In Hollywood, there is a truth even worse than “no good deed goes unpunished,” and it is that no good deed goes without a public relations campaign. And so Sunday night at the Golden Globes, attendees were asked to wear black as part of #TimesUp, the initiative formally announced on the first day of this year with a full-page ad in The New York Times with the slogan: “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” The initiative’s accompanying letter, written on behalf of “over 300 women who work in film, television and theater,” was a response to the letter from Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization of current and former women farmworkers, published on November 10, 2017, offering solidarity and support as truths about men in Hollywood were coming to light. The Time’s Up announcement was not just a letter with good intentions, or just a website selling merchandise (although it did have that as well). The initiative established a legal defense fund through the National Women’s Law Center, and over the weekend the fund reached its goal of raising $15 million; the online store, which currently is accepting pre-orders for pins, tote bags, T-shirts, and other dependably low-cost and high-visibility clothing items, will donate 100 percent of the proceeds to the fund. On the red carpet, actresses attended in their black dresses and brought activists as their dates, like Michelle Williams with Tarana Burke, and Laura Dern with Móníca Ramírez; when Ryan Seacrest attempted to do something silly, like speak, the actresses used their years of media training to redirect the conversation to what smarter women had to say. The red carpet was made into the site of an organized protest—in lieu of an actual boycott, which Kerry Washington mentioned was considered by herself and other actresses, the women of Hollywood made the black dress into a shared symbol.
Over the decades, we have come to expect the red carpet to be a place for the strangest kinds of conversations: a combination of the unbearably banal—who are you wearing?—and questions that would be wildly inappropriate at a dinner party or any reasonably socialized setting—when are you having more kids? People stumble. Anchors and journalists reveal themselves to be underprepared, actors and actresses trip over their canned sound bites. Including a political dimension of any kind adds a new way to fail: the distasteful work of promoting a good cause has a way of ruining it entirely. Few ideas are strong enough when placed beside a mani-cam.
What a powerful person wears in solidarity can also cover a multitude of sins. Social media made much of Justin Timberlake beaming into his Instagram selfie, his #TimesUp pin prominently displayed, while the Woody Allen movie that he stars in is, inexplicably, still in theaters. But who knows how many offending men are still in that audience, smiling in their black tuxedos and behind their pins, doing the least and receiving the most? That’s not a hypothetical question. There are women who know the answer.
So with the understanding that token gestures are symbolic at best and hollow at worst, it was also true that a woman wearing a black dress to a red carpet like the Golden Globes did have a pronounced impact on the show. Another unpleasant truth about protests and publicity: a visual element is a necessary part of a successful campaign. Slogans and stickers are signs of solidarity—which is not the same thing as solidarity itself, although they are frequently confused—with their own distinct purpose. The fashion of red carpets always has been used to signify a value system—money, power, status, conformity. This year was different only for being explicitly choreographed and carefully spoken. Every photo of the Golden Globes red carpet will, today and as a reference for all years in the future, require an understanding of Time’s Up and the causes that necessitated it. What we can see are the symbols—the visual elements representing an alliance, and a cause, and a belief system. Making clothing representative of a cause is not what inherently cheapens a complicated thought; words are more than capable of doing that on their own.
It is also worth pointing out that, contrary to conventional wisdom about the ease and elegance of a black dress, it is not easy to photograph a black dress. Black is a color stylists and experts normally discourage their clients from wearing to an awards show, for this exact reason: a red carpet, which almost always takes place during a sunny afternoon, is aggressively lit for the many different television stations doing rapid-fire interviews up and down the entrance way. The photo-pit is a mess of flash. If the black is the wrong texture or covers too much skin, the dress will act as a kind of anti-bounce board, reflecting shadows onto the face, which is where any actress worth her salt knows she needs the most light. Erica Cloud, a stylist, was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying that “Too much black just becomes a black hole—a universe of nothing.” That’s a little dramatic, but yeah, more or less: Without a lot of work to counteract its tendency to absorb light, black as a color will pull in the wrong sort of attention. Black dresses don’t offer a natural contrast, so details of texture or embroidery will be lost in the slideshows that have become the major traffic generators for most fashion and entertainment websites (as are the nostalgic anniversary posts commemorating red-carpet outfits in the past), or when they’re printed in the few remaining weekly magazine publications that do a best-dressed list.
Much like The Emoji Movie or some similarly cynical enterprise, the red carpet is a mostly stupid concept with a very serious purpose: to make money. Designers depend on their names being dropped on red carpets, and stylists spend all year preparing their clients to look their best; media properties across all mediums invest just as much—if not more—into red-carpet coverage as they do the actual awards shows. A sudden change, within a few weeks of the air time, probably was a real shock to publishers and producers, who are the real audience for this protest. The effect on viewers at home was negligible. What made a black dress a protest was that an industry convention was given up in favor of something that a majority has decided is more important.
The practice of protesting on the red carpet is also one with its own historical roots. When the United States entered World War II, attendees at the Academy Awards wore dark colors in support; at the 1972 Oscars, Jane Fonda wore a black Yves Saint Laurent suit with what is known as a “Mao collar” in protest of the Vietnam War. Cher’s 1986 Academy Awards Bob Mackie outfit was allegedly in response to an offensive memo the Academy put out saying that actresses, in their estimation, had been wearing too many pantsuits, and should dress “appropriately.”
On past red carpets, actresses have served another role: as decoration. It is widely known that Harvey Weinstein used the awards show circuit as a way of expanding and confirming his power over the industry, and over women in particular, installing his wife, Georgina Chapman, and her brand Marchesa as the primary choice for traditional red-carpet gowns. In 2014, Weinstein bought the rights to license Charles James, one of the most significant brands in American fashion history—the designer credited with bringing couture to the United States, and one of the inspirations for Daniel Day-Lewis’s character in Phantom Thread—and planned on appointing Chapman as creative director. He also knew how important an allegiance through clothing was, and planned to use it for his own ends: turning women into trophies themselves, while the men who made the movies reaped the real rewards. We are more used to seeing the red carpet as a place where people do their politicking—their campaign for better awards, better roles, better meetings with better producers. The black dresses made the red carpet into something that works for actresses, rather than something actresses must work at.
Recently someone told me that when it comes to organizing meaningful actions, we must differentiate between what is cathartic and what is strategic. It is cathartic to wear a black dress and a pin to an awards show; it has the air of a good deed, easily done, an action that comes with its own gold star just for showing up. It does not seem to have the hard labor of a real strategy. But it does function as a representative of a strategy: a showing of that $15 million in legal funds. The red carpet was, Sunday night, a place for women in the film industry to protest in their own way in a place that has been so hostile to them in the past. And while it is unwise to accept anything here wholeheartedly—because we have seen so many good intentions come and go over the course of an awards show’s campaigning, and we have also seen the damage celebrities can do when they start to consider themselves elected representatives—it might be worth hoping that Sunday night’s Golden Globes become a slightly higher bar for everyone else to hold themselves accountable to. After all, there’s another truth about Hollywood: There’s always another red carpet.