Subversive? Dangerous? Boring?: How the red carpet became the barometer of modern masculinity

for a masterclass in masculinity, look no further than the red carpet, an international cycle of events chronicling the good, the bad, and the ugly of manhood today. As a stage for fashion designers to showcase their vision of the male zeitgeist, the red carpet is more than an exercise in mass marketing, it’s also an opportunity to play on gender identity—to the point of exhaustion these days. Whether it’s Harry Styles in a diamond-studded jumpsuit by Gucci, Billy Porter in a tuxedo by Christian Siriano, or Timothée Chalamet in a backless crimson suit by Haider Ackermann, gender-defying looks are now a given alongside classic displays of elegance .

While we may have reached camp fatigue, it’s worth noting that the profusion of kitsch and dandy looks on the red carpet is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, before 2017 you’d be hard pressed to find anything wilder than a scoop lapel or – grabs beads – a chosen shade on a guest’s tuxedo. Yes, the likes of David Bowie, Little Richard and Boy George tried their luck long ago, but their streaks with femininity were exceptions to the rule. It’s a completely different game today.

Academics have been plucking manhood ever since Oscar Wilde snapped his literary wrists. In the last half decade, however, every man (Forgiveness!) and her dog have reckoned with the term, from CEOs warning of the impact of “toxic masculinity” on leadership to podcasters promoting a new, vulnerable kind of masculinity to improve mental health. Elsewhere the term has dubbed exhibitions such as Barbican’s Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (2020) and the V&A blockbuster shaping masculinities (2022), while our blue-screen devices burst into flames with discourses and caricatures of them—be they gouty politicians, Bitcoin brothers in their 20s, or offended incels. But nowhere has masculinity been talked about as much as on the red carpet.

“I think it’s mostly because of their spectacular nature,” she says i-Ds Fashion editor Mahoro Seward. “Even if they don’t appear on screen or stage, the people who typically walk red carpets are still characters to their audience. The managers, publicists, and stylists responsible for these characters are critically aware of this, and will consciously build a celebrity’s image in a way that they feel will appeal to that person’s audience — whether by bowing to convention or intentionally pushing the limits.”

According to Seward, red carpet events are consistently populated by dapper gentlemen in velvet tuxedos alongside those who defy protocol. The result is a contrast. “I think menswear on the red carpet is still rooted in the suit,” says Paul Toner, 10 Magazine features and online editor. “Stars, however, are turning to brands that cleverly subvert classic tailoring to make it more interesting, like Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton or Kim Jones at Dior. Some stars like Timothée Chalamet and Lil Nas X have taken it a step further and treat the red carpet as a place for real fashion moments.”

On the one hand you have Lil Nas X in cropped cowboy leathers in Barbie pink from Versace; On the other hand, you have Daniel Craig in another Tom Ford tuxedo – groundbreaking! Between these poles appear more subtle twists on the archetype, like Paul Mescal’s 2023 Oscars ensemble: a tailored, oversized Gucci jacket and flared pants, plus the flourish of a Cartier earring, brooch, and rosette. Granted, Mescal’s look doesn’t make traditionalists tremble in their boots, but his status as an approachable, sane boy next door makes those effete touches all the more meaningful. “As a man, if you wear something that’s even a little bit ‘out of the ordinary’, you get a lot of publicity,” says creative consultant Cozette McCreery. “No one will post or report on you if you’re dressed ‘normally’.”

In the ubiquity, even the slightest change stands out. To paraphrase Judith Butler’s thesis gender problems, it’s about cultural preservation and desecration of norms. Since men generally wear black ties on the red carpet, this has been coded as male. Add to that the fact that men were often viewed as straight and we see the noble persona of an escort taking a walk with his female date gaining the upper hand. With that came another caveat: don’t drown out the woman. As a lady, it was said, she would display a scraggly display of femininity, with her walker barely noticeable. With this antiquated splendor in the background, the deviation from the norm naturally comes into sharp focus.

Sam Smith is seen as dangerous to heteronormative masculinity because it destabilizes it

Professor Andrew Groves

However, in an industry as persecuted as showbiz, gender bending also arouses irritation or suspicion. Elsewhere, celebrities who identify as queer have even slipped into strikingly subtle or straightforward attire to ironically deny the camp’s co-option. Case in point: Frank Ocean’s all-black Prada ensemble at the 2019 Camp Themed Met Gala.

In this environment, traditional masculinity games need to feel effortless. “While Sam Smith’s recent red carpet looks are clearly meant to kill and enrage in equal measure, they’re also an over-the-top version of the singer’s off-stage style, navigating a journey of gender exploration and expression have,” says Westminster Professor Andrew Groves of the University. Smith’s forays into femininity began with a look at heels, then evolved into lace blouses under tailoring, before finally culminating in a sumptuous Valentino cape at this year’s Grammys. Her style journey has felt less like a female cosplay and more like a flowering of her true self. “That’s why they’re seen as far more dangerous to heteronormative masculinity because they destabilize it.”

Now the pendulum is swinging. As gender fluidity becomes second nature on the red carpet, the B-list has followed suit. “I think it sets a precedent for other guys who want to be seen as successful dressers, as we’ve seen island of lovePeople are starting to wear skeleton blouses,” she says dazed‘s fashion writer Daniel Rodgers. “But celebrities with more standing and more social capital don’t want to look like that anymore; they don’t want to look like you.”

Rodgers’ point was echoed at last weekend’s Oscars, where menswear was visibly voted back. Similar to the AW23 collections, there was a sense of reduction and conservatism, perhaps a correlation to inflation, but also the right-wing backlash against non-conforming display of gender identity.

“The last Golden Globes and the Grammys have seen men get more in touch with their playful sides, but I think there’s a level of respect for the old Hollywood dress code that dictates what people wear to the Oscars should,” says Zak Maoui. GQstyle editor by . “To back this up, I think to take a look at the vanity fair [after-party] shows that men still push boundaries – Lucien Laviscount, Manu Rios, Troye Sivan…”

Troye Sivan in a Diesel latex two-piece suit at the Vanity Fair Oscar party last weekend


This is true. Those looks were undeniably daring—but they weren’t camp. For Laviscount, a Dolce & Gabbana velvet waistcoat with corset and evening gloves; for Rios, Ann Demeulemeester’s knee-high leather boots, black dinner jacket, and apron-tied shirt; for Sivan, a diesel latex two-piece that would have been better placed at a fetish party. Costume aesthetics were nowhere to be seen, replaced by a louche, soft and jazzed-up mix of masculinity in lieu of a cocked tail in a dress.

The rubbing? Like all gender debates, it goes back to Butler. Well, a dick in a dress is just another sealed and culturally understandable archetype for men to embrace on the red carpet, which means it’s not as subversive. Perhaps, as the eyebrow-raising looks at the Vanity Fair party suggest, the seeds of men’s fashion rebellion for the next half decade lie in fetish and sex appeal. Sure, they felt exciting. But will they one day feel passé when men find other ways to test their manhood? One thing is for sure: the red carpet will always be the best place to find them. Subversive? Dangerous? Boring?: How the red carpet became the barometer of modern masculinity

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