and went down without any major hitches. And yet, red-carpet events are of arguably equal importance to the industry, and their absence is a void that has yet to be filled.


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The idea of the red carpet first surfaced in Greek tragedy, when it was a path for royalty to tread upon that could deify them. With our conception of ‘Hollywood royalty’ today, what’s really changed? The mid-twentieth century saw the rise of the spectacle surrounding the red carpet, when stars like Grace Kelly would step out in lavish gowns at film premieres, and its introduction at the 1961 Oscars began a relationship of codependency between fashion and film that would continue for many decades. Typically a platform for stars to make a statement - to push the envelope and wear something memorable, provocative or edgy - the red carpet has had the ability to shoot both actors and designers to stardom. Elizabeth Hurley made history in *that* Versace safety pin dress in 1994, while no one’s forgotten J-Lo’s green Versace number in 2000. Both have their own Wikipedia page. The dresses, I mean. Nicole Kidman set the bar for haute couture on the red carpet in Dior at the 1997 Oscars, while Uma Thurman managed to catapult Miuccia Prada into the limelight when she wore a lilac Prada dress to the 1995 Oscars.

Even today, red-carpet events remain an important promotional tool for designers. Film festivals, premieres, award shows and gala events provide ample opportunity for a brand’s designs to be photographed on the frame of a high-profile figure and end up in the pages of fashion bibles like Vogue or in the ranks of best-dressed lists. The celebrity is their runway model. And the designer is not the only beneficiary. It takes a village, as they say. Hair and makeup artists, stylists, publicists, security personnel and photographers will feel the lack of an awards season more than most.

There’s no denying, however, that these events are emblems of extravagance, luxury and waste. Take the hyper-exclusive Met Gala. Tickets go for around $35,000, and you can cop a table for between $200,000 to $300,000. Dresses regularly cost in the tens of thousands. At a ceremony like the Oscars, gowns can be priced in the six figures - Nicole Kidman’s 1997 Dior dress was reportedly worth $2 million. Brands may even custom-make outfits that are never worn at all; if a celebrity is in high demand, they may have custom offers from several different designers. There has been a movement towards sustainable fashion - BAFTA’s 2020 dress code encouraged attendees to rewear and recycle - but it has not yet been embraced by the fashion industry; Kate Middleton and Saoirse Ronan were among the only ones to follow it.

And top stylists reveal that more often than not, money changes hands. Meryl Streep famously turned down the offer of a custom Chanel dress for the 2017 Oscars because there was no payment involved. The red carpet is, at its core, a commercial endeavour. New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman joked in an interview with Fashionista that the age-old question ‘Who are you wearing?’ should be replaced by ‘How much did they pay you to wear this dress?’. Writing for the Washington Post, Robin Givhan notes that the cult of celebrity has overpowered any appreciation of a designer’s artistic creativity: ‘The designer names go virtually unmentioned. It’s all about Lupita’s (Ralph Lauren) cape, Pharrell’s (Vivienne Westwood) hat and Rihanna’s (Tom Ford) pasties [...] But in the broader world, where all the hard work of an atelier is supposed to get noticed, in our consideration of the red carpet, the designer is no longer essential.’ But she also mentions that the rise of social media and increased direct-to-consumer access has meant the relationship between celebrities and designers is no longer one of equality: ‘Designers, stylists and photographers transform actors into gods and goddesses with an efficiency that Hollywood cannot match.’ The power lies with the designer; they alone can reinvent a celebrity as a style icon.

And yet even the stars have had enough of the performance and theatrics of this hallowed custom. The introduction of E!’s red carpet Mani Cam, on top of their pre-existing Stiletto Cam, Clutch Cam and 360Glam Cam, provoked an eye-roll from many a female star (and a middle finger from Elisabeth Moss). Reese Witherspoon championed the viral #AskHerMore campaign in 2015, inviting reporters to probe nominees about more than just their outfits. Kristen Stewart went barefoot on the Cannes red carpet in 2018 to protest the film festival’s ‘heels only’ policy. Hadley Freeman of the Guardian’s oft-quoted statement certainly does ring true: ‘This is a strange pocket of the western world where it is still deemed utterly acceptable to take smart, successful women and reduce them to beauty pageant contestants.’

But despite increasingly intense levels of scrutiny, particularly of female stars, the red carpet continues to facilitate the occasional convergence of fashion and activism. Attendees at the 2018 Golden Globes wore all-black in a show of solidarity with the #MeToo movement; ACLU ribbons, Planned Parenthood pins and buttons with political slogans are commonplace. Lena Waithe wore a suit emblazoned with ‘Black drag queens invented camp’ at the 2019 Met Gala; Natalie Portman’s Dior cape at the Oscars was stitched with the names of overlooked female directors.

After a global pandemic, which so many stars claim to have been so deeply affected by, can we really return to the excess, the indulgence, the frivolity? Does coronavirus have the power to rewrite a tale as old as time? Maybe I’m being cynical and I should let this tradition exist as exactly what it appears to be: a famous person dressed up for a famous person event. But the next time we see an Oscars red carpet, it’s anyone’s guess what it will look like.