Hollywood has had a lot to say for itself recently. Meryl Streep, a 20-time Academy Award nominee, riled the Trump White House with her Golden Globes speech. Tom Ford, who directed Nocturnal Animals, refuses to dress the first lady. George Clooney says of Donald Trump: “I didn’t vote for him, I don’t support him, I don’t think he’s the right choice.” Natalie Portman, meanwhile, took to the podium at last month’s Women’s March in Los Angeles to call for a women’s revolution against the US president. Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair, the publication of record for the west coast entertainment industry, has pulled no punches in its editorial attacks on Trump. In the new America, Hollywood has become the opposition.
As a result, this Oscars night could look unusual long before the speeches begin. The red carpet rivals the best picture announcement for the biggest part of Oscars night. This is a mufti moment for the actors – a rare chance to play themselves rather than their characters, to remind the public of their beauty or their magnetism or their sweetness, or whatever it is that gets their target audience on side – so what they wear matters.
The subtext of a peaked or a shawl-collar tuxedo lapel is not ever going to set the internet alight with debate, so the relative uniformity of men in black tie means that focus falls on the women.
Which is intriguing because, with the status of women being a flashpoint of Trump’s inauguration period, how the heroines of America’s silver screen portray themselves on their biggest night of the year will be as fascinating to observe as it is unpredictable.
The most direct red carpet political messaging of the awards season so far came at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards, where Simon Helberg, star of The Big Bang Theory, channelled the placard meme of 2017 by holding a sign on the red carpet that read “Refugees Welcome”, while his wife, Jocelyn Towne, had written “Let Them In” on her chest. Meanwhile, Evan Rachel Wood and Alia Shawkat have worn elegant trouser suits on the red carpet, and have said that doing so is a political choice that reaffirms the right to a female identity beyond cookie-cutter femininity. Whether such boldness will continue at the Oscars, a night when the Hollywood elite are addressing not just the choir stalls of the industry but the world, will be instructive.
Style is a matter not just of slogan T-shirts, but of tone. The new tone in Hollywood is bold, punchy and engaged in the hand-to-hand combat version of public relations that Trump’s rule by Twitter has unleashed. If the red carpet were to retreat into its default golden age of Hollywood classicism – curvy, corseted metallic frocks that make each nominee look like a cross between an Oscar statuette and a homecoming prom queen – this would surely undermine the serious intent of Hollywood’s new mission. A shift from soft metallics to bright colour or stark monotone, and experimentation with silhouettes beyond the draped-column gown, would, in effect, represent a policy shift. Ruth Negga’s angular, high-necked gown at the Golden Globes, designed by Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière – himself a modernising influence on the red carpet – may prove to have been a sign of gowns to come.
Natalie Portman, nominated in the best actress category for her role in Jackie, has taken an unusual route on the awards trail so far. Far from distancing her persona from her character, the heavily pregnant Portman has blurred it, with dresses that channel the first among first ladies herself. The vintage Prada gown she chose for the SAG awards had a 1960s air, from the bateau neckline and bracelet-length sleeves to the strong yellow, which seemed to have stepped straight out of a Slim Aarons photograph. In rising above the current raucousness and referencing instead a blue-chip icon of America’s glory days, Portman channels the most famous of Michelle Obama’s parting words: “When they go low, we go high.”
The Oscars red carpet is a cultural snapshot of our feminine ideal that has global reach. Even small recalibrations – a less breathlessly corseted waist or softly pastel palette – have meaning. But race and ethnicity will also be key issues. After last year’s backlash against the overwhelmingly white lineup, the nominations for the 2017 awards are notable for their diversity. This is reflected in the best actress and supporting actress categories. Negga, Naomie Harris, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis will all walk the red carpet this year – and if the fashion industry is serious in its intention to shore up racial equality, it will be falling over itself to make these women the stars of the Oscars catwalk.
Whether what happens on the red carpet has any weight in the real world will always be debatable. But in the age of fake news, Hollywood storytelling is perhaps more relevant than ever. And the story of the Oscars begins not on the podium, but on the red carpet.