I was sceptical of #WhyWeWearBlack, the hashtag that accompanied the Golden Globe awards on Sunday night. The statement of the evening was designed to raise awareness of Time’s Up, a fund run by the National Women’s Law Center to subsidise “legal support for individuals who have experienced sexual harassment or related retaliation in the workplace”. Its advocates — male and female — had been urged to wear black on the red carpet in solidarity.
While I endorse all efforts to highlight social injustice, I couldn’t suppress a flash of belligerence at the suggestion that these stars might now be at the fore of a revolution that will overthrow the patriarchy and forever change the workplace. So much clenched-jaw urgency and sanctimony makes me edgy. I feel similarly conflicted about many other agencies of sororal support, such as Mumsnet, The Wing — a US-based office space “for women on their way” — or any one of those women-in-business social networks that encourage you to sip warm white wine and drone on about the status quo. I resist the notion I should be genetically compelled to empower other women, especially when I am being told to do so by a rich lady. Among the chief spokespeople for Time’s Up are Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman, two of the most highly remunerated women in the business. I had reservations.
Moreover, making one’s dress symbolic of the ills of a sexist industry felt a little disingenuous when so many of those dresses were being provided by fashion houses paying huge fortunes to the actresses working as their ambassadors. Would the same actresses be signing over a percentage of their earnings — the money they might get for wearing certain jewels, or endorsing certain fashion houses, for example — to the legal fund as well? And, surely, if they wanted to make a statement about gender representation, they could start by wearing only female designers; women occupy only 25 per cent of leadership positions in the fashion industry.
The new Globes dress code afforded women the same status as the men... and made a powerful statement
However. I admit. I was wrong. Very wrong. Looking at the scrolling feeds of women dressed in their black gowns and tuxedos, I realised their tonal uniformity did make for a powerful statement. By rejecting the typically flamboyant, sparkly, colourful and spangled red-carpet looks in which they tend to look like paid peacocks, they actually looked like real people. And although the dresses were still designer, and highly individual, they worked in a collective sense. Even the fact that many of the actresses “accessorised” their looks with female activists, whom they brought as their dates, was not as completely nauseating as I had imagined it would be. In fact, the arrangement looked authentic and rather charming.
More striking yet was that, having been liberated from the ghastly Baby Jane pastel tulles, the hideous florals and metallic mermaid-skirts, these women looked happy to be there. Ordinarily, the red carpet is a rictus of fear and self-doubt. Possibly, their joy was the simple relief of not having to endure the attentions of Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced film producer who must have regarded the awards season as a slave owner might have eyed an auction in the antebellum South. Was it a corollary of his influence that his Hollywood accession coincided with the extreme sexualisation of red-carpet dressing, where an actress’s worth was measured in her ability to pull off a flesh-baring gown or an infantile fairy frock? Instead, the new Globes dress code afforded women the same status as the men, and even while they looked elegant (it was by far the chicest red carpet I’ve seen), the clothes never upstaged the women inside them. They were taken seriously. No commentator even dared ask “about the dress”, as is the norm at award dos. Which was kind of a shame because, for the first time, the dresses had something to say.
We may wear black to express faith, service, devotion or authority. Many interpreted this outing as an expression of the griefs associated with so much abuse — and some have criticised the funereal tone in a climate that should be celebrating the absolute freedom of female expression. I thought it chimed perfectly with the principles of mourning dress first codified and made mandatory for widows of that era by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. An outward signal of one’s innermost feelings, a widow would gradually “slight” her mourning, removing the silk crêpe trimmings and adopting paler greys and mauves over a period of time lasting between three months and two years. She would mark her re-entry to normal public life by wearing white.
The loss of Weinstein is no mourning matter. We should be cheering. But I think it right the industry should be lamenting the horrible behaviours that still exist in Hollywood and beyond. This visual statement for a visual medium seemed a good way to send the message. Just how long everyone might be required to adhere to this new dress code is more complicated. The Golden Globes, the first major awards of the season, were considered a one-off. Most anticipate that the following ceremonies will move — metaphorically at least — through all the greys and purples to emerge, in dazzling white, for the Oscars.
But how marvellous it would be if, like Queen Victoria, who stubbornly held on to her crêpe for 40 years until her death, the code became the norm. No more red-carpet surveys, no more “who wore it better” ratings and, best of all, no more ghastly mermaid dresses. I say, bring on the blackout.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.