Pret-a-Reporter

Can Reese Witherspoon and Other #AskHerMore Feminists Still Accept Free Gowns?

Stylists, a fashion commentator and a luxury-brand exec on a movement that sneers at Hollywood's implicit deal: gratis gowns in exchange for money or mentions.

This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It all started when, for the 2014 Oscars, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, created a campaign as a way to publicize The Representation Project, her advocacy group fighting gender stereotypes. #AskHerMore called on the media to question red-carpet walkers about topics other than which designers made their gown. Actresses picked up on the thread, speaking out on the 2014 Emmys red carpet against getting treated like fashion dolls.

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By the 2014 Golden Globes, Elisabeth Moss was giving E!’s “mani cam” the finger. At the 2014 SAG Awards, Cate Blanchett admonished a cameraman who was panning up and down her Givenchy dress: “You wouldn’t do that to the guys!” And 2015 Globes co-host Amy Poehler fanned the flames by posting about #AskHerMore on her Smart Girls blog. By the time the 2015 Academy Awards rolled around, Shonda Rhimes, Lena Dunham, Maria Shriver andRobin Roberts had tweeted the hashtag, while on Oscar morning, Reese Witherspoon suggested questions she’d rather be asked (“What accomplishment are you most proud of?”). Even fashion darling Julianne Moore recently admitted of the mani cam, “It’s humiliating!”

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Not surprisingly, fashion designers providing free couture dresses don't exactly feel the same way. "Because it has now become a thing where people spend months and make five dresses for them," Tom Ford has said. "If you wear one of those dresses and a company has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars or has paid you, then yeah, you say who it is." In other words, ladies who look like a million bucks (and have been paid that much or more from deals with brands like Dior or Chanel) can't expect not to be asked about what they're wearing.

Notes Hollywood stylist Cristina Ehrlich of awards-season red carpets: "These women in many cases are being paid a great deal of money to wear these dresses. It's serious business. Is this the venue to get into baby seals or Save the Whales? I'm not sure it fits." One vice president of a major European fashion house asks: "If you asked these actresses straight out, 'Which is more important to you, the money you're paid to wear these dresses or talking about issues?' They'd take the money any time, believe me."

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Stylist Karla Welch suggests a two-pronged response: "How about ask her both? Feminism and turning it out on the carpet shouldn't be mutually exclusive. There needed to be a backlash to mani cams and, to be honest, there could be some better journalism from fashion experts." Outgoing Fashion Police host Kathy Griffin agrees: "Any actress can choose to steer the conversation. The worst [media] can do is nervously cut to commercial. I support any movement that gives women increased power from where their only recourse was just to wear Spanx and smile. Men, however, should be asked exclusively about their penis size."

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