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The Red Carpet Is Its Own Economy

By Vanessa Friedman

Witherspoon leads fellow actress Kate Hudson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s benefit ball, known as the Met Gala, in 2015. At Sunday’s Golden Globes, female celebrities like Witherspoon will be defining the Red Carpet agenda as part of a movement called Time’s Up, created by 300 industry members to fight sexual misconduct across the country. “This is not the time to be quiet,” Witherspoon said.
 
Erin Baiano
Witherspoon leads fellow actress Kate Hudson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s benefit ball, known as the Met Gala, in 2015. At Sunday’s Golden Globes, female celebrities like Witherspoon will be defining the Red Carpet agenda as part of a movement called Time’s Up, created by 300 industry members to fight sexual misconduct across the country. “This is not the time to be quiet,” Witherspoon said.

“For years, we’ve sold these awards shows as women, with our gowns and colours and our beautiful faces and our glamour,” actress Eva Longoria told The New York Times last week, explaining the movement among attendees to wear all-black to the Golden Globes this weekend. And she was absolutely right, to a certain extent. But the awards shows were not all that the gowns and the colours and the faces and the glamour of the women on the red carpet were selling.

They were also selling their own images, manufactured in collusion with the brands they represented, as well as the millions of magazines and websites (including, yes, our own) that recorded those images, and these women were profiting — often handsomely — from it.

To ignore that history and their own role in creating it is hypocritical and ultimately undermines the perhaps meaningful shift in that equation, which may be taking place this weekend as the women involved finally use their clothes to do more than just boost various bank accounts.

Which is, let’s be honest, part of what they have been doing for more than two decades. To understand why this change is a big deal, you need to understand the background against which it is playing out.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the red carpet became an economy unto itself — sometime in the late 20th century — but it has been a carefully cultivated marketing tool for generations now, built on an illusion into which we all buy: the largely fabricated pretence that actresses (and actors) are choosing their own gowns, and that what we see is a pure expression of their personal style.

Fact is, what we are seeing is often a look that has been bought, and created, by a global brand, or group of brands, from clothes to shoes, bags, jewels, watches and hairstyles. And the people involved have been willing to secure their financial future by selling it: swirling in it, name-checking it and otherwise promoting it.

Nina WesterveltDesigner Gabriela Hearst, left, and actress Laura Dern in Hearst’s studio in New York, in December 2017. Dern, the star of “Big Little Lies” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” picks out her red carpet looks for awards season with an eye toward raising awareness of the sexual misconduct in Hollywood.
Designer Gabriela Hearst, left, and actress Laura Dern in Hearst’s studio in New York, in December 2017. Dern, the star of “Big Little Lies” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” picks out her red carpet looks for awards season with an eye toward raising awareness of the sexual misconduct in Hollywood.

For any major awards show, many boldface nominees will have contractual relationships with fashion brands — negotiated by managers and agents — that require them to wear a gown or a tuxedo by that brand to that event. They may have input into the final product. They may even, with the help of a stylist (who is also often paid by both actor and brand), have chosen it themselves. But the idea that they chose it from all the gowns on option? The idea they — gasp! — shopped for it? Utter hooey. They chose it under very specific guidelines from a very specific selection.

It began, as most sell-your-soul initiatives do, innocently enough. As the advent of the fashion police and the worst-dressed lists began to shine a light on the occasionally terrible taste of Hollywood (remember the Demi Moore bicycle shorts ballgown?), designers seemed to provide a safe harbour of expert advice. Giorgio Armani was, famously, the first to realise the potential benefits, and became the founding father of the fashion-Hollywood axis. Soon, however, most of his peers followed. It was, largely, a mutually beneficial relationship of like-minded individuals where everyone benefited: A celebrity got a great dress, and a brand got a great-looking famous person in their dress, and we all got to ogle them.

Josh HanerA view of the red carpet in front of the Kodak Theatre as stars arrive for the 81st Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 22, 2009. Film mogul Harvey Weinstein, who helped build the awards circuit, will be gone from Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony, but his presence, and questionable legacy, will be everywhere.
A view of the red carpet in front of the Kodak Theatre as stars arrive for the 81st Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 22, 2009. Film mogul Harvey Weinstein, who helped build the awards circuit, will be gone from Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony, but his presence, and questionable legacy, will be everywhere.

It’s a measure of how uncomfortable they all are with it that not a single part of the ecosystem is willing to admit on the record how much money changes hands. They barely want to discuss it at all. In 2015, at the Vulture festival, the stylist Jessica Paster went so far as to reveal that she got “anywhere between $30,000 to $50,000,” while actresses could receive “something between $100,000 and $250,000,” but she didn’t name names.

The year before, Page Six announced Jennifer Lawrence was reportedly going to receive $15 million to $20 million for a three-year contract to represent Dior — a brand with one of the largest celeb stables in fashion (it includes Rihanna and Natalie Portman) — though the brand itself wasn’t talking. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Miu Miu are also among the most starry-eyed of the runway names.

Make no mistake: This is not changing, necessarily, because of the actresses’ decision to wear black. The same brands that would have dressed a celebrity in, say, a gold-tinged princess gown or a sequinned aqua mermaid style will still dress them this year, albeit in a different shade.