The Red Carpet Is Finally Back
Photos: Getty Images

The Academy Awards, which will return for their 94th annual ceremony on Sunday (MARCH 27), could be described as prom night on steroids for the A-list set. On this global stage, a winning look has the potential to become part of fashion history. Think Gwyneth Paltrow grinning wildly in a sweet bubblegum-pink taffeta Ralph Lauren ensemble in 1999 and Halle Berry crying in a dramatic sheer-top Elie Saab gown in 2002. The potential for unforgettable imagery is why brands often pay stars and stylists hundreds of thousands of dollars to wear their dresses, jewelry, and watches on the big day.

The Academy Awards, however, are facing something of a ratings crisis. Viewership has declined since 2014, according to Nielsen, with the ceremony losing more than half its audience last year. Meanwhile, another popular red-carpet show, the Golden Globes, is on hiatus due to ethical controversies.

And yet, the celebrity red carpet has bounced back from the height of the pandemic—when many stars joined by video feed to accept awards from their sofas—with gusto and extra glamour.

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“The whole industry around the red carpet and Hollywood has been re-engaged and dialed up,” says Elaine Lui, the blogger behind Lainey Gossip who covers the Oscars red carpet for Canadian entertainment show Etalk.

After two years of canceled parties, endless Zoom calls, and ubiquitous sweatpants, society at large is eager to get dressed up. Retailers are reporting spikes in sales of ridiculous party-ready heels. More than 2.5 million weddings are expected this year, according to an industry trade group.

So in embracing dressing up for the red carpet again, the stars are actually just like us. “It almost felt like celebrities missed it,” says Lui.

The red carpet is a uniquely accessible part of the Hollywood machine. Audiences who skipped Being the Ricardos can still eagerly review Nicole Kidman’s latest look. (She loves a sleek column gown with some kind of bow detail.) Celebrity devotees don’t even need to watch the actual ceremony to follow along: The coverage on Instagram starts as soon as stars and their stylists begin posting—often sharing backyard photo shoots before they head to the show—and continues into the days that follow. More than 7 million people “liked” Selena Gomez’s post last month featuring selfies of her Screen Actors Guild Awards look, a black balloon-sleeve Oscar de la Renta gown and strands of Bulgari diamonds styled by Kate Young. By comparison, 1.8 million people watched the televised ceremony.

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“People are very, very hungry for mindless glamour at the moment,” says Tom Fitzgerald, who runs the celebrity-fashion and pop-culture site Tom & Lorenzo with Lorenzo Marquez, adding that “engagement on our posts is as high as it’s ever been.” He also sees a correlation with global headlines: “At times of great upheaval, people will look to glitz and glamour just to turn their brains off for a second.”

On Instagram, the hashtags #redcarpetstyle and #redcarpetfashion are “very high at the moment,” says a representative for Instagram, adding that “red carpet” has appeared in 175,000 posts in the last month.

Meanwhile, the marketing value of posts with hashtags for the SAG Awards and the Critics Choice Awards, when paired with hashtags for the top 50 luxury brands, jumped this season by more than 4,000 percent compared to the same period last year, according to data from the social-media tracking firm Tribe Dynamics.

Indeed, Instagram has changed the red-carpet machine beyond becoming the distribution method of choice. Now that the audience is social media itself and not Joan Rivers, the legendary red-carpet fashion critic who died in 2014 and was known for her scathing assessments, many stars have become less concerned about playing it safe. The algorithm rewards polarization, even in fashion.

“I’ve noticed people being a lot more likely to applaud and squeal and clap for something expansively hideous, just because everyone’s so happy that it’s out there at all,” says Heather Cocks, who documents celebrity fashion on Go Fug Yourself with Jessica Morgan.

Their site has seen page views jump since September of last year, boosted by the Venice Film Festival, the Met Gala, and the Emmy Awards, then another surge since the start of the awards season in 2022.

Fitzgerald says men, in particular, are dressing more flamboyantly on the red carpet, as Daniel Kaluuya did at the BAFTAs this month, wearing an oversize coat accented by mohair trim, designed by Prada and styled by Jason Rembert. “There were always one or two male stars who really knew how to do style,” Fitzgerald says. “Now they’re all stepping out in these Jared Leto–level outfits.”

Daniel Kaluuya in a fresh-off-the-runway Prada coat at the British Film Awards in early March. (Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

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While the Academy Awards generate much of the traffic and engagement for red-carpet watchers, major celebrity fashion moments are increasingly found outside the tentpole Hollywood awards shows. The Met Gala, which is essentially an awards-season red carpet without the ceremony, continues to be very popular, recently drawing more eyeballs for Go Fug Yourself than the Oscars because, as Morgan explains, “people love a theme.”

I’ve noticed people being a lot more likely to applaud and squeal and clap for something expansively hideous, just because everyone’s so happy that it’s out there at all.”

But stars no longer need to wait for these key big moments each year to justify glamorous formal attire. Global movie premieres are rarer today, but a boom of new streaming shows from Netflix, Apple, and HBO starring high-wattage talent that might have eschewed television in the past has provided an alternative for fancy photo-calls.

“If you’ve got Nicole Kidman doing some Hulu series or something like that, there’s a lot of star wattage there that you wouldn’t [have seen] four or five years ago for a television premiere,” says Fitzgerald.

