The first Oscars ceremony took place in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, in 1929, and lasted fifteen minutes. The real draws were the gourmet dinner (fillet of sole or broiled chicken) and the live orchestra; the prizes were an afterthought, at best. The evening, as the actress Janet Gaynor told the Times, in 1982, felt “more like a private party than a big public ceremony.” The Academy Awards went on for another twenty-four years without being televised. In that sense, it was a private party from its inception, an insular night set aside for show-biz fat cats to pat each other on the back for another boffo year of running the dream factory. It was only after the Oscars’ first telecast, in 1953, that the show began to snowball into an international eyeball magnet. Soon, the Academy appointed the notorious costume designer Edith Head to serve as “fashion consultant.” In a memo to attendees, in 1968, she suggested that women wear “formal evening gowns either Maxi or floor length, preferably pastel shades.” The dress code loosened up somewhat during the louche seventies (think Farrah Fawcett in a slinky, strappy, unstructured gold lamé slip dress) and the winsome eighties (Sissy Spacek accepted her 1981 Oscar for “Coal Miner’s Daughter” wearing a simple, black jumpsuit and a messy, undone ponytail). Then, in 1991, the Academy hired the Rodeo Drive boutique owner Fred Hayman to serve as the new fashion coördinator, urging him to implement a new kind of sartorial martial law. “A lot of stars, in my opinion, don’t appear as glamorous as they should at the Oscars,” he said that year. “They don’t give the public what a grand evening like this demands.”
What kind of grand evening does a year like this past one demand? Owing to COVID-19 safety restrictions, the Oscars on Sunday took place not in the cavernous Dolby Theatre but in Los Angeles’s Union Station, in a tiered room that looked more like a set for an intimate staging of “Cabaret” (or, perhaps, a throwback to the 1929 ceremony). Presenters wandered freely among the small crowd, and guests sat at generously spaced tables and chatted with nominees as if they were already at the after-party. Perhaps because of the show’s shrunken proportions, its producers, including the director Steven Soderbergh, imposed an ambitious dress code for the evening: the clothes, at least, would allow viewers a brief interlude of fantasy. “We’re aiming for a fusion of Inspirational and Aspirational,” they wrote in a memo sent ahead of the ceremony, channelling a bit of Fred Hayman. “Formal is totally cool if you want to go there, but casual is really not.”
It was a vaguely worded assignment, and it yielded a pleasingly eclectic mix. Is it not “aspirational” to see “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao in plain white sneakers, a soft oatmeal-colored Hermès knit dress, and a cross-body bag from her own closet? Zhao looked as chic as she did comfortable, and remained true to the unembellished aesthetic that she has maintained throughout her Oscar campaign. Emerald Fennell, who won Best Original Screenplay, for “Promising Young Woman,” wore a garden-party-ready Gucci floral maxi that she described as the look of a “pottery teacher that has a business opportunity for you that absolutely isn’t a pyramid scheme.”
Plenty of others arrived in bold gowns and suits that telegraphed old-school Oscars glamour. Amanda Seyfried’s epic, voluminous Armani Privé tulle trumpet gown was the bright red of a heavily syruped cherry snow cone. Carey Mulligan’s two-piece Valentino gown was the gleaming yellow-orange of the lunar lander, or a lucky Wonka ticket. Leslie Odom, Jr., also came in head-to-toe gold, and his take was literal—his double-breasted Brioni suit was made of thread dipped in twenty-four-carat metal. Laura Dern wore an Oscar de La Renta skirt made of so many feathers that it could double as a comforter, while Colman Domingo’s hot-pink Versace suit provided an ocular blast. Angela Bassett arrived in a cheerful, puff-sleeve organza dress the color of a strawberry Blow Pop. The most prominent colors of the night were vibrant and sentimental: candy pink, Corvette crimson, gilt, and chrome. In another context, these shades could conjure a garish Valentine’s Day display at a drugstore. But here, they looked like a kind of well-intentioned, and perhaps slightly desperate, push toward optimism. As Diana Vreeland said, the eye has to travel, especially when so many of us have not moved far from our couches for more than a year.
The two outfits that stole the show and set the tone were those of LaKeith Stanfield and Regina King. Stanfield lost the Best Supporting Actor award to his “Judas and the Black Messiah” co-star Daniel Kaluuya, but his look, a high-waisted Saint Laurent jumpsuit with a cinched black leather belt and a large-wingspan collar—and paired with butterscotch-tinted sunglasses—was the most swaggering and sexy look of the night. King’s dress, a structured Art Deco Louis Vuitton column the frosty blue of a glacier, was a showstopper that was also a show opener: Soderbergh began the broadcast with a kinetic opening-credits sequence of King clomping through Union Station, which promised a far flashier program than the one that followed.
There were other moments of visual thrill: the crisp pockets on Yuh-jung Youn’s navy Marmar Halim dress and her “Minari” co-star Alan Kim’s teeny-tiny Thom Browne fit, complete with a jaunty pair of knee socks. Paul Raci of “Sound of Metal” wearing chipped black nail polish. Renée Zellweger’s strapless gown in the refreshing hue of iced cantaloupe, and Frances McDormand—a paragon of stripped-down style—exercising a rare indulgence with a marabou trim on her simple black gown. In the end, the clothes may have been more memorable than the ceremony itself, but the constraints of the evening came with a sense of relief. The Oscars—and the Hollywood establishment that they enshrine—are no longer the private, closed-door party that they were almost a century ago. They are now a very public reflection of whose stories we value, and, in that sense, this ceremony felt like the healthiest we’ve seen. Youn became the first Korean woman to win an acting award. Zhao became the first woman of color to win Best Director (and the second woman to win the award at all), and her subdued film about economic struggle and aging won Best Picture over some of the more bombastic and nostalgic offerings. Amid this welcome course correction (with the exception of a strange, anticlimactic Best Actor outcome), the personal style remained bracing and bouncy—a promenade of what we have been missing, and what may be yet to come.