Over a generation, citizens of popular culture have watched as a fundamental source of pleasure has vanished from view: the red-carpet fashion “disaster.” (I use the scare quotes because disaster is the accepted shorthand but the wrong word—the accurate term would be something like “Red-Carpet Fashion Deviations from an Established but Somewhat Arbitrary Norm.”) Especially at the annual Academy Awards ceremony, the stakes have become so high for actresses and their reps that emergency-management teams of stylists, groomers and go-to designers have all but foreclosed the possibility of true catastrophe.
This is unfortunate. A functioning Oscar-fashion ecosystem should not consist solely of elegant swans—it also needs an occasional Swan Dress. (For real, does anyone remember anything about the 2001 Oscar ceremony other than Björk’s Swan Dress?) But the highly polished awards season thus far holds out little promise that a challenger to the Can-Can Mullet (Geena Davis, 1992) or the Plus-Size Backward Pantsuit (Céline Dion, 2000) will emerge during the awards on Sunday, Feb. 24.
So this list is a look back at a mostly extinct phenomenon, and like any endeavor tinged with grief, it is highly subjective and slightly irrational. It begins near the turn of the 1990s, a fertile era for Oscar fashion disasters but one not too far removed from the homogenizing advent of the professional stylist. It values a sense of humor, and privileges the explosively weird over the merely unfortunate. (Or the literal-minded: Faith Hill’s Rainbow Sherbet gown of 2002 was on the list until I remembered it was the same year she sang “Over the Rainbow.”) It does not include Cher, because Cher is a concept with its own norms from which Cher-qua-Cher cannot deviate. Most importantly, for me at least, is that most of these ensembles are fascinating not for what they are but for what they represent: the vertiginous threshold space between idea and result, between what you see in the mirror at home and the mirror the world then holds up to you.
(You can follow Jessica Winter on Twitter at @winterjessica)
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