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Cate Blanchett on the splendour and melodrama of Oscars red carpet fashion

Posted on 23 Feb 2023

In this extract from ‘Red Carpet Oscars’, Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett shares her personal experiences from Hollywood’s annual ‘night of nights’, where a dress is elevated to a ‘receptacle of memory’.

Kate Winslet, 1996.

My childhood in the suburbs of Melbourne was partly devoted to trawling the streets on my bike, but mostly to dressing up. Even a trip to the milk bar was transformed into a runway event – albeit for nobody but me – just for the fun of it, for the sheer pleasure.

Looking back, these childish outings were mad to be sure, but also wild and free, a nascent form of self-expression. Dressing up, I dreamed of transforming into an actor, like the ones I lived vicariously through on the big and small screens – and I mean dreamed, as I had no real belief that acting was something that I could actually do with my life.

Spending my days dreaming and dressing up, I was absolutely primed for an event like the Oscars – cue music – the film industry’s ‘night of nights’. It was an opportunity to see the creative geniuses I admired parading and being celebrated for their work in this lofty, elusive industry; wearing whatever the hell they pleased; expressing themselves.

When I was unexpectedly catapulted into the fray, I found myself in a wonderland of fashion. The late 1990s saw designers embrace the theatrical: McQueen, Yamamoto, Lacroix, Chalayan, Galliano, Westwood, Kawakubo, Viktor & Rolf – all pushed the boundaries of form, but also of spectacle. (Who can forget the 1999 McQueen show on ice?) The Oscars red carpet has always seemed to me to be a high profile intersection between fashion, visual art and theatre, so where better to showcase their dramatic creations? The clothes were nothing short of spectacular, and in a world full of street grunge, the operatic red carpet seemed one of the few places to wear them.

Cher, 1984.

Of course, as in any good opera, there is often melodrama to match the costumes. I relish the spontaneity and of the red carpet, but I’ve also witnessed firsthand the blood, sweat and (oh so real) tears that go into creating a couture piece. In the time I’ve spent walking/white-knuckling it, the focus on red-carpet fashion has become increasingly forensic and the number of associated businesses that ride in its slipstream has mushroomed. This puts an added weight of expectation and pressure on the experience at times that threatens to overshadow the celebration. At these times it’s best to savour the interest and the detail – John Galliano discussing the history of embroidery, weaving the story of a love affair into a dress; Mr Armani himself pinning up a hem, casually imparting an overview of men’s tailoring in cinema; Riccardo Tisci adapting a wondrous one-of-a-kind runway creation to be seen for ‘one night only’ at this transnational event. Along with being there, of course, this is the stuff that will make an Oscars evening truly memorable.

Win or no win, the dress itself, whether loved or reviled, is a receptacle of memory and an exquisite reminder of the personal pleasure of this moment. As Dijanna so elegantly reveals in Red Carpet Oscars, an Oscars dress tells a story: of its inspiration; of the people who created it; or of the sometimes inspired, sometimes ill-fated collision of wearer and garment. Combined with the splendour of the Oscars’s red carpet and the often long road to it for the women (and men – thank you, Billy Porter) who proudly walk it, a whole new story in and of itself is created.

Reading Dijanna’s meticulous, broad reaching book has reinvigorated my love of the history of style associated with the Academy. Her deep love of beauty, her eye for a story and her passion for detail, whether it’s the cut of a sleeve or the real story behind that dress, brings the history of the red-carpet dressing to life.

Cate Blanchett

Discover the book

Red Carpet Oscars

Dijanna Mulhearn, Cate Blanchett, Giorgio Armani