Is Red Carpet Fashion Actually Fashion?

It’s Awards Season, so let’s talk about it.


The dress in which Emma Watson attended Sunday’s Golden Globes would not have been up to my childhood standards. The fact that it wasn’t pale pink was the least of its deficiencies. Designed by Dior, the tomato-tinged creation also failed to billow dramatically, lacked sequins, and did not arrive on the arm of a Ken doll. In place of a train, Watson accessorized with a pair of cropped pants and a single pearl in her left lobe. Defying my ten-year-old self’s expectations, she did not wear a diamond choker.

Still, despite these obvious shortcomings, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. In a sea of strapless necklines, ballooning skirts, and miraculously creaseless silk, Watson’s backless, ballsy choice reinvigorated the predictable pageantry of the red carpet. Even if it didn’t quite belong there.

“Oh, I loved it,” said the friend to whom I’d voiced my gushing admiration of it. “It was so refreshingly not a ball gown.”

Devoid of the fussiness that once seemed a prerequisite of high-minded fashion, the outfit appeals — at least to me — precisely for its pared-down, perfectly articulated aesthetic. No sooner had Watson appeared at the Beverly Hilton Hotel than I demanded to know who designed it. Finally, I thought, a garment that could not be mistaken for the one worn by Nancy O’Dell.

It’s no surprise that the majority of the red carpet is uniform in aesthetic. While risk-taking is exulted on the runway, award-show attendees tend to limit experimentation to the confines of their nail beds. Perhaps the prevalence of such convention explains our almost yearlong anticipation of the Met Gala. There, every ensemble is meant to be as much a credit to the woman wearing it as it is to the artist responsible for it.

This week, in a candid interview with The Cut, Barneys’ creative ambassador-at-large Simon Doonan confessed his sheer inability to understand “how people can get it up for gowns.” With characteristic forthrightness, he explained:

See, to me, fashion is people like Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Stella — it’s creative people — Gaultier, Comme des Garçons, just not gowns. To me, fashion is not gowns. It can be gowns, I suppose, but it doesn’t begin and end with gowns. I think it’s a bit strange that with most people, their understanding of fashion is all celebrities and gowns.

Later, he dismissed gowns as not truly representative of the designers who craft them. Of the red carpet, he said, “I’m worried that people are going to think that that’s what fashion is.”

For regular visitors of, the view Doonan pronounces is nothing new. We all grow up and redefine the terms of our fashion fantasies in the process. Mine, for example, are made of considerably less tulle than they once were. Instead, I now find myself lusting after leather and shearling and vertiginous heels whose acquisition all but require a down payment. These items may remain as out of reach as the Atelier Versace number that Penélope Cruz wore to the Academy Awards in 2007, but they are also more technically realistic. I no longer dream about designer dresses. Instead, I crave $22,000 backpacks.

If “fashion is not gowns,” as Doonan claims, then what defines it? Is an element of fantasy still a condition of great fashion? Are we meant to seek the equally fabulous and outlandish sartorial inspiration that awards season once seemed to provide? Or should we stop expecting anything from a collection of borrowed dresses that, as in the Cinderella myth, return to their showrooms at the end of a long, overproduced evening?

In honor of this morning’s Oscar nominations announcement, let’s talk about it.

Images via E! Online

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  • Bodil Huisman

    I think Emma really looked great!

    Love Bodil,

  • Adiso

    Where’s the photo of Emma Watson!?

    • Charlotte Fassler

      Hi Adiso, It’s in the featured image on the home page, but I’ve added it to the slideshow as well!

  • I wouldn’t say that ball gowns are NOT fashion, but Fashion is definitely not just ball gowns. I think Red Carpet fashion is just a fraction of the whole.
    Most people will never have a reason to wear something so formal, outside of maybe a wedding. And I think that is why people like to see Celebrities in these very formal, over-the-top gowns.
    Although it seems “refreshing” to have someone show up in something so non-traditional, I wonder if it would make people sad if most celebrities opted for similar choices. And if there were no longer events formal enough to wear these gowns, would designers eventually stop making them?

