A brief history of black glamour on the Oscars red carpet
From Billy D to Hattie McD, our folks will come correct because they always have
When Hollywood’s A-listers step out of their limousines on Sunday afternoon and onto the Academy Awards’ much-hyped red carpet, it will be a Big Fashion Thing (BFT). So much of a BFT that it’s become the de facto holding pen for pop culture fanatics who may not care to watch three hours of the actual awards show. The carpet is a pregame show with really fit, insanely attractive people whose very smiles seem to say, “I may be starving, but go ahead and hate, ’cause you know I look good.”
The first red carpets may have been laid down in the 1930s as a way to guide the stars into a movie house or theater. Now the show is an international guide to good hairstyles, beautiful makeup and impeccable clothes, all done with great lighting, sound, drugs and romantic shuffling. Very few stars (or their handlers) these days are willing to take the kinds of fashion chances that others in the past were anxious to try. Gone are the days when a starlet could buy a frock at Bloomingdale’s and be done with it. That will earn negative (and immediate) social media attention.
Entire careers have been built on a lucky red carpet appearance. Remember JLo’s infamous Versace split-to-there dress she wore to the 2000 Grammys? And amateur mistakes apparently will perhaps tolerated, but only if you (insert the name Jennifer Hudson here) go forth and sin no more. For African-American filmmakers, wardrobe and beauty snafus such as a poorly-fitting tuxedo, unflattering gown or “unusual” hairstyle can be the final ax blow to an already shaky tree.
If 2016 was labeled #OscarsSoWhite, Sunday’s telecast will be one of the blackest. Red carpet coverage is now as big a thing as the award shows themselves, and the Oscars is the most-watched award show of them all (having once raked in a record 40.4 million total viewers for the 2014 telecast). People will tune in to see what the stars are wearing, how well they are groomed and prepped, whom they brought to the awards as their dates, and whether they can work their way through the phalanx of cameras, flashing lights, screaming publicists and nosy press without having a breakdown.
But know this: No one on this year’s red carpet will stand out for having dressing poorly or having bad taste. We’re all too careful, too coached, too restricted now. The rules of formal dressing are known, and black folks know this stuff better than nearly anyone. This year’s bumper crop of excellent African-American artists — especially this crew! — nominated for and presenting statues at the Oscars will bring the fashion realness. There’s no worrying about Taraji P. Henson wearing the 2017 version of Bjork’s swan dress. Denzel Washington and Mahershala Ali wouldn’t be caught dead in someone’s tacky “alternative tux” suit. And none of us can think of a time when Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer would wear a white silk tuxedo backward (a la Celine Dion) and think she looks cute. Just for giggles, we did a bit of photo research and looked for examples of African-Americans at the Oscars who were fly and felt gloriously free to be themselves. The red carpet may not be as fun a spectator sport as it used to be, but at least our folks will come correct, because they always have.