Of all the return-to-normal rituals, not many felt as frivolous as award season’s comeback. After a debilitating 2020, did we really need to watch rich, beautiful people dress up? The answer surprised us.
After we saw Lil Nas X in slinky, glittering Versace at the Met Gala, or Harry Styles in a Gucci feather boa, or just about anything the stylist Law Roach put Anya Taylor-Joy in, the answer was a resounding, if unexpected, “we missed this!”
This year’s best look proved, as my colleague Tim Teeman wrote after the Met Gala, that red carpet fashion roared back best when it kept its “insanity intact.” We’ve had enough of pretty dresses (though some, like Taylor-Joy and Megan Thee Stallion, still do those very well).
Now is the time for monster dressing—whether it’s boob-tastic naked styles, clothes that resemble costumes, or a really out-there accessory, such as the lung-shaped Schiaparelli chest plate Bella Hadid gamely wore to Cannes.
Fashion people—so, celebrities, stylists, editors, and designers—were not quite sure what to expect as 2021 began to unfold. Typically, award season begins in earnest in early January, when the Golden Globes bring contenders to the Beverly Hilton for a boozy night of speeches and their first big outfit of their press tour. But this year was different; the Globes were held at home.
Most nominees and guests rented swanky hotel rooms, or showed off the backyards or their mansion, ending up with the ultimate control of their image. They posted staged-to-the-maximum photos of their dresses on Instagram, no step and repeat necessary.
E! News proved that Giuliana Rancic will survive the apocalypse to ask us all what we’re wearing: the host still broadcast from an IRL red carpet, speaking mostly to people who were there to present. But the whole scene had the whiff of a Target parking lot right before closing: slightly desperate and very empty, with visions of tumbleweeds—and a Black Tie dress code.
Cynthia Erivo, styled by Jason Bolden, took the time to model what became a winning equation for many nominees this year: funky color, gigantic silhouette, and a surprising accessory. She wore a neon green Valentino with a full skirt, plus silver platform boots and white opera gloves. It was fun, it was fresh, it was enough to make us forget we live in hell now.
Zooming in from a hotel room, Regina King opted for a shimmering metallic Louis Vuitton. She posed in front of her dog Cornbread, who snoozed on a dog bed. Her captivating, over-the-top glam juxtaposed with the weirdness of staying inside was the perfect visual for how stylists and celebs spent the season coping, and doing what they could, to ensure the show went on.
“I had been moodboarding from my couch for a good part of a year,” Danyul Brown, a stylist who’s worked with John Legend, Demi Lovato, Paris Jackson, and Joe Jonas, told The Daily Beast. “Although some [award ceremonies] were virtual, it was nice to be back in the mix with creatives again. I felt creatively free.”
Brown said he saw a few trends take hold this year: “lots of color clashing, sharp evening wear, and casual glamour.” What does it mean? “[Those are] symbols of mixed emotions, authority, and an attempt to channel big energy as we were coming out of lockdown,” he added.
The Oscars, held three months later in April, promised a return to red carpets as we know it. Zoom was out and the red carpet was erected again. Many of the looks had an unabashed, Old Hollywood feel. Borat’s Maria Bakalova came dripping in ivory Louis Vuitton, which featured an impressive 100 layers of tulle. Carey Mulligan wore shimmering gold Valentino that showed off her abs. A welder helped create Andra Day’s slinky metal Vera Wang number. Regina King wore 6,200 sequins and 4,000 crystals, according to her stylists Wayman Bannerman and Micah McDonald. As one should for the occasion.
But it wasn’t all midcentury re-done for 2021. Some people showed up looking very comfortable, which probably helped with nerves. Chloé Zhao wore braids and sneakers. H.E.R. had a purple ensemble, complete with dramatic cape, that appeared to be a nod to the outfit Prince wore to the ceremony in 1985. LaKeith Stanfield, celebrating across the pond in London, looked very ’70s—and extremely hot—in a belted Saint Laurent jumpsuit.
Even after the Oscars effectively ended the 2020 season, summer festivals like Cannes and Venice kept the outfits coming. There were movies with stars that were bound to get fashion people talking—Lady Gaga in House of Gucci, and Timothée Chalamet in Dune and The French Dispatch. Gaga understands the stakes are high and delivers; she wore the Italian brand for the London premiere in a buzzed-about lavender look, posing for cameras and throwing her cape around with aplomb.
