For people who’ve been following red carpets since the Joan Rivers days, watching stars answer questions about their fashion choices at the Golden Globes pre-show last night felt like a bizarro simulacrum, for better or worse. Better, for moments like when Evan Rachel Wood — who was wearing a custom Altuzarra tuxedo complete with a white cummerbund and pussybow — turned to Ryan Seacrest, and said: “I love dresses, but I wanted to make sure that young girls and women know that they aren’t a requirement — you don’t have to wear one if you don’t want to.” Worse, because people are still asking those typical, sexist-lite questions, like when Jenna Bush Hager skipped past Nicole Kidman to ask Keith Urban if he gets final approval on what his wife wears. The icy looks both celebrities returned conveyed that what Bush said was totally off, and it was embarrassing for her to not know that. Last night's red carpet felt different, because the underlying assumption that red carpet questions had to be banal was dashed — but not everyone knew how to deal.
Celebrities and their interviewers both have had a lot to learn about the art of using clothes to do PR. The problem is that the question “who are you wearing” is not an effective way to talk about anything besides, literally, the label you're wearing. During E!’s pre-show broadcast last night, Seacrest consistently fumbled that question, as if he sort of knew that he wasn’t supposed to ask it, but had to anyway. The results were gut-wrenchingly awkward. When he urged Emma Stone, “Tell me about your dress,” she stared at him blankly. Then she answered: “Um...well, it’s pink, and there are stars on it.” He muttered the same question under his breath to Michelle Williams. She responded, “are you whispering, or…?” And then, the best-worst question of the night was heaped on an unsuspecting Viola Davis, who wore a striking one-shouldered Michael Kors gown. Seacrest asked Davis,“What color is your dress?” (It was yellow, for the record.) Seacrest may not be well-versed in fashion-speak, but really any question would have been better than that one. You ask about the mood the dress evokes (“what does it mean that Davis broke her neutral streak and went with a bold, confident color this time?”); address the personal touches the actress chose to add (Williams’ shoestring choker was perhaps the most hyped internet trend of the evening: “is this something you saw on Instagram, or something you came up with yourself?”), and the connections between the dress and the film (Stone’s Valentino dress was very much a princess gown — “did she think her role in La La Land presented the typical damsel trope?”). Actresses who already think this way will be able to draw a line from “Who are you wearing” to that, and will know that the correct answer has little to do with reciting the label. Others will need a little help. But it’s not their job to interview themselves on the red carpet — which might mean that networks need to hire people who know about fashion to talk about fashion.
This new way of thinking about the way celebrities should be asked about their fashion choices is at the heart of #AskHerMore, the Twitter campaign that urges red carpet commentators to ask female celebrities more substantive questions. The hashtag was borne out of the 2014 Emmy's, which many consider a pile-on of everything that was wrong with red carpet interviews: invasive, head-to-toe scanning cameras and “mani cams,” reporters asking actresses about their bodies while actors were asked about their work, and an on-stage stunt where Sofia Vergara — one of the the most successful women in Hollywood — rotated on a pedestal like a floor model automobile, while the CEO of the Television Academy made a joke about giving viewers “something compelling to watch.” Male actors, who typically wear slight variations on the same tuxedo, weren't subjected to this line of questioning and commentary. Those on Twitter pointed out these examples of subtle and explicit awards-show sexism, and demanded that reporters inquire beyond what actresses are wearing to #AskHerMore. Critics of the campaign pointed out that celebrities are returning the favor to designers who lend them clothes in return for publicity. But, it doesn’t have to be all fashion or none whatsoever. Let’s get this straight — the celebrity-industrial complex needs the red carpet. Without a dedicated opportunity to give “free” press to designers and fashion houses, celebrities would need to actually pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing they wear to their countless events. But, as we’ve seen, to focus solely on the label behind the clothes leads to a really dull interview (at best), and supports a culture where what women wear is more important than what women think and do (at worst).
We don’t have to look far for a best-case example of substantive-fashion-as-PR playing out. What Michelle Obama has worn during the past eight years as First Lady has helped positively form public opinion of her. But, her clothes have always led a supporting role to whatever she’s aiming to convey, whether it’s about the importance of exercise or merely making a foreign family feel like they have a friend in The White House. When Obama wore a Versace chainmail dress during her final state dinner in honor of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini, it was to say something about the fortitude and audacity of women. (It’s worth noting that what she’s worn has also proved to be good business. Very few people have the power to sell as much merchandise as FLOTUS, and her continued support of independent designers and American brands have proved to be a boon for the fashion industry.)
This was something HIllary Clinton picked up during the 2016 election. Even though Clinton isn’t known for her daring fashion choices and she’s criticized reporters for not asking her more in the past (in 2010, she questioned a reporter who asked her to list her favorite designers, “Would you ever ask a man that question?), the clothes she nevertheless chose were full of symbolism. When Clinton wore white to her nomination, many caught on that it was a nod to the white dresses suffragettes wore who fought for women’s enfranchisement; the purple in her concession speech was to buttress her message of unity, and how important it will be for red and blue to come together. Many of the actresses last night seem to channel that ethos and parlayed it into some of the best PR moments of the evening. Aside from Evan Rachel Woods’ suit, Felicity Huffman told The Golden Globes’ live-streaming team that she wore a pantsuit in honor of Hillary, and Lola Kirke matched her floral Andrew Gn gown with a “Fuck Paul Ryan” pin. And Kerry Washington, the first Black actress to star in a major network drama in over 40 years, jumped at the chance to talk about how she was also the first person to wear Dolce & Gabbana’s couture line, Moda, on the red carpet. It was a subtle connection for Washington but a salient one, and an aspect of her career that she has the right to remind the world of every chance she gets. It can be an awkward transition from “Who are you wearing” to #askhermore, but fashion doesn’t have to be removed from the conversation to make this switch. Clothes — especially ones that are carefully picked out and considered like red carpet dresses — can be an incredible conduit to translate what you stand for and your art’s mission, especially when only the few winners get the opportunity to step up to the podium and use the evening’s platform to speak out. Designers get a shoutout, celebrities get to connect with valued issues, hosts get to engage in meaningful discussions, and viewers don’t have to watch these interviews from behind their fingers anymore. For those of us who actually enjoy keeping tabs on what people wear, that’s the “more” we’re asking for.