Red carpet fashion is one of the highlights of any award show. Shows such as the Academy Awards have hours of television footage prior to the broadcast to interview stars, and perhaps more importantly, ask them about what and who they are wearing. The questions about clothing have been primarily asked of women, and the red carpet continues to be a very sexist place. Often, people comment on women’s clothing and bodies rather than the work they are being celebrated for. However, as we move into 2019, more and more men and women are playing with the socially conceived boundaries of red carpet fashion. People such as Billy Porter, Jonathan Van Ness, Amy Poehler, and Awkwafina have taken red carpet fashion and turned it on its head, showing that women don’t have to wear dresses and men don’t have to wear suits to be sophisticated.
There seems to be something ingrained in society that says wearing pants does not make a woman less of a woman, but wearing a dress makes a man less of a man.
In September 2018, Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness appeared at the Creative Arts Emmys in a Maison Margiela gown, turning heads and defying a gender norm. While more and more women have been wearing suits on the red carpet, seeing a man in a dress was something very new. There seems to be something ingrained in society that says wearing pants does not make a woman less of a woman, but wearing a dress makes a man less of a man. As a gay grooming expert on Queer Eye, Van Ness frequently challenges the heteronormative, hypermasculine culture many people experience, but wearing a gown on the red carpet while sporting a beard took his inversion of gender roles to a new level.
Billy Porter at the 2019 Academy Awards took this idea a step further. He walked the red carpet in a Christian Siriano gown that combined a tuxedo-style top with the voluminous bottom of a ballgown. Also sporting a beard, Porter combined stereotypically male fashion with conventionally female fashion into a gown that was, to say the least, breathtaking. From my social media feed, it seemed to be the most talked about look of the evening, which is highly impressive considering the gowns often seen at the Academy Awards. Porter is a queer person of colour, making his contribution to the changing conventions of red carpet style all the more courageous.
It is courageous for these two queer men to take a stand against gender stereotypes, but I wonder when cisgendered straight men will also take a stand on the red carpet.
While Jonathan Van Ness and Billy Porter are no doubt style icons, and courageous ones at that, it is important to note that the only popular examples we see of men wearing gowns on the red carpet are from gay men. It is courageous for these two queer men to take a stand against gender stereotypes, but I wonder when cisgendered straight men will also take a stand on the red carpet. The fact that gay men are often socially seen as more feminine means that it is easy for close-minded people to pass off their looks as nothing more than “men in dresses.” If only a straight man would have the balls to do what Porter and Van Ness have already done.
The question then is, why does red carpet fashion matter? The red carpet at award shows is important for a number of reasons, leading by example and reflecting popular notions of gender. It may be coming slowly, but change is coming in the world of fashion and gender roles, and these daring people are pushing it forward. Maybe someday we will reach a point where people can “work it” in whatever clothes they feel beautiful in, and the more we see this in popular culture the more likely it is to happen.