Chalamet, who co-hosted the Met Gala in September alongside Billie Eilish, Amanda Gorman, and Naomi Osaka, absolutely ate up the Cannes red carpet in a metallic Tom Ford suit. His more modern presence eclipsed the latest comeback for Georgina Chapman, Harvey Weinstein’s ex and founder of the slightly disgraced label Marchesa. She walked the carpet with her new partner, Adrien Brody, in a very old school, black tulle gown.
The type of dress Weinstein might bully an actress to wear to the Oscars in 2010. When shown alongside riskier looks like Chalamet’s outfit of Tilda Swinton in a Haider Ackerman jumpsuit, Chapman’s attempt appeared dated. In 2021, it was not simply enough to look pretty and feminine on a red carpet—fashion had to communicate a freshness, an excitement, a point of view.
The first weeks of fall brought a deluge of garment bags to New York, which celebrated the return of Fashion Week, the VMAs, and the Met Gala. It was a dizzying few days for fashion people, who seemed to sustain themselves on whatever new visual moment was coming from Lil Nas X or Billy Porter (maybe they also relied on some Adderall, too.)
And man, were there moments. Megan Fox showed up to the VMAs nearly naked, in a see-through Dolce & Gabbana dress that was so risqué it probably kept the lights on at The Daily Mail offices for a week. Her date, Machine Gun Kelly, wore a glittering red suit that was so good if you forget he is, regrettably, Machine Gun Kelly.
There was also the singer Kim Petras, in Richard Quinn, wearing a black latex gimp mask and art teacher chic peasant dress. A day later, she’d be at the Met Gala dressed like a horse—with a horsehead as an accessory—with Collina Strada designer Hillary Taymour as her date.
There was joyful metallic dressing, as seen on Iman, who showed up to the Met Gala gone full sun queen in a mammoth hat by Harris Reid. Then there was Kim Kardashian, much-memed in her literal head-to-toe, all-black onesie. Rihanna showed up late, but looked very cozy in a comforter-turned-dress by Balenciaga. It was more than a month before Halloween, but Jennifer Lopez did her best Sexy Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman outfit, in brown Ralph Lauren. Pete Davidson wore a skirt, and Grimes brought a big-ass sword.
But no star gathered the amount of attention as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who came in a white gown that was bridal in the front, but screamed “Tax the Rich” on the back. (Some said the font looked a little Dr. Seuss, others said it reminded them of Chic-fil-A. Everyone was right.)
Ocasio-Cortez said she took the opportunity to get people interested in pay inequality, but as Black Lives Matter protesters were roughly arrested by police outside, her own sartorial demonstration got a little upstaged. Not to mention her move inspired countless, and very annoying, GOP-renditions. (Perhaps most visibly, Lauren Boebert wore a knockoff that read “Let’s go Brandon”—aka “Fuck Joe Biden”—to a Trump event in Florida.)
Later that month, the Emmys hit Los Angeles, and the very best outfits toasted the absolute unexpected. SNL stars Keenan Thompson and Bowen Yang were especially delightful; Thompson wore a baby pink suit and Yang had on absolutely fabulous metallic platform boots from SYRO, a queer and Asian-owned brand based in Brooklyn.
“I think the first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, queer Asians are supporting other queer Asians,’” Shaobo Han, co-founder of the brand with Henry Bae, told The Daily Beast at the time. “Not only did the shoes look fabulous on him, it kind of shows how with red carpets, the Emmys, and Hollywood, gender queerness is breaking in. We’re seeing it with so many other celebrities, and to see an Asian face from New York carry it off the way he did is incredible. There’s a whole generation of young Asian queer people looking at this moment like, ‘He did it, I could do it.’”
And so 2021 was less about the return of the red carpet, but the vaporization of old rules it once played for. Celebrities pose for the cameras, but looking good will always come naturally to them. This year, their clothes also had to stand for something. And sometimes, as in the case of Bowen Yang, the celebs stood tall in extra high heels that had a story to tell.