Award-Show Fashion Is Terribly Tame. Why Are We Still So Obsessed?

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
Jan. 27 2014 11:47 PM

Frockophany!

Even the Grammy gowns are tame. Why are we still so obsessed with award-show fashion?

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Where is the adventurous awards fashion of yesteryear? (Pictured: Björk, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Juliette Binoche.)

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Reuters & Getty Images.

Last week a Martian took a wrong turn and landed on a pouf in my living room. He had many questions about life on Earth, most specifically about “awards season.”

“All this fuss over a few frocks. What gives?”

I started to explain the whole freebie system to him. This did not go well. He became deeply perplexed.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

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“Why would designers fling free gowns at the only people on Earth who actually need them, and can afford them?” he asked, not unreasonably. He petulantly crossed his little green legs and demanded an answer.

Unable to furnish him with one, I opted instead to explain how we, the gown-obsessed Earthlings, arrived at this point. I gave him the following red-carpet history lesson:

In the old days, I explained, a nominated actress would, a day or two before the ceremony, nip out to a dress shop and snag herself a little sparkly something or other. Back then Hollywood style was random and show-bizzy, very much the way it was depicted by Woody Allen in the movie Annie Hall.

“Brain-dead bimbos wafting about at pool parties in hopelessly out-of-date chiffon pant suits and patio caftans, right?” asked the Martian, displaying an impressive familiarity with Mr. Allen’s oeuvre.

“Totally!” I confirmed.

In the late ’80s, I explained, this situation began to change: Fashion and celebrity began to flirt with each other. By the ’90s the two copulated … and the red-carpet designer devil-baby was born. The fashionification of Hollywood began in earnest.

It was fun at first. Uma wore Prada. Björk wore a dead swan. (The Martian loved this particular notion and demanded to see pictures.) The South Park blokes arrived in designer drag rip-offs. Kim Basinger even designed her own dress, a one-sleeved concoction, if I remember correctly. Every red carpet was infused with an element of informality and groovy high-fashion surprise.

“What was your favorite frock from this period?” asked the Martian, fixing his one eyeball on me with a piercing gaze.

“It’s a toss-up between Nicole Kidman’s chartreuse opium denizen Dior dress, circa 1997, and Juliette Binoche circa 2001 in her Jean Paul Gaultier Edwardian maîtresse outfit with the pearly necklaces and kinky boots. Heaven, right?” The Martian agreed.

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Nicole Kidman in Dior 1997, Jennifer Lawrence in Dior 2013.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images.

Unfortunately, I explained, this period of stylish provocation and haute-couture insouciance was short-lived. Why? Because … drumroll … of the Internet.

The Martian gasped.

I described how, virtually overnight, we saw the creation of the biggest peanut gallery of all time. Suddenly a trillion billion unsophisticated voices were opining about what the celebs wore, and how they wore it. Everyone became a fashion expert. The level of interest was astonishing, as was the level of vitriol. Some commentators have pinned this shift on the television commentary of Joan Rivers. But her hilarious hyperbolic shredding was always comedic and intrinsically good-natured. Think Borscht Belt. Her intention was only to stop us from getting bored, and to prevent the celebs from becoming too grandiose. The sneakily anonymous Internet, on the other hand, provides a Petri dish for the worst kind of malevolent take-down.

“Who knew chiffon could unleash such fervor and also such loathing?” noted the curious Martian with a shudder.

These torrents of alternating delirium and venom had, I explained, a very unfortunate effect: Suddenly the actresses—I still cannot bring myself to say actors—became very self-conscious and guarded. These gun-shy thesbots began to avoid any frock which might invite mockery. The result: The red-carpet parade lost its sizzle and turned into Saturday night at the country club. Old-school goddess gowns became the norm. Perfection and conventional simplicity was the goal. Even the Grammys red carpet now looks formal and conventional. Those straight-from-the-runway eccentric couture flourishes are a thing of the past. Whether bustier, halter, or one-shoulder, every awards dress is now unimpeachably classic.

The Martian scratched his lumpy green head.

“Why, given the lack of eccentricity or surprise, does the general public continue to be obsessed with Oscar gowns? Surely this return to staid, conventional goddess styles could only hold the rabble’s attention for so long! And why, given the celebs’ unwillingness to wear anything outré, do the fashion houses continue to dress the celebs for free? How does it serve their respective brands to be included in a parade of frocks which, though elegant and appropriate, are virtually indistinguishable from one another? Without the celeb’s willingness to ID her frock verbally, we would never be able to guess the designer. Right?”

Lupita Nyong'o
Lupita Nyong'o arrives at the 2014 Golden Globe Awards Party.

Photo by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

“Mr. Martian,” I said, grabbing him by his spongy narrow shoulders, “You and I need to make peace with these contradictions and inconsistencies. We are out of step with the prevailing opinion. The celeb-obsessed public seems to prefer the classic wedding-y look of, for example, Jennifer Lawrence Dior circa 2013 to the more challenging Nicole Kidman 1997 dragon-lady Dior previously referenced. The lack of intriguing or experimental frocks has done nothing to dim the ardor of the peanut gallery. Au contraire! This year the frock-ophany is louder than ever. The plaudits and the pannings started right after New Years and will continue through the Oscars. It’s all about love and hate. God forbid anyone should have a neutral position!”

The Martian then told me that he shared my nostalgia for those intrepid frock-wearers of yore, but that he’d noted one happy bright spot among today’s cautious stars: “this lovely lady called Lupita Nyong’o.”

I concurred: “Once in a blue moon a truly original charismatic natural beauty walks onto the red carpet and transcends the borrowed frocks and the mishegas. Vive Lupita! Goddess!”

Before blasting off through a skylight in my man-cave, the Martian asked me if I could get him a date with Miss Nyong’o. He said it would be fine if she came wearing jeans and a T-shirt. No gown necessary. An 8-by-10 glossy would also hit the spot. I said I would see what I could do.