Watching the Oscars via E! last night was particularly painful, wasn’t it? Giuliana Rancic and her cheesy clique (including Kris Jenner, who looked like if Ursula crawled out of the ocean, shook off the seaweed, and hitched a ride to Calabasas) just ooed and ahh-ed. Everyone looked great. Every look was worthy of a gasp.
“Oh. My. God,” Rancic said catatonically, looking at Janelle Monáe’s Elie Saab dress—excuse me, “Elie Saab moment”—from the E! Skybox. “It’s sexy but conservative,” This Is Us star Chrissy Metz said of the look, which was a poufy thing that appeared hewn together with the assistance of a glue gun. “I don’t know how she pulls that off!” The insight! Eventually, I had to mute it. I was starting to feel my brain melt.
Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed, sartorially speaking, by last night’s turnout. Scarlett Johansson and her very spray-tanned date, CAA agent Joe Machota, looked lovely, though the fabric of that Alaïa—even with the cinched waist—seemed to overwhelm her petite frame. Emma Stone’s Givenchy look felt vintage, but not in a good way, like a beaded lampshade you’d dust off at a garage sale. Dakota Johnson, sharp-shouldered and gilded in Gucci, looked like a haute superhero. Nicole Kidman was divine in Armani Privé, the dress showcasing her beautiful pale complexion. Another winning complexion combo? Naomie Harris in Calvin Klein. I also liked Salma Hayek in McQueen (though her hair needed to be rethought) as well as Hala Kamil in Brandon Maxwell, Emma Roberts in vintage Armani Privé, and Ruth Negga in Valentino.
But I liked them. Nothing worn last night will go down in Oscars fashion history like Gwyneth Paltrow’s pink Ralph Lauren dress from 1999, or Lupita Nyong'o’s more updated Cinderella moment from 2014, when she wore that light blue Prada dream. There just wasn’t the boldness that we hope for. Part of the reason for that is the pay-for-play system, which has been in the news as of late after Karl Lagerfeld accused Meryl Streep of canceling a Chanel dress in favor of a dress she would be paid to wear. Streep denies the allegations, and WWD, who originally reported the story, has been backpedaling, with Bridget Foley writing in her Monday morning column that it was likely a miscommunication between the two icons. It makes perfect sense—the amount of handlers between Streep and Lagerfeld (assistants, studio hands, her team, and her stylist Micaela Erlanger’s team, et cetera.) liken the situation to a very moneyed game of telephone.
Streep has said she has never accepted payment for wearing a look, and I, for one, believe her. Chanel also, as a policy, does not pay for play, which is probably why we see relatively little Chanel at awards shows (relatively, considering the scale of their business). They do have brand ambassadors, which is a more overt contractual arrangement (like Pharrell Williams, who wore Chanel last night).
But I understand both sides of the coin: If I were an actress, I think it would be very tempting to choose a dress that came with a hefty cash bonus attached. It definitely tips the scales. I also understand from the point of view of brands, especially from an exposure perspective and what they get out of the arrangement.
And yet this is not a victimless crime—it’s a system rigged against the little guy, aka the younger designer without the LVMH or Kering backing and funding. Most brands can’t afford to cough off the kind of cold hard cash needed to vie for the attention of a Best Actress nominee. And why should they? Isn’t it enough to graciously create a one-of-a-kind piece of fashion for them, in the middle of a collections season no less?
But the system does exist, and what we are left with is, year after year, with a few exceptional exceptions, a sea of sparkly, perfectly fine and perfectly boring column dresses. Perhaps we’re spoiled by great fashion moments of the past, before brands smartened up and realized they could pay pretty starlets to wear their things. I’m also disappointed that, especially given all the political sartorial statement-making we’re seeing on the runways, no one had the guts to wear something that spoke to our sociopolitical climate. (I did, however, love seeing the ACLU blue ribbons on Negga and others.)
But I’m still hopeful. I’m hopeful that maybe next year something will make me speechless—maybe even Giuliana Rancic-level speechless. A girl can dream.