Black Dresses, Golden Globes: How Fashion Works in Red Carpet Protests

Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban wore black to the Golden Globes in 2013 Image: jdeeringdavis from San Francisco, CA, USA, 2013 Golden Globe Awards (8378775681), CC BY 2.0

This is the awards season in Hollywood, and like every year, millions of viewers around the world gather to see which movie will pick the most awards, and whose career will suddenly get a boost for being the new “it” girl of the moment. Yet, it is not only the movies that are being celebrated in these events. As Hollywood stars are promoting their latest features, they are also parading themselves on the red carpet, dressed in custom-made, elaborate, and yes, very expensive evening gowns, making this award season one of the most important fashion events of the year. The red carpet in recent years has become a place in which, at least for a short while, Hollywood stars can voice their opinions on the issues of the hour. Yet because of the attention to fashion, it is also a place that lends itself for making a statement through clothes.

Such will be a case this year, starting with the Golden Globe Awards, the ceremony that kick-starts the awards season. While traditions will be kept and we will again see the parade of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes, chatting with E! reporters about their fashion and promoting their latest films, these conversations may also get a political twist, channeled through fashion. As Entertainment Weekly announced on December 14, several A-list actresses are planning to wear all-black dresses, as a protest of the gender inequality so prevalent in Hollywood, and as an act of solidarity with victims of sexual harassment, which in Hollywood, as the latest allegations against Harvey Weinstein and others show, is also quite widespread. Continuing a turbulent year that was marked by partisan politics, in which many in Hollywood spoke up against social injustices, it looks like the 2018 awards season will focus its attention to gender equality issues.  

It is in this context that the choice of a political protest through clothes receives new meaning, as it both amplifies and subdues the power of fashion to convey political messages. While political movements in the past such as black power and the Anti-Vietnam War movements have made creative political use of fashion, awards ceremonies historically are not usually politicized spaces. Indeed, as celebrations of glamour, celebrities, and entertainment, politics are not usually the main trope of these events, and Hollywood has been known to reluctantly address controversial political issues, both on and off the screen. Looking to increase the profit margins in what is now a global industry, the Hollywood system wants us to sit back and enjoy the show, not to start a revolution. By taking on the red carpet, the upcoming Golden Globes protest needs to be understood as part of an ongoing process of actresses and actors (re)claiming their voice and independence from big studios and fashion conglomerates.  

It is worth remembering though, that despite efforts to provide us with a night of escapism, politics have always managed to sneak in to awards ceremonies, forcing Hollywood (and America) to acknowledge its problematic attitudes towards women, people of color, sexual minorities, and others. Oftentimes, this protest is done through snarky comments and speeches, in which stars use the stage given to them to carry a political message to the millions of people watching, as when Meryl Streep derided Donald Trump and his administration’s policies in last year’s Golden Globe speech. More famous are those who made political statements through their absence. Perhaps the most well known example is Marlon Brando, who in 1973 sent the Native American actress and activist, Sacheen Littlefeather, to decline the award for best actor in The Godfather, using the stage to protest the treatment of Native Americans in films and rally support for the American Indian Movement. Indeed, sometimes it is the silent gesture, such as the refusal to clap hands or to stand up to honor someone that speaks volumes as a form of protest, like in the case of Elia Kazan, who identified his colleagues as Communists to HUAC during the McCarthy Era, and received a cold shoulder from the audience when receiving a lifetime achievement award in 1999.

Fashion on the other hand, has not been a popular medium of protest among Hollywood stars. Although fashion plays an important role in these events, other than symbolic ribbons or pins, or the occasional banner, red carpet fashions are hardly radical or controversial. This is partly because of the meticulous star system that Hollywood has been cultivating since the 1930s, in which the star’s image and appearance were curated according to the big studios’ interests and needs, often selling a “bigger than life” image for audiences to admire and emulate. Indeed, as Bronwyn Cosgrave argues in her book about fashion and the Academy Awards, fashion played an important role in creating the “star” persona during Hollywood Golden Age, often emphasizing the image studios wanted to project over the individual tastes and inclinations of the stars themselves. The studios’ pressure to conform to a certain image might have influenced movies stars like Katherine Hepburn, who was known for her dislike of dresses, to refrain from ceremonies all together, thus avoiding the need to compromise on her personal taste. In fact, the only time Hepburn attended the Oscars, when she presented the Irvin G. Thalberg Award to producer Lawrence Weingarten in 1974, she appeared wearing pajama trousers and a Chinese jacket, staying true to her image as a fierce feminist rebel.

