08.04.11

Helena Bonham Carter, Style Rebel

The eccentric actress was conspicuously missing from Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed List this year. But the Anti-Kate Middleton is still crucial to British fashion, says Isabel Wilkinson.

Vanity Fair’s annual Best Dressed List, released this week, included its fair share of usual suspects: political power couples, well-groomed European royals, ambiguously employed young socialites, and the infamous Duchess of Alba. There was Michelle Obama, and, to everyone’s delight, Kate Middleton made the list, too.

But conspicuously missing was a little grunge. Helena Bonham Carter, who was among the Best Dressed in 2010, this year found herself royally snubbed. Though she was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech, and appeared on the red carpet in a series of head-turning ensembles in 2010, Bonham Carter was overlooked in favor of polished jetsetters and bachelors in expensively tailored suits. The pages of the magazine seemed to cry out for a much-needed dose of bonkers.

No style star shone brighter this year than that of Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, whose crowning achievement was the famous wedding dress by Alexander McQueen that seemed to strike simultaneous notes of British refinement and fashion forwardness. In a series of pitch-perfect Issa wrap dresses—whose knock-offs trickled down to every corner of High Street—Middleton has ushered in a shift in British fashion. Thanks to the Duchess, an obsession with grunge and bed head has been replaced by an interest in impeccable polish. “Even a year ago, everyone wanted to look like Kate Moss,” says former Tatler editor Catherine Ostler. “Now they’re over it and want to look peachy-Middleton-clean.”

If British girls are scrubbing up, then one casualty is certainly Bonham Carter, who represents classic grunge in all its glory—mismatched, eccentric, and off the wall. She proudly marches to the beat of her own drum when it comes to fashion, existing largely outside of any trend, and above any style mandate. Duchess of Cambridge, meet your arch-nemesis.

In a pair of mismatched Prada shoes (one red, one green) at the Golden Globes, Bonham Carter gave the impression that she had scoured her home in search of the missing shoe for hours until finally giving up and settling for a different color. At several formal awards shows, including the Oscars, she arrived in a pair of sunglasses, as if she was out to lunch in Beverly Hills and decided to swing by the party on her way home. “It’s almost shocking to see someone that unstyled and someone who has clearly dressed themselves rather than outsourced their taste,” says Ostler.

In some ways, she appears to be an aesthetic composite of her best film roles. You imagine her dressed in a white dressing gown and waking up in a four-post bed as Lucy Honeychurch from Room With a View; by teatime she’s the diabolical Queen of Hearts; and at night, she’s Harry Potter’s dark villain, Bellatrix Lestrange. And who knows what she’ll turn up in next year, as she’s set to play Miss Havisham in an adaptation of Great Expectations set for 2012. Bonham Carter seems to mischievously reinterpret her film roles on the red carpet, too: at the Oscars, where she was nominated for her role as the queen in The King’s Speech, the actress lifted up her dress to reveal a garter with the Union Jack. At the premiere of Alice in Wonderland, she carried a small clutch embroidered with the image of the Queen of Hearts.

You won’t see a picture of her leaving the grocery store in a pair of Juicy Couture sweatpants in the pages of Us Weekly—instead, she’ll be on the back page, the “What Not to Wear” section, awaiting the snark of freelance comedians for some kooky ensemble she put together. Certainly, as the face of Marc Jacobs’ fall campaign, Bonham Carter steps into mainstream fashion—which she’s so far largely avoided.

But like Middleton, Bonham Carter, 45, is a champion of homegrown talent, and often chooses British labels. Her favorite is Vivienne Westwood, the legendary designer revered as an early shepherd of the grunge aesthetic in Britain, whose dresses and skirts Bonham Carter has worn and—thumbing her nose to convention—reworn on multiple occasions.  

Even if it has been overlooked on the pages of a certain glossy magazine this year, the grunge aesthetic is, thanks to Bonham Carter, alive and well in the U.K. “Kate Middleton and Helena Bonham Carter represent two different ends of the fashion spectrum for English fashion,” says London-based celebrity stylist Joanne Black. “Both are iconic in their style, and they do represent different elements of what British fashion has—both punk and polish.”

In Bonham Carter's words, the point is having a good time. “Fashion is all about having fun,” the actress told People magazine last year. “I think fashion has been hijacked by the fashion industry creating rules on what one should wear, and I feel like breaking the mold and seeing that the world won’t crumble.” And, tipping her hat to her critics, she added: “Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I get it wrong.” Sure, there’s something in her hair—and teeth—but that’s all part of the charm, darling.