    • Mattie Kahn

      Ooh, love this question. Guests at the CFDAs tend to dress both more casually but also more fashion-y than your traditional award-show goers. I love seeing how people dress for the event, but I do think I would miss the unapologetic glitz of, say, the Oscars or the Golden Globes if it were to disappear.

  • Lindsey Cook

    This is a very interesting question; Prada immediately comes to mind when I think of the difference between runway and red carpet fashion. Miuccia often makes risky and sometimes not-well-regarded red carpet gowns, but her runway collections are always highlights of the season!

    I think most people look at red carpet gowns and they are easier to understand than more varied runway collections – red carpets can be seen as a more simplified version of fashion, I suppose – but designers, especially more experimental ones like Miuccia or Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy, might excel at runway shows more than they do at red carpet dresses.

    Red carpet fashion IS fashion, but maybe just not AS fashion-y as runway fashion is? If that makes sense.

    • Andie Schlather

      Totally. Couture is art on the body, and ready-to-wear is molding those high fashion ideas for the everyday. Ball gowns are a mainstay- the silhouettes, the materials, even the colors don’t change all that much season to season. I love it when actresses take risks, but how many times have you heard one of Joan River’s cohorts say that “it looked much better in person”? So many of the high fashion silhouettes don’t photograph well… and in the end, thats all that really matters at awards shows.

  • Quinn Halman

    I feel like the designers go into to this knowing that what they’re making will be for the red carpet. It’s probably the best publicity too, for instance, I wouldn’t have known that I want my wedding dress to be Monique Lhuillier.
    Aaaand Emma Watson + Lupita KILLED it!

    • Mattie Kahn

      the fact that I’m so excited to see what Lupita wears to the Oscars is how I know capital-f fashion and red carpet attire are not mutually exclusive.

  • Amelia Diamond

    I think a lot of it has to do with the wearer. We were talking about Cate Blanchett in Givenchy couture a few years ago…to me that was pretty fashion. Or Michelle Williams in that saffron dress a few Oscars ago? Both dresses had to take guts and an eye to wear, more so than the typical numbers…and maybe this has to do with the stylist being incredibly fashionable.

    The red carpet must be a scary place for a celebrity to attempt fashion — because anytime someone does (see Paula Patton @ Golden Globes) — they get torn apart. It would be interesting to see an alternate universe reaction where someone wore that same dress to the Met Gala. Would it be regarded as OMG WHAT WAS SHE THINKING IT LOOKS LIKE WHIPPED CREAM PANDEMONIUM?!?! or would, if SJP wore it, be THE DRESS OF THE NIGHT?

    • Amelia Diamond

      PS – can I get a round of hearts for Connie Britton? Girl can do no wrong in my book even if she is wearing a glitter-painted column. (I MEAN THAT IN A GOOD WAY CONNIE.)

      • Liz Sennett


    • Morgan

      I definitely agree with this.
      The red carpet is less about fashion-y fashion and all about publicity. If you are an actress, you wear a dress that will help you score major points with the general public, and that is what gets you in their good graces. Because the general public is exactly that, general, most of the actresses play it safe with more conventional gowns. This isn’t to say that some actress don’t prefer conventional gowns. Others, like Emma Watson this year (GO EMMA!) and Zoe Saldana basically say, “screw that, I love fashion”, and wear what they want to wear. Sometimes that works for the general public and sometimes it doesn’t. Usually though, what doesn’t work for the public tends to work for fashion lovers like the people here! I am all for wearing what you want!

  • JP730

    Fashion is such an intimate concept; it’s a very personal attraction to a set of aesthetic qualities, and that’s what makes it so much fun to watch couture change season to season; because each designer brings to it their own idea of what is and is not aesthetically desirable. With that premise in mind, I’d say that gowns aren’t usually exciting or innovative in design. So when we see something like Emma Watson’s gorgeous pick, we’re excited; she takes “ballgown” and turns it into a sneak attack on our concept of what a gown should look like.

