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After a political season on the red carpet, fashion makes a tentative return

After a political season on the red carpet, fashion makes a tentative return
Halle Berry, left, Reese Witherspoon and Eva Longoria arriving at the Golden Globes in Beverly Hills in 2018, when Time's Up and #MeToo drove the red carpet conversations. Will this year be different? (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When Debra Messing approached the E! network on the red carpet at the Golden Globes last year, she had an agenda. It wasn’t to wax rhapsodic about her “Will & Grace” costars or show off the beautiful black gown she was wearing.

She wanted to talk about the new organization she had joined, Time’s Up. She wanted to express her belief in diversity and gender parity in the workplace. And she wanted to call out the very network she was appearing on for allegedly not paying its male and female hosts equally.

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“I was so shocked to hear that E! doesn’t believe in paying their female co-hosts the same as their male co-hosts,” Messing said, referring to Catt Sadler, the anchor who had said a month prior she was quitting her job at the network due to an unfair pay gap.

Giuliana Rancic, the host who was interviewing Messing, tried to maintain her chill and move on to another question. But the moment — and the dozens of other stars who wore black to the ceremony, a style choice meant to signal there was more to talk about in the #MeToo era than fashion — made clear that in 2018, the red carpet was no longer just a place for “mani-cams” and champagne toasts. It had become a new political pulpit.

But how enduring — and how complete — will that transformation be? Last year, the sober tone seemed like it might become permanent. Not only was the Globes carpet a sea of black, but A-listers such as Meryl Streep brought activist leaders as their plus-ones. The red carpet emphasis on serious conversation echoed the social media campaign to #AskHerMore, begun in 2015 and pushed by actresses including Reese Witherspoon who said they wanted to talk about their work, beliefs and ideas, not just their clothes.

Michelle Williams, right, walks the 2018 Golden Globes red carpet with Tarana Burke, who sparked the #MeToo movement.
Michelle Williams, right, walks the 2018 Golden Globes red carpet with Tarana Burke, who sparked the #MeToo movement. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The political focus continued at the ceremonies. At the Globes, Oprah Winfrey gave a powerful speech about inequality, and acceptance speeches by James Franco and Aziz Ansari subsequently inspired women to come forward with #MeToo stories about those men. The Screen Actors Guild Awards enlisted all female presenters, and at the Academy Awards, Harvey Weinstein accusers Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek and Annabella Sciorra were invited onstage. It was a remarkable run kicked off by that fusillade of black gowns.

This Sunday, however, celebrity members of Time’s Up — the organization that orchestrated last year’s somber palette — will be making a far less dramatic visual statement. The group is encouraging attendees, among them Constance Wu, Emma Stone and Laura Dern, to sport ribbons and bracelets that say TIMESUPx2, a reference to both the second year of the coalition and a new campaign that calls to double the number of women in workplace leadership positions.

“We do not expect to live on the red carpet or be award season-centric,” said Lisa Borders, who was hired as the first president and chief executive of Time’s Up in October. “Last year, the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and the Golden Globes happened to be one of the first award shows where many of the women who were deeply engaged with Time’s Up were going to be. The Globes are a good opportunity to get our message out as a distribution channel, but they are one night.”

And heading into this year’s Globes, the mood feels light again, said designer Christian Siriano.

“We’re getting such a different reaction this season,” said Siriano, who dressed stars including Messing, Angela Bassett and Rachel Bloom last year. “Every actress is kind of like, ‘I want to celebrate me.’ There’s for sure a shift. They’re going for something big and exciting and dramatic.”

Last year, E! host Rancic noted on-air that the network’s correspondents would not be asking who made a celebrity’s outfit but instead why a star was wearing a certain look.

Siriano said he understood why fashion got short shrift on red carpets last year, even though the all-black mandate required him to make far more custom designs than usual. “The message was bigger and more powerful, so it was worth all the effort,” he said.

