Pret-a-Reporter

Hollywood Stylists Slam Cannes' #Flatgate Controversy: "A Stupid Boys' Club Rule"

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Liberte? Egalite? Not so on the red carpet, as fashion experts analyze the aftermath of the huge Palais drama: "It's absurd."

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Though the well-heeled French pretty much invented fashion — and snobbery — they did not create the century-old black-tie dress code. That, mes amies, can be credited to the British and their formal-dress conventions of the 19th century.

Just don't tell that to the so-called lone Palais security guard, an apocryphal figure blamed by Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux on May 21 for igniting the "Flatgate" furor. The shoe fracas began when women wearing flats were denied entry to the May 19 gala screening for the Cate Blanchett-starrer Carol (at which, coincidentally, co-star Rooney Mara tripped in Brian Atwood heels). That day, at a Sicario news conference, Emily Blunt stated that she found the unwritten high-heels requirement on the Cannes red carpet "very disappointing. … We shouldn't wear high heels, anyway. I prefer Converse sneakers."

This year, Palais security was observed turning away women in ankle boots and platform sandals, and while it's always been de rigueur for men to don tuxes and bow ties, at least one was rejected for statement footwear such as sequin tuxedo slippers. To add hypocrisy to insult, the dress-code enforcement was capricious at best: Women in patent loafers and red clogs and a Chinese actor in disco-ball silver shoes were somehow allowed entry. Says stylist Jeff Kim, who, in navy suede oxfords matching his blue Dolce tux, was blocked in 2014 from climbing the stairs to meet client Zhang Ziyi: "I think the rules have become a bit more strict since I first attended" in 2012.

Manolo Blahnik Hangisi flats; $955, barneys.com

Read more Cannes: "Flatgate" Petition Demands Clarification on High Heel Requirements

Conflicted contentiousness has colored the festival — and beyond. Supermodel Karlie Kloss tells THR that before she crossed the Cannes carpet May 20 for the gala premiere of Youth, "I was tempted to be a total rebel and just rock up in some flats under a gown and nobody would know because I'm 6-foot-1." Kloss ended up erring on the side of elegance, donning blisteringly high black stilettos. "Heels lengthen the leg and flat­ter the gowns," explains veteran stylist Cristina Ehrlich (Penelope Cruz and Tina Fey are clients) of the aesthetic advantages of footwear's towers of power. Yet Ehrlich does not dispute flat-(out) elegance even as she supports "the formality that heels give big carpets such as Cannes. … There's still always an uber-stylish woman who has the elegance to pull off a flat. She's usually lean and on the taller side or a pixie like Michelle Williams or Natalie Portman."

Jerome C. Rousseau Gall mini-block heels; $495, on jeromecrousseau.com September 2015

Blunt's longtime stylist Jessica Paster agrees, and though she herself prefers high heels — "I think heels are sexier and prettier for the red carpet" — she's pro-choice at the same time: "It is insane that's a rule in Cannes, a stupid boys' club rule." New York shoe designer Paul Andrew, who's shod Maggie Gyllenhall, Keira Knightley, Michelle Dockery and Anna Kendrick, puts it as strongly: "Cannes is about glamour, ease and sophistication, so to me it's completely outmoded, and honestly, more than a little sexist to think a woman can only be glamorous and 'appropriate' wearing sky-high heels. Modern fashion isn't about rules of dress: It's about using clothes and accessories to enhance a woman's beauty and confidence. As one of the most fashion-forward red carpets, one would hope that mentality would be applauded, not turned away." Angelina Jolie's stylist Jen Rade is just as adamant: "It's absurd. A dress code is fine — but heel height is not the determining factor in dressiness. Cannes is a film festival that supposedly supports artistic expression, so it's not appropriate to force those same creative people to dress in a way someone else deems dressy enough." In other words, leave fashion policing to those who already know fashion, says Penny Lovell, stylist to Anne Hathaway and Rose Byrne: "I think a woman should wear whatever footwear is appropriate for them and the event. High or flat, personal preference cannot be mandated."