  • Melvina Duka

    I agree that the award shows are only a fraction of what fashion is and has to offer. I love watching them for the glamour and glitz. Reminds me of Old Hollywood. However, I do love seeing the ones who dare to do something different such as Emma Watson. I think the gowns are only an aspect of fashion, the glamorous side to say the least. I love designers who do something different to the usual gown. I do think most celebrities stay safe because they themselves want to feel like those Old Hollywood starlets in a way, if that makes sense. My point in short is that fashion is something different to everyone.

  • I think it’s very hard to tell what fashion actually is, but in my subjective opinion I’d say it’s the creation of something completely new, innovative, intriguing and iconic that at the same time raises the instant desire to actually possess and wear it. Simon Doonan named some of the most important designers of such creations which we will barely get to see on the red carpet: Dries van Noten, Margiela, Jean Paul Gaultier, also Céline or Miu Miu. Stars are not necessarily fashion insiders, they rather get influenced by agents and stylists who primarily want them to look nice and pretty. The goal is to appear in InStyle and to please a global audience that normally isn’t interested in an intriguing artful dress by Phoebe Philo but a sensastional, sparkling body-con-gown by Donatella Versace. I think what we see on red carpets is just a sad proof for the fact that the average celebrity fanbase simply does not have an understanding for “real” fashion. But who knows, maybe Emma Watson is going to change this?

    Greetings from Berlin! (

  • I think it’s like the saying every rectangle is a square, but not every square is a rectangle. As in, every gown is fashion – but fashion is not gowns. Fashion is sooo much more than that. It’s artistic expression you live your life in…and that includes a range of garments outside of ballgowns.


    • Cat

      *Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.

  • Niche

    I don’t understand why we expect people who are not in the fashion industry to show the same enthusiasm for fashion as those of us who regularly flip through the collections on Actresses are not de facto fashionistas and most probably don’t care about the latest Kenzo or Prada collection and what it means or what’s the it sweatshirt this season. Some obviously like fashion. Cate Blanchett and definitely Zoe Saldana. Emma Watson. But I’m guessing that Amy Adams or Sandra Bullock are not obsessing over what designer gowns they get to pick from. The Oscars or Golden Globes is essentially a work event for them and they want to dress appropriately but not so boldly that they get judged poorly by the general public. Sure it’s incredibly boring to see yet another strapless ballgown with sequins on it but the average person doesn’t care.

    • Miranda

      I completely agree. It is definitely a work event for them, one that they want to look nice attending. I think we also sometimes forget that the Oscars and the GGs are awards shows for film and/or television (not fashion). The first several decades of awards seasons did not begin with a one hour pre-show televised red carpet special and they did not immediately end with a red carpet wrap up where the best/worst gowns of the evening were discussed at length. The fashion aspect has been tacked on more recently and the actual awards show has effectively been sandwiched by two fashion ‘shows’. Take the Superbowl for example: there are pre and post Superbowl shows that discuss…football. When have we ever seen a post Oscar wrap up where there is actual discussion about the movies and roles that were played, and not what the actress was wearing? I realize that fashion and film go hand-in-hand, but it seems to me, that what was once a prestigious awards show highlighting the best of what Hollywood has to offer, has become one big publicity event.

  • The red carpet gowns and all the glitz and glamour that was supposed to go with them are just gone. Most looks appeared redundant, dull, ill-fitting and ridiculous and I just couldn’t get excited about the designs. Plus, the actresses looked void of any joy from wearing these dresses. This year menswear was more thrilling! So, i don’t believe people can still “get it up” for these red carpet appearances nor do they identify with these moments as the epitome of Fashion. Thank goodness! I also can’t wait for the Met Gala, and I’m sure that’s the event most people are looking forward to also.

  • Ana González

    I like the idea of showing real fashion in red carpet but after all, we all want to see movie stars. Thats why Cate Blanchett was amazing in the Golden Globes, the perfect combo.


