Should Red Carpet Fashion Be a Thing?
As a fashion lover who basically steers clear of pop culture (a feat of sorts!) awards season red carpets, normally associated with glitz and glamour and countless attendant rankings, instead provide me with material for some deep sartorial soul searching. Generally, I'm interested in the fashion if it's good, or at least interested in what the fashion is saying about our times if it isn't. But I'm decidedly less interested in the fame. Or more precisely, I'm less interested in fashion that's only interesting because of the fame. Are you still with me?
A few days ago, Vanessa Friedman, one of the voices in fashion I most admire, wrote an interesting piece on Kim Kardashian's strategic manipulation of social media. In it, she points straight at our "worship of the intertwined pillars of fashion and fame." Oh how I love thee, Vanessa Friedman. My question is: in the resulting double helix, can we disentangle style from celebrity?
In the past few years, as I have sought to cleanse my relationship with fashion, I've effectively cut out celebrity x fashion news. Of course, I get it vicariously because, to Ms. Friedman's point, fashion and fame are a package deal now. But I no longer seek it out, and accordingly, it's doesn't take up any significant part of my fashion bandwidth. I've carefully carved out my own little fashion universe, and I'm very protective of what I let in.
If Vogue covers represent a visual depiction of what fashion values today, the shift from featuring models on covers to featuring famous actresses, singers, Instagirls, and so forth says it all. Putting Kim Kardashian on the cover in the April 2014 issue was as resounding a statement as can be made on fashion in the age of celebrity: fashion is willing to go wherever our eyes are looking.
The backlash to that cover was strange to me. In a way, we collectively made fun of it, threw up our arms, cancelled our subscriptions, lost our respect for Vogue, and then after all that, we just kept on staring- at Kim, at celebrity, at the flashing lights (that one was for you, Kanye). And we continue to perpetuate the exact behavior that Vogue was mirroring back at us by putting Kim on the cover in the first place: we keep elevating the celebrity to the status of fashion icon, whether that status is deserved or not.
Back to the red carpet.
In my teenagedom, if you asked me to name a fashion icon, I would have undoubtedly said Jennifer Aniston. Those were the Brad Pitt years, and the Friends years, and her particular brand of cool was everything I thought was worth aspiring for.
Many years later, after untold images of hers intimately shaped my conception of what personal style actually meant, Jennifer Anniston said this:
I love clothes, but I don't know what to put on myself, let alone others. I have a lot of help getting dressed.
That felt honest. Real. But a part of me felt disillusioned that a style icon of mine in my formative years, one whose outfits were etched into my still-developing brain, admitted it wasn't even her style to begin with that I admired. So, what exactly was it that I had been admiring all along? Her clothes or her life? Her fashion or her fame?
The same can be said for any red carpet mega moment: Gwyneth Paltrow in pink at the Oscars; Angelina Jolie's side leg (and for anything Kate Middleton wears for that matter). When someone famous wears something, are we really staring at the clothes or the person wearing them? The red carpet can make it hard to tell.
And here's where a little ownership on our parts (as fashion aficionados) is called for. A red carpet is as good a place as we might have culturally to project our fantasies onto. That's not hard to do. Celebrity carries with it so many of the things our society conditions us to strive for- beauty, money, clout, exclusive places to go, luxurious clothes to wear. But the cult of celebrity in and of itself is not synonymous with good fashion. Furthermore, it's certainly not a means of necessarily getting closer to a healthier cultural relationship with the art of personal style. In fact, some of those celebrities that deserve praise for using their clothes to say something bold on the red carpet (see: Tilda Swindon, Solange Knowles, Björk) are the very ones who customarily end up on worst-dressed lists. All celebrities have fame; some celebrities get fashion. If we can look beyond the bright lights of the red carpet, perhaps we can better discern the former from the latter.