Red Carpet in the Age of Feminism: "It's All So Double-Edged"

Red Carpet in the Age of Feminism - Illo - H 2016
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

The step-and-repeat business yields seven-figure paydays at the same time its stars wage war against objectification and scrutiny.

Before her twitter was hacked, exposing virulent racism on social media, Leslie Jones was worried about finding something to wear to the Ghostbusters premiere. (Ah, simpler times.) After Jones tweeted that fashion designers didn't want to dress her, Christian Siriano came to her rescue. "I was happy to help," says the New York-based designer and Project Runway winner. "We are always open to anyone."

All summer, celebrities have waged social media war against body-shaming, objectification and scrutiny: Alicia Keys faced down critics of her makeup-free look, Jennifer Aniston wrote an essay on being fed up with tabloid rumors, and Ariel Winter responded with "Let me live" to haters of her body-baring Instagrams. Hillary Clinton's candidacy has brought women's issues into focus, galvanizing Lena Dunham, Chloe Grace Moretz, Katy Perry and others to campaign for pay parity and gender equality. Clinton's treatment during the Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7 by Matt Lauer — who repeatedly interrupted her far more than he did Donald Trump, in a manner perceived as sexist — sparked demands for female moderators. Even more sobering, the Roger Ailes scandal at Fox and the resurfacing of Nate Parker's college rape trial highlight that women still face the specter of sexual harassment and assault. "It has come to a crescendo," says stylist Tanya Gill, who dresses Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Niecy Nash. "This summer has changed everything, with equal pay for equal work, more women college graduates than men and more women CEOs than ever. … For the red carpet, I can't help thinking things should change, too." But with so much at stake, should the red carpet — where women are treated ornamentally almost more than any place outside a fashion runway — even exist anymore?

At the 2015 SAG Awards, Julianne Moore refused to preen for the mani-cam.

The question of whether the red carpet is sexist has been part of the conversation for a while. In 2014, filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom founded the Representation Project and the #AskHerMore campaign, urging journalists to ask women questions beyond, "Who are you wearing?" The movement gained steam at the Emmys in 2014 and at the SAG Awards in 2015, where several actresses used the hashtag on social media and Aniston, Julianne Moore and Reese Witherspoon refused to put their hands in E!'s infamous mani-cam. In recent years, it has become fashionable to knock the fashion and beauty industries: Kerry Washington, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lawrence have called out magazines for retouching their images; Amy Schumer criticized Glamour for including her in a "plus size" issue and told People that the Met Gala (dubbed the Oscars of fashion) felt like "a punishment."

But actresses have to reconcile their feminist leanings with their financial motives. As part of their multifaceted commercial contracts with brands that can include ad campaigns and line items about wearing the label a specific number of times on the red carpet and in the front row at fashion shows, and even in social media posts, actresses are obligated to promote the designer clothing and jewelry they're wearing. "There is a lucrative opportunity to partner with brands alongside your day job," says Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models, who has worked on such branding deals as Liv Tyler for Givenchy and Milla Jovovich for Prada. "In this day and age, when there is so much content out there, $15 million roles are getting harder to land."

"What I am is fed up," wrote Aniston in July on the scrutiny of her appearance.

Depending on the contract (LVMH and Kering brands are the most coveted), an actress can make up to seven figures annually from a single fashion and beauty deal. "Hollywood and fashion have always gone hand in hand," says Melissa Rivers, co-host of E!'s Fashion Police. "It's a catch-22: It is sexist in a way, but women and actresses also use it to showcase themselves. It's all so double-edged. I've had very famous actresses come up to me and say, 'I'm one of their spokespeople. You have to tee me up. If you don't ask me who the designer is, I'm going to say it anyway, and the shoes and jewelry and bags.' It's a business. And for designers, it's their biggest advertising opportunity of the year." Stylist (and former Fashion Police panelist) George Kotsiopoulous agrees: "Actresses and designers need each other. An actress needs to be wearing fabulous clothes to get high-profile press and beauty contracts. So you are in a sense whoring yourself out to these designers to get ahead in your career. If you don't want to play that game, then you need to buy your own clothes." He adds that actresses "want it both ways: They don't want anyone to comment on their bodies, but then they pose on magazine covers naked and represent beauty brands that pay them millions of dollars, that put out fake images that are supposed to be aspirational."

Even Representation Project's Newsom admits, "There is so much power in the partnership between the fashion and entertainment industries, we're not going to see the step-and-repeat go away anytime soon. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't expand the conversation on the red carpet beyond a woman's sexuality," she says. "It's #AskHerMore, not ask her something totally different." As for women in Hollywood hindering gender equality by getting in bed with fashion and beauty labels, Newsom says: "I want to turn it away from women are to blame. Male or female, there's power in presenting oneself well."

Fashion, feminism and finance all can profit if, for one, all shapes and sizes are celebrated. And there's something to be said for Hollywood's role in recent years in promoting different beauty ideals, from Kim Kardashian to Melissa McCarthy. "I love that we're in an age where we're celebrating women of all ages and sizes and ethnic diversities," says Rivers. "And I love that we're seeing designers making things for these women." Siriano, known as much for his inclusiveness as for his design metier, having dressed Christina Hendricks, Uzo Aduba and Patricia Arquette on the red carpet, attributes some of the change to Orange Is the New Black: "[Transgender actress] Laverne Cox is one of the most photographed people on the red carpet and that didn't exist even a few years ago."

Greater inclusiveness and monetary incentives may sustain the carpet, but there are other reasons why it endures. Says stylist Cristina Ehrlich, who is dressing five women for the Emmys: "This is what everybody who's never going to hold a Jimmy Choo shoe in their hands dreams of. When the world is in the worst shambles, people look for a distraction. We're in the fantasy business."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.