Indeed, it seems that women wearing suits on the red carpet has been the most powerful form of a fashionable political protest. During the late 1960s and 1970s, together with the declining influence of the big studios and the rise of the feminist movement, actresses began to use fashion on the red carpet to convey their own political messages, reclaiming their bodies and presenting themselves on their own terms. In 1969, Barbara Streisand was the first woman to receive the best actress award wearing pants, as she wore a see-through outfit designed by Arnold Scaasi. And in 1972, Jane Fonda combined her anti-war protest with her feminist politics when she appeared to the Oscars wearing a black Yves Saint Laurent suit with a Chinese collar, referencing Chairman Mao’s communist style. (The same year, Fonda sent a Vietnam vet to collect her Golden Globe award.)

This golden age of rebellious fashion however demised during the 1990s, not because of the studios but because of the entertainment press and the fashion business. Designers, stylists, and agents became invested in the stars’ short red carpet walk, calculating how actresses’ appearance will influence exposure and profits, as well as brand worth. As they meticulously constructed the stars’ appearance, economic interests took precedence, pressuring actresses to conform to a “princess ideal” that stayed away from politics, all in order to promote profits. Outside of a few examples of individual expressions, actresses again became walking hangers to popular fashion brands. Political protest, if there was any, was confined to speeches and words, not appearance.

While commercial interests still control the red carpet, in recent years more and more actresses are taking a stand and demanding their right to be taken seriously. The “Ask Her More” campaign, calling on the press to ask actresses about more than just  the clothes they wear, as well as  recent political events that have made Hollywood stars more comfortable in voicing their opinions, turned the awards season more political than in previous decades. Last year many attendees appeared at the Oscars wearing  blue ACLU ribbons, showing their support for immigrants, minorities, and women. Others emphasized their commitment to environmental issues, by wearing eco fashion made of recycled materials. The upcoming Golden Globe fashion protest, now rumored to be expanding to the entire award season, most notably to the Oscars, and to male actors too, is a part of this growing trend of politicizing the red carpet, and using the world exposure it brings to voice powerful political messages.

The Golden Globe protest, and its use of fashion to make a political statement, has already received criticism, scorning actresses for choosing a “silent protest” in a moment when longtime silences are finally being broken, or for opting for easy, non-risky stand, instead of boycotting the ceremony all together and to bear the consequences to their careers as a result of it. Actress Rose McGowan, one of the first to openly accuse Weinstein, called the entire protest hypocritical, while others argued that if actresses really want to bring an awareness to this topic, they could use the platform given them and invite activists and survivors such as  #metoo creator, Tarana Burke, as their guests.

All this criticism is of course justified. The decision to appear in a haute couture, black designer dresses to the Golden Globes probably won’t change things dramatically. Given that already today we can see black dresses on the red carpet without a statement behind them, one has to wonder how effective this protest is, beyond adding a weird color theme of red-black-gold to the awards. However, we should also not dismiss this protest entirely, treating it as another attempt to ride the wave of publicity the issue received from the media, and gaining some “extra points” for light activism while many other less famous women put their bodies (literally) on the line. While this act of sartorial protest might not be radical, it is also not as “silent” as critics make it out to be. If indeed the red carpet will be filled with black dresses, actresses could force the discussion to focus on the reason they wore the dress and not on who they wear. Although it might be too soon to tell whether this fashionable statement/protest will evolve into a “black-gown movement,” pushing difficult conversations to center stage, there is reason to believe, given the amount of discussion the act already raised, and the concrete actions that followed, that we will see much more attention to the message these actresses are trying to make. While it is doubtful that this fashion protest alone will bring down patriarchy, or put an end to gender inequality in Hollywood, actresses’ willingness to put politics on display on the red carpet, even if in a limited and curated form of haute couture, may signal a return to the days that actresses were willing to take bigger risks, either by advocating for political causes or in their fashion choices.

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Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, PhD is a historian and writer whose research examines the intersections between fashion and politics. In addition to her book, Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism, she has published on topics of fashion, advertising, and culture in both scholarly and popular venues.