Nicholas Kirkwood flats with metal and gems; $875, saks.com.

Read more Cannes: Festival Stumbles Over "Flatgate" Controversy

To be fair, by the end of the festival, Fremaux did protest that the Flatgate's fuss was based on rumors, that there never has been a high-heels policy and that Cannes was being unaccountably squashed under the heel of scrutiny, unlike the Oscars. "There is no official dress code for the Oscars," clarifies fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave, who just attended Cannes for the 20th time. "Dress codes are not set in stone. That said, the French are different. They stand on ceremony. [But] the rules of elegance have totally shifted." British shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood adds: "Times are changing. As long as you look incredible and your flats look incredible, that's what counts."

De la Fressange wore Roger Vivier sandals to the Cannes premiere of 'Irrational Man' on May 15, four days before Flatgate broke.

But the flats have to be standout to stand up on the red carpet. "Ines de la Fressange, my numero uno style icon, epitomizes how a flat can look so red-carpet approved," says Ehrlich about the French fashion icon who, as ambassador for Roger Vivier, donned the chicest Vivier flats to the Palais for many years — and certainly no one stopped her. ("We all know that Roger Vivier makes a beautiful flat that is more elegant than some [heels]," said Frances McDormand at a THR-Kering Women in Motion Panel on May 22 at Cannes.) Paster recommends "gorgeous" flats by Jimmy Choo and Jerome C. Rousseau: "I would certainly put them on the red carpet."

Laughs L.A.-based shoe designer Jerome C. Rousseau about Flatgate: "When I first read about it, I thought it was weird gossip. It's not difficult to design chic, sexy flats. They're as chic as heels, if not chicer. The question of heel height is irrelevant. If you cannot wear a high heel elegantly — and some can't — you shouldn't wear it. I tell actresses not to wear my shoes if they can't walk in them." Number among them the 5-foot-9 Gyllenhaal, who confesses to THR: "I'm really tall, so I never got good at heels. I've totally worn flats on the red carpet."

Kloss, at Cannes in 2014 in Repetto sandals, is a fan of the brand’s slippers: “I danced ballet my whole life, so now I wear them everywhere."

See more Cannes: 10 Luxe Flats to Fool the Festival's Fashion Guards

Chic celebrities have been wearing evening flats at premieres for years — think Audrey Hepburn in Ferragamo ballerina flats in the '50s — even before they became a high-fashion trend in 2014, when Emma Thompson proudly wore flat Christian Louboutins to the SAG Awards. Sofia Coppola often has donned ballet flats to awards shows, and Alexa Chung and Shailene Woodley make red-carpet flats look sexy. Jimmy Choo creative director Sandra Choi cites Uma Thurman,"who wore Jimmy Choo silver flats a few years ago. She looked amazing, and part of that was because she embraced her own style."

Ultimately, though, when it comes to heel height, there's a choice to be made. "Actresses and their teams may not want to hear this," says fashion commentator George Kotsiopoulos, "but they know it's true: Most gowns photograph better with heels. It's a conundrum. Wear a flat and look schlumpy, or take a stand against a sexist ruling."

Consider Christian Louboutin's famous quote: "There is a heel height that is too high to walk in, certainly. But who cares? You don't have to walk in high heels." The problem is, in Cannes, you do have to walk — and climb — while dealing with lengthy fabric. "I had a much more pleasant time at Cannes this year because I wasn't in pain," admits historian Cosgrave, who wore Manolo Blahnik glitter flats to the Carol premiere and was admitted without fuss. "In the end, I was probably a much nicer person. It was probably better for my career." As Marilyn Monroe so famously said, "Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world." Of course, she wasn't talking about flats. But she was talking about choice.

At the 2014 SAGs, Thompson donned Christian Louboutin flats, of which she said: "They’re so beautiful and I’m so happy."

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