  • Nah, totally don’t think gowns can be considered as fashion. I know that these dresses can still be considered old fashioned or current season but defining fashion? I think not.

    What I really do love about these evenings are beauty inspiration! The makeup are always so gorgeous!

  • Dania Khan

    The red carpet is simply what the majority wants to see, its not controversial, its very safe. Where as the met gala on the other hand, is far more interesting, its where fashion is appreciated as an art form, its more out there. At the end of the day, fashion is an art and the red carpet is a very teeny tiny part of it. Its just like the term “couture”, which has been so undermined. It really depends on the viewer, on the artist wearing it and the creator is what makes it or breaks it. One thing is for sure, fashion should NOT be taken lightly with it just being the red carpet or be it gowns.

  • M.P.

    Last Christmas, when I attended my boyfriend’s work Christmas Party, I decided to wear trousers. I noticed, I was the only woman who chose to wear trousers at the party. So, then I wondered, if I should have worn a dress instead. I drew my inspiration from Emmanuelle Alt, so I wore an all black ensemble: cropped trousers from Zara, a black fitted Long Sleeved Peplum top, with a simple Gold plate Belt, and black booties. And then it occured to me that if I had worn a dress, I would have looked no different from everyone else.

  • Cardinham Killigrew

    I am confused on Emma. Heidi nice. Cab we just stick to classic event gowns, these over the top statements usually end in disaster.

  • Beth
  • Mary

    why does the red carpet have to be fashion? can’t it just be looking pretty ?

  • KarinaSophia

    Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.

    – Coco Chanel

  • diane

    The Rodarte gowns are always my red-carpet favorites. They are far more interesting than the rest of that glittery mediocrity.

  • Bella

    Gowns are fashion, but obviously fashion encompasses a lot more than gowns. Denying that would be a bit like saying that “sunshine is weather and weather is sunshine”. I do think that Mr Simon Doonan, bless him, is a bit patronising to say that “everyone” is going to think that gowns are fashion because it’s what celebrities wear on the red carpet. Really, most people, even those who are not obsessed with fashion, are not that dumb.

  • Quinn

    well said.. I thought Emma was the only one who looked fresh and relevant.

  • Max

    What’s happen with Anna Faris? Does she totally turn to her “MUM” role?? #

  • pia

    Sofia Vergara has the best dress 🙂

  • Chloe H

    I, personally, also loved Emma Watson’s choice for the GGs.
    I think that people always define fashion as to what they are most easily exposed to, so that’s why people fail to see the distinctiveness of the sartorial choice of Watson’s. It totally failed their expectations.

  • This is the reason why I’m always doubly impressed when a particular designer is able to reflect their actual collection with the sugary custom-made gowns they send down the red carpet.

  • Emie Lemmola

    Definitely an interesting topic. I study fashion design and last year we were explicitly told that we were not allowed to design anything that was either sexy or vaguley resembled red carpet attire. I think gowns are obviously one very traditional sector of fashion but definitely agree that there is so much more out there that is more representative of actual wearable clothing!

  • Claire Onderdonk

    this post rocked ass – Mattie your effort shows and i picture you as being hot so FK YEA TO WRITING GOOD

  • sarah

    thank GOD! i’m SO bored with red carport anti-fashion, ball-room dancer, princess-y crap! ugh. when Diane Keaton took the stage at ‘one-of-them’, i wished they all dressed like Woody Allen. it’s no wonder Helena B.C wears mismatching shoes, and Bjork gets dressed in a swan – we need more F-you’s to this bollocky dressing habit. if I see Sophia Vergara with her boobs bouncing along the carpet like that one more time i might just fall into a coma.:-/

  • Cat

    I have many things to think about this very interesting discussion, but I have to ask… WHAT THE FUCK IS REESE WEARING?

  • Rosie

    Emma’s cropped pants / red open-back dress (cape? shirt?) combo was absolutely inspired. One of my favorite red carpet looks of all time! True gutsy fashion, compared to all the glitzy glamorous ball gowns (which I sometimes love, but are definitely predictable).