The black fatigue on the red carpet

For decades the ruling colour on the red carpet and in formal wear, black has begun sliding down the popularity charts


Viola Davis at the Golden Globes in January (Reuters); Emma Stone at the Oscars this week (Reuters); Priyanka Chopra at the Emmys last year (Getty Images); and a look from Gucci’s Autumn/ Winter 2017 collection (Courtesy Gucci).
Viola Davis at the Golden Globes in January (Reuters); Emma Stone at the Oscars this week (Reuters); Priyanka Chopra at the Emmys last year (Getty Images); and a look from Gucci’s Autumn/ Winter 2017 collection (Courtesy Gucci).

In February last year, Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood edition, which appears around the time of the film awards season and before the Oscars, put 13 outstanding female Hollywood actors on its cover. On the front flap were Jane Fonda, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis and Jennifer Lawrence; the gatefold cover had nine other movie stars in a strong statement of talent, power and influence. Photographed by acclaimed American portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, all wore black couture. Black, forever the darling colour of celebrity couture, fed into the aura of Leibovitz’s photography.

Vanity Fair’s 2017 Hollywood issue was out last month. On its cover are Emma Stone, Amy Adams, Lupita Nyong’o and Natalie Portman, among others—again, all exceptional female actors. This one too is photographed by Leibovitz. However, soft peach, blush, silver shimmer and deep red rule the palette this time; the gowns are more relaxed than sculptural. They mirror the decline of black, also evident on the red carpet at the 89th Academy Awards held earlier this week in Los Angeles.

Not so long ago, it was hard to envision a starry show without black gowns. Or without the LBD and its hundred haute versions at formal events in the West. Fashion’s safest colour hasn’t vanished from celebrity dressing, but it seems to be losing its fiefdom. Even the tuxedos worn by male stars show a shift to white and midnight blue.

Consider this. Actor Rosie Huntington’s flaming red pleats and ruffles from Alexandre Vauthier’s Spring 2016 couture collection and American model Bella Hadid’s gorgeously slit red gown, called the “nakedest dress” of Cannes 2016, also by Vauthier, were in the best-dressed bracket at the French Riviera’s film festival. Before that, the annual Met Gala in New York showcased metallic couture as an outstanding trend, defined with oomph by former top model Cindy Crawford wearing Balmain. Miuccia Prada, considered one of the more formidable fashion personalities of this era, came in a silken, midnight-blue outfit.

The Autumn Couture shows in Paris made it clear that fashion was freeing itself of all binds—it is whimsical, individualistic, influenced by art, design, political cross-currents and ecological conservation rather than being poised, precious and black. Ready-to-wear collections from New York to Paris, Milan and London, always edgier than couture which remains legendary for being structural, architectural and resplendent, amplified the detachment from black.

Gucci’s personality revolution as a brand under its creative head Alessandro Michele was aimed at consumers who believed in fashion without the boundaries of texture, type, stereotype, place and gender. The designer’s unabashed use of lace and satin, couture-ish bows on men’s shirts and crazy, chaotic use of multiple colours for gender-neutral clothing, made the volatility of his looks a fashion virtue. Black is not Michele’s safety net. Breaking rules, the oldest fashion sport, suddenly looked tame given Michele’s reinterpretations. Couture wearers—essentially the world’s most watched stars—absorbed these ripples.

“It is osmosis—from the high street to the ramp; from the ramp to the red carpet. Everywhere style influencers wear clothes inspired by high street and their personal convictions about life and lifestyle rather than trying to look precious from head to toe. The black fatigue is a result of these multiple social changes,” says designer Namrata Joshipura. She gives black the dominant slot, in personal dressing as well as her creations for the ramp, especially in luxury prêt lines.

When you rewind to the couture shows and award events of the last few years, you notice black slowly making way for gold, silver, metallic and shimmer. Formerly labelled as a passing wave of “bling” in a world wanting to cheer itself up amid economic instability, these are among the most worn colours on the red carpet currently. Jessica Biel, Nicole Kidman and Emma Stone proved that at the Oscars this week.

A video posted on Vogue.com a few weeks ago shows the 14 Best Oscar Dresses of the last decade and more—from 2003-16. Only one of these stunning couture gowns—a Lanvin worn by Tilda Swinton—is black. Natalie Portman’s lilac Rodarte in 2009, Gwyneth Paltrow’s unforgettable white Tom Ford with a cape in 2012, Lupita Nyong’o’s powder-blue Prada in 2014 and Alicia Vikander’s lime-yellow Louis Vuitton last year are outstanding examples.

Michelle Obama at the Obamas’ last state dinner in October. Photo: AFP
Michelle Obama at the Obamas’ last state dinner in October. Photo: AFP

“There are too many global events and too many celebs. Everyone wants to outdo each other. Western stars experimenting with bright colours is a result of this excess everywhere,” says couturier Gaurav Gupta. “Black’s excessive place in celebrity dressing has also been challenged by women and men moving beyond the judgemental constraints of a perfect figure, which has diluted the love of black for its slimming effects,” says Gupta, who creates architectural garments with a strong red-carpet language.

Former American first lady Michelle Obama, considered an international style influencer, embodied her comfort with her athletic figure every time she wore couture and ready-to-wear. She was rarely seen in a classic LBD. In her last appearance as first lady at a state dinner at the White House in October, she wore a chain-mail rose-gold Atelier Versace.

At the Golden Globes, Bafta awards, Grammys and Oscars this year, their rarity on the red carpet made black ensembles conspicuous. In fact, Viola Davis’ canary-yellow Michael Kors dress and Jessica Chastain’s azure-blue Prada were, again, among the best dresses at the Golden Globes. Priyanka Chopra chimed in too —in a red Jason Wu at the Emmys .

Beyoncé’s diaphanous custom-made gold outfit with a crown by Peter Dundas, for her performance at the Grammys, sealed black’s tepid phase.

The observations of Indian designers about the growing fondness for black in India, an antithesis to what’s happening in the West, are noteworthy. “The West is moving towards colour and gold outfits while we are moving towards black and ivory,” says couturier Varun Bahl. “Indians, who found black dark and melancholy and ivory inauspicious, now specifically ask for these colours even for bridal couture—even though the ensembles may be offset with coloured linings or embellishments,” says Bahl, one of the first to introduce black ensembles in bridal couture. Gupta echoes his thoughts. “I love the celebrity fatigue with black because it is exciting and challenging for me as a designer. But while we have been selling a large number of couture pieces in midnight blue in the last year, the fact is that unlike the stars, the actual consumer in India still favours black,” he says.

Joshipura agrees. “I have tried to move away from the dominance of black in my collections, but my sales reports of the last few seasons make it evident that black holds the No.1 slot. The fixation with the little black dress in India isn’t waning,” she says, adding that “appearances become an assembly line or a cookie-cutter trend when people stick to comfort zones. Black has always been comfort territory and it may be time to break out of it,” she says.

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