#She Speaks Up

How The Red Carpet, Now 100 Years Old, Is Giving Voice To Women’s Movements

Met Gala 2023 Red Carpet, Best Looks At Met Gala 2023
Rolling out the feminism when all eyes are on you

Like everyone else, I waited with bated breath to watch the first looks of the Met Gala 2023. Not for nothing is Anna Wintour’s fundraiser for New York’s Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute called the greatest fashion party of all time.

Perhaps it out-glams the Academy Awards, simply because Wintour ensures her themes have guests dressing up like it’s a fancy-dress party. This, even before the invention of Instagram and its look-at-me temper.

This year’s theme was controversial from the time it was announced as an homage to Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld’s interviews have been known for outrageous, offensive quips that may have been intended to make fashion seem to be an exclusive, demanding mistress.

Today, they are no short of inappropriate. Much digital ink has been spent excoriating Lagerfeld while painting him to be a reprehensible designer. Except that the man’s towering legacy as a revivalist of dying brands such as Chanel and Fendi have seem to have saved him. Lagerfeld’s work ethic was that of a never-say-die German engine; he helmed Fendi for almost 55 years and Chanel for 35, besides creating several collections simultaneously each year for these two luxury houses, as well as his own privately owned namesake label.

He was barely human, more of an industry in himself. The paeans kept coming – the pearls, the gloves, the favourite cat, the camellias and what have you.

Met Gala 2023 Red Carpet As Women’s Movement

The red carpet has long been a space where women play the dress-up game, feed the hungry cameras and play the game of objectification to sell themselves or a film or a luxury label. All of this is true. But the red carpet also became the place where women got paid – to sell a film or a designer dress or bag a contract. And nothing empowers a woman more than money does.

A few female actors then decided to play by the rug’s rules. They started a movement called #AskHerMore than just the dress she’s wearing because the penguin-tuxedoed male actors were never asked about their attire. Jennifer Aniston, Julianne Moore and Reese Witherspoon were the front-runners of this stand.

In recent years, the red carpet has become a place for women to have their voices heard and their protests showcased.

On the Cannes red carpet of 2015, a few women were turned away for not wearing high heels. The outrage this trying dress code caused reverberated all over the world. The next year, Susan Sarandon showed up in one of her signature pantsuits and a pair of pointy-toe flats. And changed the rules for women’s footwear at glamorous events.

In 2017, the #MeToo movement shook the entertainment and corporate world, with more and more women coming forward and sharing their sexual harassment stories, buoyed by the collective assertion. At the Golden Globes of 2018, almost every celebrity wore in black as a symbol of contempt for sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. This became an incredible unified use of clothing as a protest symbol. Female celebrities such as the iconic Meryl Streep also began to wear a black badge saying #TimesUp asking for equal pay.

The red carpet is 100 years old. The first red carpet of note was at the film premiere of 1922’s ‘Robin Hood’. The Academy Awards started using the red carpet in 1961 but began broadcasting celebrities only in 1964. In 1994, Joan Rivers famously began “covering” the red carpet for the Golden Globes and asked the question “Who are you wearing” turning the crimson mat into a giant marketing strategy for luxury labels.

The first star whose clothes caught attention at an awards ceremony was Barbra Streisand in 1969. When she won Best Actress for Funny Girl she wore a pantsuit on stage. Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ was just three years old, so a woman wearing trousers was still very rare. But Streisand’s see-through shirt ensured all eyes were on her, which the actor braved with a little humour.

Before Kim Kardashian, there was Cher. The singer has been serving looks since the 1960s. She wore punk, showgirl, ethnic, and even an Indian princess once. Her always fabulous wardrobe made for compulsive viewing of the red carpet and she made sure she didn’t disappoint.

Julia Roberts was not always perfectly polished at awards ceremonies. In 1990 she wore an ill-fitting men’s suit (so what if it was Giorgio Armani?) when she came to collect the Best Actress for Steel Magnolias. Roberts would later say she was going through a phase where she generally didn’t give a fig about what people thought of her. This was also before luxury houses had started paying stylists and movie stars to plug their clothes.

The most famous red-carpet dress till date belongs to Elizabeth Hurley, who showed up for 1994’s Four Weddings and A Funeral in a borrowed Versace more-safety-pins-less-dress, catapulting her own career as well as that of the designer’s into a dizzying stratosphere (fun films and a giant Estee Lauder contract). To think, Hurley wasn’t even part of the movie. Her boyfriend Hugh Grant became a huge star after the film, but he showed up looking like something the cat dragged into the house.

It’s said that Hurley’s dress marked a cultural shift and the beginning of celebrity culture on red carpets. This is what the marriage of fashion and a strong woman can do.

Views expressed by the author are their own.