Nicole Kidman wearing an Armani Privé gown at the December 2021 premiere of Being the Ricardos, which streamed on Amazon Prime. (Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images)

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And in many cases, stars do not need to wait for a proper premiere to show off a red-carpet-worthy look. Catherine Kallon, the founder of the website Red Carpet Fashion Awards, says actresses like Tracee Ellis Ross can turn a talk-show appearance or Zoom interview into an Instagram photo shoot worthy of coverage on her site.

The actors aren’t the only personalities who have turned the red carpet into an industry unto itself. Few from outside the industry took notice of the stylists who dressed Berry and Paltrow for their career-defining moments a few decades ago (Phillip Bloch and Elizabeth Saltzman, respectively). But today, celebrity stylists like Law Roach and Karla Welch are stars in their own right, with hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers watching their behind-the-scenes process, buying their products, or tuning in to see them on television shows. This shift began with Rachel Zoe, who appeared in a reality show for Bravo in the late 2000s that brought the celebrity stylist into the public consciousness.

“By sharing sketches and design processes, the stylists are making themselves part of the conversation in a way that they weren’t for a long time,” says Cocks.

Zendaya poses in a Rick Owens gown at a screening of Dune last fall with her stylist, Law Roach. (Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Today’s top stylists do much more than convince luxury houses to deliver a respectable mermaid dress for their clients’ next red carpet. They are engaging deeply with designers to design custom pieces or secure coveted or avant-garde runway looks for their clients. On social media, stylists are seen as not just part of the celebrity entourage but also creative forces helping shape trends or shifting the way audiences see designer and luxury brands.

Stylists and stars are also using the red carpet more strategically than ever before, capitalizing on the moment to communicate ideas around sustainability, social justice, or cultural representation and shape their public images in turn. It’s an approach that has engaged a new generation of politically engaged celebrity watchers, especially online.

“You’re seeing a lot more what I would call extra-thoughtful selections,” says Cocks, citing Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe at the Cannes Film Festival in 2020, when she was the jury president. The actress, styled by Elizabeth Saltzman, made a point during the festival of only rewearing gowns, including an Esteban Cortazar dress she wore to a premiere five years prior.

The rules of the red carpet have changed, and the best-dressed stars capitalize on a sense of surprise.

Increasingly, a red-carpet dress is more than just a beautiful gown—an approach that has become more popular since 2018, when actresses wore all black gowns to the Golden Globes in honor of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Stylists today consider the entire context of a look, which especially appeals to fashion fans online. “This type of talent is an expert in what they do, and the consumer is gravitating more and more toward experts,” says Brooke Wall about the growing public profile of celebrity stylists. She is the founder of the Wall Group, the agency that represents Welch, Saltzman, and Tara Swennen, among many other behind-the-scenes talents.

Roach, who describes himself as an image architect, is arguably the best example of the new generation of stylists. The likes of Celine Dion, Ariana Grande, and Anne Hathaway have tapped him to upgrade their style during pivotal career moments, and he has helped them secure looks from luxury and couture houses while pushing them to take the right kind of risks. With more than a million Instagram followers, Roach has been profiled by The New York Times and Vogue, attended the Met Gala—twice—and become a television regular as a judge on America’s Next Top Model and Legendary.

Roach is still best known for his relationship with Zendaya, which goes back almost a decade and demonstrates how the red carpet can be used to career advantage. Long before she was opening blockbusters, Zendaya leveraged fashion to show the industry she was more than a Disney Channel child star. “I would dress very well at things I didn’t need to be at,” she said in an interview in 2019, explaining how taking fashion seriously was a strategy “to get out of people seeing me in a certain way.”

Now she’s one of the most popular young movie stars in the world, frequently fronting luxury campaigns and winning the Fashion Icon award at the 2021 CFDA Awards. And her penchant for unusual and conceptual looks, combined with Roach’s ascendant influence, has earned her the kind of fashion clout that allows her to borrow looks straight off the runway before anyone else. Last fall, she was the first to wear any look from creative director Pieter Mulier’s first collection for Alaïa, and she later wore the Loewe body-plate dress from Jonathan Anderson’s Spring 2022 collection just a few days after its catwalk debut.

Zendaya wearing a Loewe Spring 2022 dress just days after it debuted on the runway. (PhotoL Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

Zendaya, who has served as the face of Valentino since 2020, can be counted among a new group of stars redefining the ambassador relationship on the red carpet. Before the pandemic, actresses who inked deals with major luxury houses—think Jennifer Lawrence (working for Dior) and Michelle Williams (working for Louis Vuitton)—were rarely, if ever, seen wearing gowns from other designer brands.

While Zendaya saves Valentino for her most important appearances, like the Oscars and the premiere of Euphoria, she frequently wears Balmain, Rick Owens, and others at high-profile events. Even Kristen Stewart, who works with stylist Tara Swennen and has had a relationship with Chanel for the better part of a decade, has recently started mixing in other designers for her red-carpet appearances, including Brandon Maxwell and Galvan.

Kristen Stewart in a Chanel ensemble at the Los Angeles premiere of Spencer last year. (Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

The variety is good news for both Chanel and fashion fans. Stewart brings an insouciant edge to the most ladylike of gowns, but her Chanel appearances had been seen by some as getting repetitive. The rules of the red carpet have changed, and the best-dressed stars capitalize on a sense of surprise.

“An actress and a stylist can have those moments when the stars align and you know you’ve got something that it’s going to go down historically,” said Wall. “They anticipate what’s going to be received in a way that’s going to satisfy the masses, in a way that is unexpected.”

This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US