Oscars 2021 Red Carpet: A Guide to How to Watch and Best Looks

The Academy Awards are back. But they may look a little different.,

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[Follow live coverage of the Oscars 2021 and winners list.]

It’s time for the stars to make their debuts — if they haven’t done it on social media already. Many of them are emerging from their homes, where they have ridden out the pandemic, to turn up for Hollywood’s biggest night.

There are lots of questions about how the Academy will pull off a red carpet, who may show up, and designer masks. Here, then, are some answers (and a little recent history).

Nothing is for sure, but as they say: The show must go on.

Officially, the red carpet arrivals will probably begin around 6 or 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, which is when ABC’s coverage starts. Even though there are fewer guests this year because of Covid-19 protocols, arrivals will have to be spaced out along the carpet, so the whole entrance-making process may take a while.

E!, however, is going all-in on gowns, and starting its programming at 3 p.m. The network has clearly been starved for a mermaid dress these last few months.

Viola Davis, one of the most exciting dressers this awards season, has been using her spotlight to shine attention on brands run by designers of color, like Duro Olowu (whose dress she wore to the NAACP Image Awards) and Lavie by CK (the Golden Globes). Daniel Kaluuya has also been making waves, most recently wearing purple silk pajamas by Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton to the SAGs.

Then there’s Carey Mulligan, who likewise had a high-Fashion-IQ, as does Zendaya, who is a presenter. But despite the public discussion about the importance of supporting Black-run businesses, judging from the precedents set thus far this year, odds are the carpet will be dominated by the big brand names, like Dior, Armani, Vuitton and Chanel.

According to a letter sent to all nominees in mid-March by the producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins: “You’re wondering about the dress code (as well you should). We’re aiming for a fusion of Inspirational and Aspirational, which in actual words means formal is totally cool if you want to go there, but casual is really not.” In other words, forget the Jason Sudeikis hoodie at the Golden Globes, or even the formal pajama look Jodie Foster modeled at the same event.

Get ready for gowns, tuxes and ice, ice, baby — especially because there is an official theme, “Bring Your Movie Love,” for the whole event. Can’t you feel Veronica Lake hair, Fred-and-Ginger vibes, and Marilyn sequins coming on? (No one ever said fashion was subtle.)

Celebrities are paid to be “ambassadors” for a brand; to represent it to the world. Contracts specify exactly what that means; sometimes that it is appearing in ads, but almost always it is wearing clothes by the brand at select very public moments — especially awards shows like the Oscars.

Just as important, however, is that even when they are not official ambassadors, stars (and their managers, agents and stylists, all of whom have some skin in this game) often consider a red carpet appearance pretty much a virtual ad, which means in exchange for wearing a dress and the related publicity that ensues, they would like the dress for free.

Because they are often not sample-size, and because they often want clothes that have not been seen before, this means brands have to make dresses especially for the occasion — and sometimes at the last minute celebs change their minds. If you are wondering whether this all privileges giant global brands over small indie names, and that is why the big guns often seem to be the most ubiquitous red carpet choices, the answer is yes.

Ever since #TimesUp convinced attendees to wear black to the 2018 Golden Globes in protest against Hollywood’s culture of sexual harassment, there have been various attempts at politicization of the red carpet fashion machine. A brief groundswell to not focus on the gowns but instead focus on the roles did not last terribly long (there’s been a sort of compromise, and now questions extend to both).

But in September 2020, Regina King wore a T-shirt honoring Breonna Taylor with her hot pink Schiaparelli pantsuit to the virtual Emmy Awards, and earlier this month Jamie Chung carried a “Stop Asian Hate” message handbag to the SAG awards. Given the emotion after the George Floyd trial verdict, the attacks on the Asian community and the drive for vaccines, we could well see statement making than goes beyond style for the Oscars. Still, it tends to be the exception, rather than the rule.

This will not be a case of match-the-mask-to-the-gown dressing. In fact, it will be — shock! — a maskless awards. The Oscars telecast is being treated like a TV production (well, it is a TV production), which means that on-camera talent gets to go barefaced. The producers have suggested, cryptically, that masks will still play a role of their own, but what that means is not entirely clear.

“Unforgettable” is to a certain extent in the eye of the beholder, but what sticks out most are the looks that expressed real personality (sometimes even politics), as opposed to those that played it safe in taffeta and tulle.

The retreat into prom dress banality in the face of ubiquitous Best Dressed (and Worst) lists is one of the more unfortunate developments of the modern red carpet, and one that has bathed in the sepia tints of nostalgia the days of Barbra Streisand’s see-through pajama set, or Cher’s midriff.

So kudos to Bjork for her swan dress of 2001 by Marjan Pejoski; to Uma Thurman for the stripped-down simplicity of her lavender Prada in 1995 (the forerunner of Jennifer Lawrence’s red Calvin Klein tank in 2016); to Julia Roberts for shopping the archives of Valentino in 2001 and Reese Witherspoon for doing the same with vintage Dior in 2006; to Billy Porter for breaking the gender barrier with his tuxedo Christian Siriano gown in 2019; and to Gemma Chan for the parachute silk bright pink Valentino tent she wore the same year, putting an end, finally, to the idea that a body-con mermaid silhouette or a princess puffball was the only possible choice.

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