But this year, “Who are you wearing?” feels like a safe question again, according to those at entertainment news programs.

“Stylists have gone through so much effort, and the designer deserves to be credited,” said “Extra” co-host Renee Bargh, who will be on the carpet with Mario Lopez. “So you can ask that question, but you follow it up by talking about what project the star is there to promote. And then you get into the political nitty-gritty.”

“The truth is, people do want to know about who celebrities are wearing. In the end, it’s a party,” added Theresa Coffino, one of “Extra’s” executive producers. “Our task is to blend that kind of coverage with the news. Every day, something still breaks about the movement. Kevin Spacey was nominated eight times and won. He could have been walking this carpet, and instead, the day our coverage airs [Monday], he will be walking in front of a judge. That will come up during the night.”

Globes co-hosts Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg have said they want the evening to feel celebratory and positive, leaving any political statements to those individuals inclined to make them.

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Borders said there were no plans for a Time’s Up-specific moment during the telecast, though the group’s entertainment affiliate disseminated talking points about its TIMESUPx2 campaign — as well as the black or white accessories — to members before the show.

“Whether it’s the Globes or any award show, we have to be consistent and constant — not a huge burst of energy each time,” she said. “The message we will be sharing this time is that safety in the workplace depends on equity at every level. Entertainers are leading the charge, but Hollywood is not the only area where this problem exists.”

A Time's Up pin on the red carpet of the Golden Globes last year.
A Time's Up pin on the red carpet of the Golden Globes last year. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The organization is eager to foreground its work outside of Hollywood, which makes sense, given the power and privilege enjoyed by some of its most prominent members and criticisms that even the actresses at the forefront of the movement have not been the whistleblowers. (Early silence breakers such as Rose McGowan, Jessica Barth and Sciorra are not affiliated with Time’s Up.)

The more subdued approach could also stem from a desire not to outshine activists in other less glamorous fields. After last year’s effort to show solidarity with women in other industries — the group helped actresses such as Streep and Michelle Williams invite prominent activist leaders to be their plus-ones — some critics suggested that actresses were using activists as accessories.

Still, politics will remain in the mix. Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance who attended with Streep last year, will return to the carpet with director Alfonso Cuaron; his film, “Roma,” is about a domestic worker.

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And on Sunday, Wu — the “Fresh Off the Boat” actress nominated for her turn in the film “Crazy Rich Asians” — plans to represent the “immensely powerful” women who constitute Time’s Up. Because her ABC sitcom was “historic in its representation for Asian Americans,” she said, she has long been comfortable talking about more substantive fare on the red carpet.

“It’s also the kind of question I’ve always been given, because I’m an Asian American woman. Whereas a white actor isn’t asked what it’s like to be a white actor these days,” she said. “But now I feel a lot more community and strength in numbers. It’s made me feel a little bit more relaxed, because in the past, I would speak out about things when I got frustrated the conversation wasn’t happening. But now I know the conversation is happening, and people aren’t afraid to speak about it.”

As for fashion, Wu said she’s comfortable talking about her dress — to an extent.

“If it comes from a place that has to do with appreciation for fashion or expression of your personality or identity — I think that’s the right place to come from,” she said. “But if I ever felt like my worthiness was being assessed based on how I looked, I’d shut it down.”

Even if the spirit of the carpet is more jovial this year, Borders is hopeful the public will still recognize how much change has occurred. She pointed to the $22 million raised for the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund — a fundraising effort launched at last year’s Globes — that has allowed roughly 90 workplace sexual misconduct cases to get underway. And within Hollywood, she gave credit to Rotten Tomatoes for expanding its critics criteria in an effort to diversify the voices evaluating films, and to film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto and Sundance for pledging to include more underrepresented groups.

“It has been just one year, and the progress that has been generated has, I think, been extraordinary,” Borders said. “The changes that are happening may look incremental, but we are going to reach a tipping point. Diamonds are made over time, and they take pressure from all sides to form.”

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