Ah, the Oscars. With fashion’s and Hollywood’s biggest night upon us, Glamour invited author Michael Callahan, an expert in old-Hollywood fashion and author of the new book Searching for Grace Kelly, to uncover what timeless style means today—and how contemporary red carpet stars measure up to icons past.
Lauren Bacall, Jackie Kennedy, and Grace Kelly understood the art of chic restraint in their day.
Hollywood and fashion have long made for loving bedfellows. Who could forget Audrey Hepburn’s little black Givenchy dresses, Lauren Bacall’s plunging columns, or Grace Kelly’s namesake Hermes bag? And yet while it was once fairly easy to declare an actress eternally chic, the task has become much less obvious in today’s Instagram-my-outfit generation. What now separates the trendsetters from the sartorial revolutionaries? Of the red carpet stars today, whose style will transcend? What makes an actress worthy of a spot alongside the icons of yesteryear?
The secret is in one word: restraint. It’s the sheer power of holding back, of keeping one’s own counsel, of mystery. (Picture Kelly’s Frances Stevens in To Catch a Thief, thoroughly discombobulating Cary Grant.) That’s what Grace and Audrey and even Jackie Kennedy had in common. You didn’t know everything they thought or did, because they didn’t want you to know. Whether in beautiful evening clothes or their button-down sleeveless blouses and jeans, they held something back, gave us enough room to project our own fantasies onto them. There is so little left to the imagination anymore, so little we don’t know.
One roadblock for stars looking to capture this enduring style is the pace of fashion trends today. With fashion shows more visible to the world, the pressure is on designers and tastemakers to change things up quickly and drastically. Not counting haute couture, designers are now creating four full-line collections a year and are constantly challenged to invent or reinvent new trends. These trends are a funny thing: As with presidential administrations, only the passage of many years can unearth lasting style. This spring, it’s all about graphics, military jackets, and, God help us, the return of the ’70s. (Why? Why?) Are any of these trends likely to be with us 10, 20, 50 years from now? Perhaps. Fashion fiddles, but it never burns—although sometimes I wish it would.
Another factor is the amount of events actors and musicians are photographed at today. The pre- and post-Oscar events alone have the best-actress nominees, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon, Felicity Jones, Marion Cotillard, and Rosamund Pike, wearing five-plus dresses apiece. You’d be hard-pressed to find images of Audrey Hepburn donning more than one outfit a night—and there was little room to bother. Life in 2015 may be one big photo op, but it wasn’t always so.
What we yearn for today is that kind of living iconography. Tory Burch, the Olsen girls, they have it. But they are fashion folk; it’s their job to have it. Everyone wants Kate Middleton to have it, but that’s more wistfulness than reality. (In the long run, I think Keira Knightley might be the better British bet.) Will we remember Lupita on the red carpet in that sky-blue Prada at the Oscars last year, dazzling one and all? Or will she fade, her image unable to endure in a style landscape dominated by Twitter and Instagram?
Rihanna wore this Giambattista Valli Couture dress to this year’s Grammys with great aplomb. Will it stand the test of time?
I don’t have the answers, but I do have hope for our next generation of style icons. Rihanna’s bold pink Giambattista Valli couture princess gown at the Grammys and Lily James’ filmy, King and I-ish blue confection in the new film version of Cinderella have set many a fashion heart aflutter, and with good reason: Here’s a timeless trend (the dreamlike ball skirt) we desperately need to bring back—and just might.
Emma Stone is covered up but exposes some in this sexy-yet-androgynous Dior Haute Couture look at the SAG Awards.
Ditto for the tasteful neckline (jewel, gathered, funnel, Sabrina, et al.) that is mercifully beginning to vanquish all that bulbous, spray-tanned cleavage constantly being heaved at us. Case in point: Lena Dunham (in Zac Posen) and Felicity Jones (a vision in Dior) at the Golden Globes; Emma Stone (in Dior) at the SAG Awards. A well-done plunging neckline is sexy and gorgeous. But there should be a difference between the red carpet at the Oscars and the red carpet at the Adult Video Awards in Vegas.
Solange’s all-white wedding look was extraordinary last year. Pulling it off in Stephane Rolland Couture takes it to the next level.
Who else might we be referencing in the decades to come? I do like Solange. I think she has that intangible It factor, which is a product of both her not being everywhere all the time and her resolute refusal to be put into a fashion box. Her boldness may make her timeless in a whole different way.
Amal Clooney chooses bold shapes with clean lines. Here she is in Stella McCartney en route to her civil wedding ceremony to George Clooney.
And I am on the Amal Clooney train, first-class ticket. I have yet to see her in a terrible outfit. And she’s the only woman I can recall in the past decade who has pulled off wearing opera gloves. She could be our new Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. And despite the fact that she is being pursued by every major fashion magazine in the world for its cover, she has yet to acquiesce. I’m saying it now: Restraint is the new black.