Can Oscar Fashion Be More than Marketing?

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” may have been the big winner of the 95th Academy Awards, a vote by the industry for idiosyncrasy in the face of corporate moviemaking, but on the red — whoops, sorry, champagne — carpet, classicism ruled.

Its color may have changed, reportedly in an effort to inject some modernity into the arrivals/runway show portion of the evening (Oh, Jennifer Connelly, a Louis Vuitton ambassador, in Louis Vuitton? What a surprise!), but its ethos hasn’t, that much.

Except … except: Just as the triumph of “Everything” may offer a new way forward for filmmaking, a select few Oscar attendees eschewed predictability for some quirkier, more emotive choices, and in doing so added a touch of zest to the familiar old recipe. Rather than act as an advertising vehicle for a brand, they seemed more like co-conspirators, moving beyond the safety of promotion to expose some personal style. It’s riskier (kind of like a movie about the multiverse featuring an everything bagel) but also more engaging to see.

There was Rihanna, for example, making her entrance fashionably late in a leather Alaia bra and long leather bandage skirt that opened and closed at the hips like some sort of super-glamorous armor, worn over a sheer body suit, the better to bare her pregnant belly. And that was just for openers. She changed into a Maison Margiela Art Deco-like silver beaded top and silver brocade pants to perform her nominated song “Lift Me Up,” and then changed again, into a mint-green Bottega Veneta bias-cut silk skirt and matching stole, for afters: a play in pregnancy style in three acts and three brands where she — and her stomach — retained the starring role.

No one else swapped outfits with quite the same alacrity, but she wasn’t the only one who brought some subversive attitude and private storytelling to the party.

Florence Pugh showed up in a Valentino strapless ocean of taffeta bedsheets with billowing sleeve-clouds attached to each elbow — that parted in the center, like Moses, to reveal very abbreviated black bike shorts beneath, with a little pocket on the side for extra insouciance. (For anyone who remembers the Demi Moore self-designed bike short Oscar gown of 1989, this is the evolved version.)

Harry Shum Jr. got Adeam to custom-make him a white smoking jacket piped in midnight blue, wrapped in an obi-like belt to represent, he said — after doing a little soft shoe shuffle — “East meets West.” Hong Chau, of “The Whale,” asked Prada to add a mandarin collar to her shell pink gown to represent, she said, her roots. And Malala Yousafzai, an executive producer of the short film “Stranger at the Gate,” in silver sequined Ralph Lauren with an integral hood/head scarf, demonstrated that high glamour and cultural values were not oppositional entities.

It was a reminder of the bigger context around these moments of shared pop culture escapism, which may also help explain the preponderance of white, by far the most popular color of the evening, and one that calls to mind fresh starts and peace, among other associations. (That’s one way to read it anyway; “Navalny” did win for best documentary, and assorted attendees were wearing blue ribbons to stand #WithRefugees.) See Michelle Yeoh, whose precedent-setting best actress win will also make her swan-like Dior gown a part of Hollywood history, and, perhaps, usher in a new era. Also Mindy Kaling, in corseted Vera Wang, the boning exposed; Rooney Mara, wrapped in Alexander McQueen mist; Emily Blunt in a strapless Valentino column; and Paul Mescal in a Gucci white dinner jacket with extra-wide lapels.

In a show of true “I wore it first” power, Lady Gaga’s Versace came straight from that brand’s Los Angeles runway show the Thursday night before the Oscars, trumped in the statement-making stakes only by her expectation-defying and entirely nonbranded (nonbranded!) switcheroo into a washed-out black T-shirt and ripped jeans to perform. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman’s one-armed sequined Armani had asymmetric oompf, and Elizabeth Olsen’s backless Givenchy offered a little slithery fringe as a finale. As for Danai Gurira, her Jason Wu gown was understated elegance incarnate.

Then there were the princess gowns: acres of tulle modeled by Sofia Carson in white Giambattista Valli, Stephanie Hsu in Valentino, and Halle Bailey in sea-foam green Dolce & Gabbana. Such fairy-tale frippery is an undeniable red carpet cliché, but at least when it came to Ms. Bailey, the look was also a clever nod to her role as Ariel, a.k.a. the Little Mermaid, in the upcoming film; a bit of strategic movie-marketing magic and a fashion double entendre that took the dress to a whole different level. (Also, let’s be grateful for small favors: A princess gown trumps the even more tired cliché of a mermaid gown every time. At least the wearer can walk.)

The move that deserves the most applause, both from a personal style and point-making perspective, however, is the embrace of vintage. Ms. Mara’s McQueen hailed from a 2008 collection; Winnie Harlow stepped out in Armani circa 2005; Vanessa Hudgens wore old Chanel; and Cate Blanchett appeared in a Louis Vuitton top with jutting shoulders that had been unearthed from the archives, paired with a bias-cut sustainable silk skirt for a serious Joan Crawford vibe.

If the awards show circuit has become in part a piece of promotional fashion content, this was a potent reminder that the attention paid to what everyone wears can actually be used for a higher purpose than just promoting new stuff. Unlike the decision to swap the carpet’s color, the reworn looks actually made the de facto catwalk seem relevant.

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