If you believe that fashion is a reflection of our times, you would have tuned into the Oscars last night expecting to see the sartorial version of the apocalypse. Would it be fantastical and escapist? Or, would mourning black be the colour of the night? Maybe political pins and pussy-hat pink would make a big statement on the red carpet. As it turns out, the most surprising thing of all happened: nothing.
Besides the few blue ACLU ribbons and Emma Stone’s fingernail-sized Planned Parenthood pin, there were no gasp-out-loud gowns, no Emma Watson-type “she’s in pants!” moments, or even anything resembling a wardrobe malfunction. It was dialled-back and safe. The fashion veered on the side of boring, which is the last way you would describe our cultural and political climate right now. And if it felt like you’ve seen it before, it’s because you have.
The Oscars' red carpet presented four archetypes we're familiar with in pop culture: The Bride, The Princess, The Prude, and The Femme Fatale. These aren't just roles played by the female protagonists of our movies, it's how we’ve rewritten and sometimes minimised the stories of famous women in history. These are the “women” who save your life or attempt to destroy it — but only operate on an interpersonal, not political, level. They are not controversial. They are not complex. They are the boxed-in, one-dimensional roles women in entertainment (and in real life) have long been fighting to break out of.
Take The Bride, for instance. White has always been a popular red carpet style, but a preponderance of attendees chose pretty, white dresses for the evening (I counted 14 during the pre-show alone). Those paying attention to the wardrobes from the presidential campaign might be quick to point out that white is the colour of suffragettes — and thus, a political statement unto itself. But there was nothing defiant about these gowns: Many were strapless with sweetheart necks and full ball skirts, and covered in sparkling crystals. They will undoubtedly be pinned to many brides-to-be's wedding Pinterest boards. And given actresses' tendencies these days to Insta, Tweet, and Snap their views, as well as give pointed red carpet interviews to make those intentions clear, it was curiously crickets last night. From Karlie Kloss caped sheath to Octavia Spencer’s pearly gray gown (and Olivia Culpo, Priyanka Chopra, Naomie Harris, among others), the red carpet looked more like an aisle — and the actresses there to honor their craft looked more like kids playing dress-up.
Even more wide-eyed and innocent were The Princesses. These were cupcake ballgowns more fit for a Belle or Aurora than a modern woman, who has favoured body-conscious, non-fussy silhouettes for the last few decades. And yet, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monae, Hailee Steinfeld, and more opted for big and billowy. Sure, they literally took up space — which could be seen as a feminist cry for representation and equality in the public sphere — but looked like cake toppers doing it. They were damsels, not heroines.
The Prudes reflected a strong runway trend, with high necks, long sleeves, and modest hemlines. Ruth Negga and Ginnifer Goodwin #twinned in nearly matching Victorian-inspired dresses in blood-red hues, and Dakota Johnson picked a demure silk Gucci gown that gave her strong mumsy vibes. Ava DuVernay’s dove-gray dress was an outlier, but not because of how it looked — it was a hybrid between princess and prude — but because it did have a purpose; she posted on Instagram that she picked the dress because it came from a Muslim-majority country, as a show of solidarity with those affected by President Trump’s immigration ban.
Lastly, there were the classic Hollywood Femme Fatales — the typical storyline goes that she’s a maneater dressed up as a seductive victim. While it seems like a feminist trope, these women only exist to titillate men, who eventually lead to their defanging. With hot-rolled hair and vampy necklines, the looks recalled the film-noir roles from the ‘40s and ‘50s (Emma Roberts herself told ABC that Veronica Lake was a direct inspiration for her makeup look). Femme Fatales are always the villains — but since they always lose, their teeth lack real bite.
So, why now? Why not go on the offence, and make deliberate, political statements like we saw at The Grammys and The Golden Globes? Why didn’t more women go for subversive, androgynous designs like Meryl’s dress-over-pants look — or even minimal, unfussy ones, like Naomie Harris did in Calvin Klein? For one, it seems like there’s a real fear of backlash; the distaste for celebrity stump speeches has been strong. Even if it makes sense for celebrities to use their expansive platform and influence to affect change, there’s a real fear of online harassment at the hands of anti-feminist and anti-liberal trolls, sometimes encouraged by President Trump. What's more, Hollywood is an industry that needs to court both red- and blue-state consumers. Having a starring actress turn off a portion of American movie-goers lowers her market-rate; for the same reasons that Taylor Swift stayed mum throughout the election, some actresses have probably made the business decision to sit down and shut up.
And indeed, of all the numerous political jabs and pleas onstage at the Oscars last night, most came from filmmakers. Jimmy Kimmel joked about the presidency; Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney mentioned the ACLU in their speech; Mexican native Gael Garcia Bernal spoke up against the wall, and director Asghar Farhadi boycotted the ceremony because of the travel ban and delivered his anti-ban speech through a female proxy. Strikingly, none of the people speaking out were female actresses.
The sensical thing to do when you feel vulnerable is to retreat to something non-controversial so as not to stick out. For women in Hollywood, those safe places are the characters they’ve been boxed into throughout their careers. Even as more nuanced, non-gendered roles — like NASA "computers" in Hidden Figures — have earned women accolades just this year, slipping back into these male-approved archetypes is a knee-jerk lever to pull.
When women feel backed into a corner, they fight back if they feel like they have a chance. What does it say when they stop fighting?