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The 2020 Oscars: Fashion with a Voice

The 2020 Oscars was a night in which history was made, with Parasite being the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, and the animated short Hair Love proving that a celebration of natural hair can be worthy of critical acclaim. Janelle Monáe shouted out to artists of colour in her opening song; Joaquin Phoenix advocated the need for compassion in a moving acceptance speech; Billie Eilish gave a haunting rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ for the ‘In Memoriam’ segment. It was a night of firsts, the usual dose of political statements, and a new conception of what kind of film can win Best Picture.

On the fashion front, however, it wasn’t quite so revolutionary. Many of those in attendance seemed to be playing it safe, wearing looks that in no way reflected the best of recent haute couture collections or indeed said anything significant at all. Other awards shows this season saw celebrities taking risks with their looks, such as Lily-Rose Depp’s entirely-lace catsuit layered with a sheer camisole dress at the BAFTAs, or Zendaya’s Tom Ford breastplate in hot pink at the Critics’ Choice Awards, two interesting, innovative takes on red-carpet fashion. Being the most high-profile award show of the season, it wouldn’t be amiss to expect the pinnacle of glamour and wow-factor from the Oscars red carpet, but the looks this year largely failed to impress. Even those who did try to make a statement with their clothes, such as Natalie Portman and her cape with the names of female directors snubbed for awards embroidered in the side, didn’t achieve the desired effect – Portman’s look was labelled ‘deeply offensive’ by prominent activist Rose McGowan, something that has certainly problematized the look whether or not the criticisms are fair.

Fashion’s ability to speak is not something we should think of as surprising or in any way “new”. Clothes have been used to denote power, express individuality, and influence societal values since the dawn of time. For celebrities, fashion is another way to communicate with the public and give us a little something of themselves that we might not otherwise get from their creative work. Ariana Grande’s Giambattista Valli grey tulle dress at the Grammys last month, for example, demonstrated an ability to engage with haute couture fashion and play with recent trends, and the amount of media coverage it received was telling of its resonance with the public. Stars such as Gwendoline Christie and Billy Porter, who are known to be experimental on the red carpet and take their looks seriously, gain positive coverage for it and give us something memorable to associate them with. And while that may not be the main objective of awards shows in general, it can’t be said that it’s of no importance.

So this year, the stars who really stood out on that front were those who did something a bit different, or showed themselves to be using fashion to make the public think. One of the ways this was achieved was by “upcycling” clothes – re-wearing old outfits instead of contributing to environmental waste and debuting an entirely new design. Jane Fonda, who was arrested five times last year for protesting against climate change as part of her “fire-drill Fridays”, re-wore her dress from the 2014 Cannes red carpet. Elizabeth Banks dug back even further into her wardrobe, wearing a dress she’d first worn at the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party in 2004. In an Instagram post, she wrote: ‘it’s gorgeous and it fits … so why not wear it again!?’

While from a fashion perspective the looks as a whole may have been slightly disappointing, seeing celebrities advocate causes they’re passionate about in the form of their clothes is undoubtedly interesting and meaningful. Stars such as Kaitlyn Dever and Léa Seydoux wore dresses by Louis Vuitton in collaboration with the Red Carpet Green Dress organization, whose mission it is to get designers to create 100% sustainable looks. Saoirse Ronan’s Gucci dress was an innovative take on “upcycling”, with her black satin bodice being made of excess fabric from her gown at the BAFTAs earlier this month. Margot Robbie’s navy Chanel dress was entirely vintage, having come from the brand’s 1994 haute couture collection. And Olivia Colman, winner of last year’s Best Actress award, wore a dress crafted from a sustainable velvet by famously eco-friendly brand Stella McCartney.

The fashion industry may have a lot more work to do in facing up to its contribution towards environmental pollution, but stars using their platform to raise awareness of the issue is a great step in the right direction, and more of them should be doing it. The overall trends we can spot at high-profile events like the Oscars tell us a lot about the directions we’re moving in as a society, and the more in-tune celebrities are with what the world needs, the better.

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