Subversive? Dangerous? Boring?: How the Red Carpet Became a Barometer for Modern Masculinity

For a masterclass in masculinity, then look no further than the red carpet, an international circuit of events that chart the good, the bad and the ugly of contemporary masculinity. A stage for fashion designers to present their vision of the masculine zeitgeist, the red carpet is more than an exercise in mass marketing, but also an opportunity to express gender identity – to the point of exhaustion these days. Whether it’s Harry Styles in a Gucci diamond-studded jumpsuit, Billy Porter in a Christian Siriano tuxedo, or Timothée Chalamet in a crimson Haider Ackermann suit, gender-appropriate looks are now standard alongside more classic expressions of elegance of a brand.

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. Indeed, before 2017, you’d be hard pressed to find anything wilder than a scoop lapel or — grabs pearls – a choice shade on a guest’s tuxedo jacket. Yes, the likes of David Bowie, Little Richard and Boy George tried their luck way back when, but their femininity scratches were exceptions to the rule. Today it is a completely different game.

Academics have been picking scabs at manhood since Oscar Wilde flapped his literary wrists. In the last half decade, however, every man (Sorry!) and their dog has taken to the term, from CEOs warning of the effects of “toxic masculinity” on leadership to podcasters encouraging a new, vulnerable kind of masculinity to improve mental health. Elsewhere, the term has titled exhibitions such as Barbican’s Masculinity: liberation through photography (2020) and the V&A blockbuster Modeling masculinity (2022), while our blue-screen devices glowed with discourse about it and its caricatures — be it arthritic politicians, twenty-something bitcoin bros, or hurt incels. Nowhere, however, has masculinity been talked about quite like on the red carpet.

“I think it’s largely due to their inherently spectacular nature,” says iDs fashion features editor, Mahoro Seward. “While they may not be on screen or on stage, the people who typically walk the red carpet 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 believe appeals to that persona’s audience – whether by admitting to conventions or to deliberately push the limits.”

According to Seward, red carpet events are consistently overrun with smartly fitting gentlemen in velvet tuxedos alongside those defying protocol. The result is one of 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, turn to brands that cleverly subvert classic tailoring to make it more interesting, like Virgil Abloh did at Louis Vuitton or Kim Jones at Dior. Some stars, like Timothée Chalamet and Lil Nas X, take 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, Barbie-pink cowboy leather from Versace; on the other hand you have Daniel Craig in yet another Tom Ford tuxedo – groundbreaking! Between these poles appear subtler twists on the archetype, such as Paul Mescal’s 2023 Oscars ensemble: a custom Gucci oversized jacket and flared trews, plus the flourish of a Cartier earring, brooch, and rosette. Admittedly, Mescal’s look won’t make the traditionalists shake in their boots, but his status as the approachable, wholesome boy next door makes these smooth touches all the more important. “As a man, you get a ton of publicity if you wear anything that’s even slightly ‘deviated’ from the norm,” says creative consultant Cozette McCreery. “No one will post or report on you if you’re ‘normally’ dressed.”

Under ubiquity, even the slightest tweak stands out. To paraphrase Judith Butler’s theorem in Sex problems, it is about the preservation of culture and desecration of norms. Since men generally wear a black tie on the red carpet, this was coded as male. Add to this the fact that men were often viewed as heterosexual, and we see how the noble persona of a chaperone walking his female date prevailed. With this came another limitation: don’t overpower the woman. As a lady, it went, she would perform an embellished rendition of femininity, her walker barely noticeable. Of course, with this antiquated pageantry as a backdrop, the difference from the norm comes into sharp focus.

Sam Smith is seen as dangerous to heteronormative masculinities because they destabilize them

Professor Andrew Groves

That said, in an industry as closely followed as showbiz, gender bending also raises irritation or suspicion. Elsewhere, queer-identifying celebrities have even retreated to strikingly subtle or straightforward clothing in a tongue-in-cheek rejection of 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, playing with traditional masculinity should feel effortless to land. Sam Smith’s recent red carpet looks, while clearly intended to kill and enrage in equal measure, are also an exaggerated version of the singer’s offstage style, which they’ve used to navigate a journey of gender exploration and expression,” says Westminster University Professor Andrew Groves. Smith’s forays into femininity began with glimpses of heels, then progressed to lacy blouses under tailoring, before finally culminating in a lavish Valentino cape at this year’s Grammys. Their style journey felt less like female cosplay and more like a blossoming of their true selves. “That’s why they’re seen as much more dangerous to heteronormative masculinity because they destabilize it.”

Now the pendulum is swinging. As gender fluidity becomes de rigueur on the red carpet, the B-list has followed suit. “I think it set a precedent for other guys who want to be considered successful dressers, so we’ve seen Love Islandpeople are starting to wear skeleton blouses,” says Dazed‘s fashion writer Daniel Rodgers. “But celebrities with more prestige and more social capital don’t want to look like that anymore; they don’t want to be like you.”

Rodgers’ point was echoed at last weekend’s Oscars, where menswear was visibly dialed back. As with 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 expressions of gender identity.

“The recent Golden Globes and the Grammys have seen men get in touch with their playful sides more, but I think there’s a certain amount of respect for the old Hollywood dress code that dictates what people should wear to the Oscars,” says Zak Maoui , GK‘s style editor. “To support this, I think viewing the Vanity purse [after-party] shows that men are still pushing boundaries – Lucien Laviscount, Manu Rios, Troye Sivan…”

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


It’s true. These looks were undeniably bold — but camp, they weren’t. For Laviscount, a velvet waistcoat from Dolce & Gabbana, accented with corset and paired with evening gloves; for Rios, knee-high leather boots by Ann Demeulemeester, black tuxedo jacket and shirt with apron bow; 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 seedy, softened, and sexed mix of masculinity, rather than an erect cock in a frock.

The problem? Like all gender-related debates, it goes back to Butler. Now 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 quite as subversive. Perhaps the seeds of the next half-decade menswear rebellion lie in fetish and sex appeal, as the most startling looks at the Vanity Fair party might suggest. Sure, they felt exciting. But will they one day feel passé when men find other ways to test masculinity? One thing’s for sure: the red carpet is always the best place to find them.

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