After a year of awards shows that were produced to look like glorified Zoom calls, the 2021 Oscars red carpet was a chance to show off formalwear as it was meant to be worn: strutting around a glamorous event, not crumpled on a couch and only visible from the shoulders up.
The actors and artists who attended—a much smaller group than usual, due to COVID-19 restrictions—took full advantage of the extra room and the full-body cameras. They wore voluminous gowns that would have never fit in a webcam frame and dresses that only showed their full selves while in motion. They surprised us with incongruous shoes, which would have gone unseen over Zoom. They wore corsets, feathers, and sequins that would have been too itchy or constricting to wear for a streamed-from-home ceremony, with such minimal return on the discomfort investment. Though the pandemic is far from over, with barely a mask in sight and spring in the air, the Oscars red carpet looked like a triumphant return to normal.
Glenn Close and H.E.R. were two sparkling irises in bloom. The former wore a custom Giorgio Armani Privé crystal-encrusted tunic, a very “Chico’s, but make it couture” moment for the Best Supporting Actress nominee. The latter offered a stunning demonstration of how loads of loose-fitting fabric that cover a body from head to toe can look just as sexy as something short and tight.
It’s a little cliché make an Oscar statue comparison when someone wears an all-gold getup on the red carpet, but with Leslie Odom Jr., can you blame me? His slightly mattified suit was positively regal, topped off with what looked like a black turtleneck peeking over his shirt, like an inverse clerical collar. Carey Mulligan, in Valentino Couture, embraced the 6-foot distancing requirements with a sumptuously bustled skirt covered in iridescent paillettes. Andra Day’s gold was more liquid, her Vera Wang dress meticulously gathered and draped over each hip.
Mulligan and Day’s bared midriffs speak to one of the most popular trends of the evening: cutouts. Vanessa Kirby was all clean, futuristic lines in a Gucci gown with a split train. Zendaya’s double-twisted highlighter-yellow dress was so bright and sunny, it literally glowed in the dark. Viola Davis’ Alexander McQueen corset was a study in contrasts, equal parts delicate paper cutout and rigid body armor.
The reliably glamorous Regina King and Amanda Seyfried both wore detailed bodices, deep necklines, and gowns with structured elements that stood out on their own. King, in Louis Vuitton, was a cross between Cinderella and a fairy godmother, with rhinestone stripes erupting in butterfly wings that spread across her shoulders and back. Seyfried, in Armani Privé, wore a tower of tulle that married the stiffness of a collar—a refreshing take on the insubstantial material—with the organic flow of a layered skirt.
Two takes on patch pockets: Lakeith Stanfield, in retro Saint Laurent and the swagger to pull it off, and Youn Yuh-jung, in a playfully proportioned quilted gown with the laidback silhouette of an oversized T-shirt.
In advance of Sunday’s event, Oscars producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher, and Jesse Collins informed nominees of the dress code: “Formal is totally cool if you want to go there, but casual is really not,” they wrote. I was pleased to see several attendees semi-ignoring this rude diktat. That includes Daniel Kaluuya, in flat-black Bottega Veneta, and Riz Ahmed, both of whom wore T-shirts under their suits. Minari’s Alan Kim probably gets dress-code lenience for his red-carpet shorts because he’s a kid, and because they’re Thom Browne.
Shoes were another venue for attendees to play with function over fashion. Questlove, for one, wore gold Crocs, and Nomadland director Chloé Zhao capped off her elaborately pintucked and pleated mauve number with a pair of white sneakers. Minari director Lee Isaac Chung looked plenty fancy in his satin-trimmed shawl collar and pocket chain, but his Doc Martens still might have been a mini rebellion against the anti-casual police.
Like Zhao, Laura Dern bundled up in a mock turtleneck for the 60-degree evening—but she went far showier on bottom, with cascading, pleasingly asymmetrical tufts of ostrich feathers. The dress looked like the comfiest to sit in of any I’ve mentioned here. Second place on that front goes to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Maria Bakalova, who was a simple sugar cone in white tulle.
Emerald Fennell went hyperfeminine in flouncy, floral Gucci, with every seam sprouting a ruffle and every ruffle sprouting a sparkle. Margot Robbie’s sheer florals were sweet but not cloying, with a steely color palette that toned down their daintiness.
It’s fun to watch people have fun, and people have more fun with fashion when they’re around other people. Halle Berry and Angela Bassett, who both looked like they were having a blast with their gowns, were the evening’s best justifications for an in-person ceremony. Bassett’s massive sleeves, which met in the back to form what looked like a bow, looked fluffed and stuffed to within an inch of their lives, as if they’d been bulking up all pandemic for this very moment. Berry, in an of-the-moment plunging neckline and her own tied-up bow in front, flapped her multitude of sheer layers like wings. The butterfly-emerging-from-cocoon metaphor was impossible to miss.