It was the 2014 Oscar ceremony. On the red carpet, in a sea of A-list actresses who all looked fantastic, one person stood out.
Lupita Nyong’o, then a newcomer, stepped out in an ice blue pleated Prada gown with an enviable fall, something she took advantage of as she twirled around on the carpet.
That was a fashion moment which has been frozen in time. That moment, right there, propelled Nyong’o to a level of international stardom that her Oscar win, later that night, would not have necessarily warranted. The carefree flow of the skirt was charming, the diamond headband was alluring, the soft makeup inviting and the colour of her skin empowering.
But a lot had to happen for that singular moment to have had the impact it did. Nyong’o was a newcomer who had the backing of high-end luxury brands and stylist Micaela Erlanger – who continuously pushes stylistic boundaries.
You see, usually one becomes a fashionista slowly. But in Nyong’o’s case, she established herself as a fashion icon the very first go. For a night at the Oscars, celebrities either tend to keep a low profile or opt for a go-big-or-go-home strategy. Nyong’o took the third road, one less travelled – simple and elegant.
Even us ‘normal folks’ would agree that the person who stands out in a room is almost always wearing something simple and elegant while his/her counterparts are sporting something flashy.
Say, at an extremely extravagant Indian wedding, a woman in a plain, matte, bordered sari will always grab more eyeballs than the women in blingy gowns and suits. Going against the norm with an old-school trick is somehow always more memorable than chasing current trends.
That is exactly what Nyong’o did – at Hollywood’s biggest night, her simple look came as a delightful shock. Since then, she has given numerous looks that are worthy of appraisal and have indeed garnered her lots of fashion press, but none of them have managed to translate into a level of attention she received that night.
And in just six years, the entire red carpet scene has changed dramatically. Today, it’s harder than ever to create a ‘fashion moment’.
The relationship between celebrity styling and fashion houses is an old one and more than a little nuanced. To put it briefly, back in the day during the studio system, Hollywood actors were dressed by the costume designers their studios would hire – with a few exceptions like Audrey Hepburn who exclusively started wearing Givenchy in the 60s because of her friendship with the designer.
As the studio system was dismantled, actors would simply dress themselves (something that happened in Bollywood as well). That started to change in the 70s when labels like Armani and Halston started to dress the likes of Jane Fonda. The level of publicity that the brand eventually received spurred other brands to start dressing celebrities for red carpet appearances too.
Today, this courtship has reached its peak. Apart from the involvement of a professional stylist (who comes with a team), there are exclusive contracts being signed between two parties. When Jennifer Lawrence wears Dior, she not only enjoys access to a massive inventory of high-end clothing, but also a level of respect that only a fashion house of that stature can grant her. In return, Dior gets showered with respectable publicity and gains more customers.
The whole point of the red carpet may be quite superficial, yet its importance cannot be overlooked. To stay relevant, being an entertainer isn’t enough in this day and age. Publicising the work is necessary and glamour is arguably the best way to market oneself. The more media coverage a person gets, the bigger their following becomes. This equals to more clout, and fashion is one of the biggest tool at their disposal.
Throughout history, celebrities like Cher, David Bowie, Prince, have used fashion to send a message to the world. The more outrageous their choices, the more media coverage they’d receive. This is not to disregard their talent in anyway, but how they presented themselves is played a massive role in cementing them as the icons they still are.
A more modern counterpart of these examples today would be Lady Gaga, who has used fashion to market herself since the beginning of her career. There is a fair chance of a person not being aware of her work as a musician and an actor, but they’ll surely know her as ‘that woman who wears weird clothes’.
Gaga understood the sheer power of fashion early on and how it can create an effective image when used correctly. A decade ago, she was shocking people with a meat dress and just when people were starting to become immune to her fashion choices, she spurred it all again by surprising critics with plain Brandon Maxwell dresses.
So her initial looks helped her make a mark in the music industry, whereas her later looks have aided in putting up a persona for the acting industry. This way, the public is forced to look at her through a lens of her choosing.
Back home in India, even less than a decade ago, the red carpet wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now, but things started to take a turn when Sonam Kapoor, then a relative newcomer, continuously made it into the newspapers for her fashion choices. While not the first person to have become a fashionista in India, she was definitely the most mainstream celebrity who would consistently wear haute couture garments.
She has said on multiple occasions that it was her love for fashion that propelled her into wearing such high-end clothes, but there’s a good chance that she genuinely understood the power fashion has in showbiz and simply used it to her advantage.
Sonam Kapoor’s fashion choices unsurprisingly led other actresses to step up their game. Today, every actor has a stylist who goes out of their way to source clothes that’ll get their clients as much positive coverage as possible. Currently, the styling situation is pretty much the same in Hollywood and Bollywood – just that it’s all on a much larger scale in the former.
So, when everyone is fighting to look the best and/or be the most shocking, how does one stand out?
Well, most don’t.
Today’s red carpet scene is as exciting as it is uninteresting. Exciting because every celebrity is willing to take some kind of a fashion risk. Uninteresting because every celebrity is trying to get the most attention.
Ever since Billy Porter’s breakout role in FX’s Pose, Porter has continued to give us red carpet moments. The most memorable of them all has been the tuxedo ball gown by Christian Siriano that Porter wore to the Oscars this year. The gown not only broke gender stereotypes, but also went against the current red carpet norm of gigantic feather and tulle dresses.
It subverted expectations and urged people to have a conversation. Even Porter’s most recent appearance at the Emmys a couple of months ago, where he wore a black jacket and trousers with high heels and an avant-garde hat, generated more buzz than his actual Emmy win.
Ranveer Singh can be considered his closest Indian counterpart because while there is no specific ‘red carpet moment’ one can point to like Porter above, his whole style history has been liberating for men all over the country and has actually started a conversation about gender roles in the fashion industry.
So, while it’s becoming harder and harder to create a ‘fashion moment’ today, one thing is for sure, the whole machinery of using fashion to push a certain image of a certain celebrity will continue to jog on.
As superficial as fashion may seem, clothes are actually quite subtle because they send a message to the world in the guise of superficiality, and that is true for everyone regardless of whether that person is a celebrity or not.
But since the dawn of time, celebrities have used this basic necessity of clothing to craft an image of themselves. When people see their favourite star, they see a version of them that has been meticulously crafted by professionals so that they can be viewed in a particular way.
This information is neither good nor bad. It’s just a fact that perhaps more people should be aware of.
Shivani Yadav is a fashion and film writer.
Featured image: Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor at the 68th Cannes International Film Festival, in a cobalt blue creation by Ralph & Russo. Photo: Reuters