This Golden Globes red carpet was not a fashion show, but a show of power. The cynics dismissed a black dress code as a lazy form of protest against harassment and gender inequality, but when it happened, many of those watching felt the impact. With an almost airtight blackout and a sea of Time’s Up pins, the images from this year’s ceremony spoke of women in terms of power and solidarity rather than glamour or competition.
This was a dazzling kind of blackout. There was Angelina Jolie in feather-trimmed black tulle, arm-in-arm with her teenage son Pax sporting his Time’s Up pin. Reese Witherspoon and Emma Stone stood (bare) shoulder to shoulder with Billie Jean King, founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, whom Stone portrays in Battle of the Sexes. Claire Foy and Mat Smith, stars of The Crown, wore matching tuxedos; Laura Dern, in black Armani, stood with Monica Ramirez, a campaigner who fights sexual violence against farmworkers.
This was not so much a silent protest as a multimedia one. Natalie Portman inserted two pointed words – “all-male” – into the list of best director nominees she read out on stage; she also, like many other female attendees, chose to be photographed on the red carpet arm in arm with other women, rather than squired by her husband. Those images of groups of women – Portman with Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer and America Ferrara; Eva Longoria clutching Reese Witherspoon with one hand and reaching for Salma Hayek with the other – have a simple visual power which will reach a different demographic than those who stayed up to toast the night’s speeches.
Meryl Streep, who planted a red-carpet kiss on Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was one of many who chose to wear black and to bring a female activist as a date. This, along with the “reverse-Handmaiding” effect of the black dresses, applied a Bechdel-test rigour to the notion, apparently revolutionary in Hollywood, that women might have a significance beyond their status as lust objects or trophy wives. Many male attendees swapped their white shirts for black, and thrust their Time’s Up pins eagerly toward every camera. Caleb McLaughlin, 16-year-old star of Stranger Things, looked particularly dapper in a black polo neck under his tux. But this night wasn’t really about them.
Most actors chose relatively sober silhouettes. Belted and structured dresses were a theme, while froth and frills were notable by their absence, at least at leadership level among the power players. Exaggerated thigh-high splits and ultra-low necklines were less in evidence. The post-Weinstein fallout has coloured every nuance of life in Hollywood, and red carpet interviewers found themselves gingerly side-stepping the issue of who looked sexy. The unspoken conundrum of this red carpet was whether a glitzily saucy black dress was as in-step with the dress code as, say, Gal Gadot’s tuxedo-inspired Tom Ford gown. There are complexities as to how sexiness can be safely handled. But just as everyone agrees it should still be perfectly possible for two consensual adults who fancy each other in a workplace to find their way to romance, so do we know that it should be quite straightforward for an actor who chooses to wear a sexy dress on the red carpet to do so. It’s just that we haven’t quite figured out how to unpick this stuff, yet. After all, as the aphorism sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde says, “everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
The designer Prabal Gurung, who dressed Kerry Washington and Issa Rae, told Harper’s Bazaar during the run-up to the event that fashion was “proving it can be an important factor in communicating powerful values and ideals … when future generations look back on this watershed moment, I hope they will realise that fashion served a crucial role in conveying this powerful message, and that fashion is no longer just about beauty and glamour.”
As the great Yves Saint Laurent, master of the LBD, put it, “a woman in a black dress is a pencil stroke”. What was written on the red carpet was clear: for the women of Hollywood, business as usual is not an option.