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COMMENTARY: Powerful fashion statements at the Oscars

Spike Lee arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Spike Lee arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

The moment the 2020 Oscar nominations were revealed, with announcer Issa Rae’s four flat words — “congratulations to those men” — going viral, we knew it was going to be (another) contentious year for the Academy Awards.

Rightfully so. The academy has consistently been unwilling to celebrate diversity, as seen by the lack of nominations for women and people of colour.

READ MORE: Best- and worst-dressed celebrities on the red carpet at the 2020 Oscars

The live broadcast announcement of the nominees on Jan. 13, co-hosted by Rae and John Cho, was an ironic display of the facade that is Hollywood — an industry that would like to think it’s progressive, diverse and inclusive but, unfortunately, is far from that.

If you watched the 92nd annual Oscars on Feb. 9, you would have witnessed much of the same identity crisis unfolding on stage at the Dolby Theatre. There were a slew of diverse presenters and performers singing, dancing, joking and rapping about inclusivity, which only further highlighted — in some cringeworthy moments — their very visible absence from actually being celebrated that night.

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Needless to say, with a gaping wound too large to ignore, this year’s Oscars saw many political undertones and statements made by its many presenters, performers and winners on stage. But it wasn’t just in the words spoken, songs sung or hardware handed out. Many stars let their clothing do the talking for causes to which they wanted to call attention.

And some of the loudest statements were made through fashion.

Since the Time’s Up movement in 2017, the red carpet has been an increasing platform for political statements. In 2018, stars “blacked out” the Golden Globes red carpet in a show of solidarity for the anti-sexual harassment group. The looks were about standing up more than standing out.

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As a fashion enthusiast, I am invigorated when I see style and social causes intersect. Fashion, to me, is a beautiful art form, but fashion with purpose is elevated that much further. Just like a picture tells a thousand words, sometimes the most lasting impressions are in the visual imprint we are left with in striking and powerful design.

Oscars 2020: Best and worst dressed from the red carpet
Oscars 2020: Best and worst dressed from the red carpet

Cultural cues

Some of my favourite fashion statements were homages to culture and heritage.

Filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, narrator and director of For Sama, a film documenting her life during the war in Syria, had the skirt of her gown embroidered with an Arabic poem.

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Actor and rapper Utkarsh Ambudkar gave the audience a surprise freestyle-rap recap of the night’s events after Eminem’s initial surprise rap performance.

But his outfit did some talking of its own, too, and had many people on social media buzzing about it. The Indian-inspired “Sandy-Suit” was designed by Canadian stylist Sandy Gill (my former kultur’D co-host on Global News Radio) and was handmade in Brampton, Ont., by Sahiba Fashions. The look was an incredible nod to Indian and Canadian design.

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I first experimented with the fabrics, design and cut of the #Sandysuit in 2015 when I designed one for myself to wear at @lilly’s premiere for her #AT2UI film. 5 years later, the mega talented @utktheinc rocked one on stage during his amazing performance at the #Oscars. This was special for so many reasons. What people wear to the Oscars means a lot and I’m so honoured Utkarsh chose my work to be in on stage. We had a very short timeline to make it and get it into his hands in LA. That meant late night calls, triple checking the measurements and a lot of praying that the international shipping would be reliable. Thank you to @sahibafashions and @amar.sahiba for making that happen. I was so nervous that I didn’t tell many people out of fear of jinxing it. So what really filled my heart were the amount of people who saw the suit and instantly knew it was my work; that means a lot. The Sandy Suit has made it to the Oscars, Emmys, Royal Weddings, Fashion magazines and other high profile events, but most importantly it’s made everyday people, men and women, feel amazing about themselves, and allowed them to dress and play outside the box. This suit is my love letter to my heritage, my obsession with art, and my desire to make people feel great and more confident about themselves. The look was styled by @jennyricker 💕 If you want a sandy suit hit us at thesandysuit@gmail.com. #academyawards #utkarsh #oscars2020

A post shared by Sandy Gill (@thesandylion) on

Sustainable Style

Eco-chic was definitely a standout look of the night.

One of the most dazzling designs on Oscars night was worn by 23-year-old Booksmart actress Kaitlyn Dever. She stunned in a strapless scarlet gown by Louis Vuitton that she described as “completely sustainable.” The floor-length, eco-friendly silk satin dress featured fuschia glass beads and 14,400 Swarovski crystals. Louis Vuitton said in a press release that the embroidery alone took over 1,900 hours. Louis Vuitton also custom-designed a sustainable dress for Léa Seydoux, who stars in the new James Bond film No Time to Die.

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Little Women star Timothée Chalamet appeared on several worst-dressed lists, with jabs comparing his attire to that of a valet, mechanic or gas station attendant. But his satin racing-striped custom Prada jacket and trousers actually had deeper meaning behind them: the look was crafted with Prada’s regenerated nylon, Econyl.

Two stars who did get a big blue checkmark from me for both style and sustainability included Olivia Colman in a custom Stella McCartney midnight-blue velvet sustainable silk gown and Margot Robbie, who wore a vintage navy-blue silk Chanel bustier dress from the spring-summer 1994 haute couture collection.

Oscar fashion for a fraction of the cost
Oscar fashion for a fraction of the cost

Reduce, rewear, recycle

Then there were the stars who shopped their closets with repeat outfits — making even louder and laud-worthy statements about eco-conscious decisions. Joaquin Phoenix wore the same Stella McCartney black tuxedo for nearly the entire awards season — and had a great run with it. The actor and environmentalist donned the same tux as he accepted his award for Best Actor at the Oscars.

With all eyes on Jane Fonda, who presented the biggest honour of the night, she had the opportunity to make a statement with her look, too — and most certainly did. The 82-year-old actress dazzled in a red Elie Saab gown, which she first wore to Cannes in 2014. She also masterfully incorporated her red coat into her look. She has famously been seen wearing that coat to the Fire Drill Friday protests, which push for action on climate change, and was even arrested in that very coat, notably saying it is the “last article of clothing” she’ll ever buy.

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Director and actor Elizabeth Banks did a redo as well for the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, effortlessly sliding back into a Badgley Mischka dress she originally wore to the same star-studded event in 2004.

Political threads

One of the most talked-about looks of the night was Natalie Portman’s black Dior cape.

The star had the names of the snubbed female directors embroidered along the trim, including Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Mati Diop (Atlantics), Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), Alma Har’el (Honey Boy) and Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire).

“I wanted to recognize the women who were not recognized for their incredible work this year in my subtle way,” Portman said in a red carpet interview.

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READ MORE: Rose McGowan calls Natalie Portman’s pro-women Oscars outfit ‘deeply offensive’

Paying tribute

Spike Lee struggled to find the words to express his grief when asked how he was doing by Ryan Seacrest during E!’s live red carpet coverage. But his suit showed just where his thoughts and heart were. It was hard to ignore Lee at the Oscars — his custom purple-and-yellow Gucci suit, with the numbers “2” and “4” on its lapels, was a colourful tribute honouring late basketball star Kobe Bryant.

In a year that was so politically charged, the clothing spoke volumes when words didn’t always suffice.

As both a fashion enthusiast and cultural commentator, I was invigorated and inspired to see many stars make such impactful statements through fashion looks that were about far more than fancy frills and that left a lasting impression.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.