The dresses at the 2021 Oscars confirmed what a walk through any park or beer garden this weekend would have told you: for the younger generation, a cantilevered cleavage has been replaced by a flash of bare midriff as the key signifier of party dressing.
For Generation Z, a plunging neckline is what mums wear in date-night photos they post on Facebook. A crop top above high waisted jeans, to show a few inches of skin, or a dress with a shark-bite sized cut out to show some side-ab, is a more modern way to power (party) dress.
Carey Mulligan’s gold sequins showcased two ribs between a vast skirt and a tiny boob tube. (Mulligan chose to leave the matching face mask with which the look was accessorised when it starred on the Valentino haute couture catwalk in January at home.) Andra Day, fellow best actress nominee for her portrayal of Billie Holiday, also wore gold sequins with an emphasis on abdomen. “There’s cut-outs, leg, peekaboo – it’s a scandal,” Day’s stylist Wouri Vice told Vogue. The dress was inspired by Bob Mackie’s daring 1980s Oscar gowns for Cher, created by Vera Wang – and engineered with the aid of a welder. Zendaya’s sunshine yellow Valentino was bikini on top, ballgown below; Vanessa Kirby’s pale pink Gucci had a delicate half moon gap above the waistband.
In an era when Hollywood fortunes are made by high-kicking roles in all-action blockbusters, rather than by nailing the America’s sweetheart role, perhaps it makes sense that dresses that show off boxer abs are edging out the meringue-adjacent, prom-princess aesthetic. As far as body positivity in popular culture goes, however, the power side-ab is at best a sideways move.
Time was that red carpet fashion was about women, with menswear relegated to a final paragraph referencing the odd novelty bow tie. Not any more. Minari director Lee Isaac Chung commissioned the Asian American brand Goodfight to make his shawl-collar tux with pocket-chain detailing, which he teamed with yellow-stitched Dr Martens; his nine-year-old star, Alan Kim, was dressed in tailored shorts by menswear supremo Thom Browne. Colman Domingo of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom wore a fuchsia three-piece Versace suit with a matching shirt, while his co-star Daniel Kaluuya wore a double-breasted Bottega Veneta tuxedo with a necklace of Cartier diamonds so large and bright they looked like a string of pearls. Leslie Odom Jr wore a gold shirt to match his gold Brioni suit.
The strongest political statement on the red carpet also came from tuxedos. Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, the directors of Two Distant Strangers, stopped on the red carpet to open their jackets and display the linings, on which the names of 17 black Americans killed by police were embroidered in yellow. When the directors’ stylist, Tara Swennen, approached Dolce & Gabbana with the idea, the designers “were over the moon and said yes immediately,” she said. The 17th name was that of Daunte Wright, fatally shot on 11 April. “I don’t know how they did it but they were able to fit his name in as well at the last minute, which meant a lot,” said Free.
The aesthetic of Nomadland, which dominated the night, is sumptuous to look at while rigorously anti-glamour. The film is bathed in natural light, finding beauty in rugged landscapes and bare faces. Fittingly, director Chloé Zhao collected her Oscar wearing white sneakers with her understated oyster-toned Hermes dress, and wore her hair in plaits rather than a Hollywood blow-dry; Frances McDormand wore long sleeved black, stark and simple but for the feathers at the cuffs.
A non-traditional Oscars night made room for more non-traditional gowns. Olivia Colman looked chic in ketchup-red Christian Dior with long bell sleeves and a high funnel collar. Emerald Fennell wore chunky signet rings with her Gucci kaftan, and told reporters that “tonight I am Susan, your pottery teacher who has a business opportunity for you which is absolutely not a pyramid scheme”. Not a typical Oscar look – but then, this was hardly a typical Oscar night.