For a master class in masculinity, look no further than the red carpet, an international circuit of events charting the good, the bad and the ugly of manhood today. A stage for fashion designers to present their vision of the male zeitgeist, the red carpet is more than an exercise in mass marketing, but also an opportunity to chime in on gender identity – today, to exhaustion. Whether it’s Harry Styles in a Gucci diamond-studded jumpsuit, Billy Porter in a Christian Siriano tuxedo or Timothée Chalamet in a Haider Ackermann backless crimson suit, gender-bending looks are now par for the course alongside a brand’s more classic elegance. .
While we may have reached camp fatigue, it’s worth noting that the abundance 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 gushing lapel or – clutches pearls – an exquisite shade on the guest’s dinner jacket. Yes, the likes of David Bowie, Little Richard and Boy George pushed their luck long ago, but their scraps with femininity were exceptions to the rule. Today, it’s a completely different game.
Academics have been picking scabs on masculinity since Oscar Wilde flicked literary wrists. In the last half decade, however, every man (Sorry!) and their dog have reckoned with the term, from CEOs warning against 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 the Barbican’s Masculinities: Liberation through photography (2020) and the V&A’s blockbuster Fashion masculinities (2022), all while our blue-screened devices have been aflame with discourse about it and its caricatures – be it gouty politicians, twenty-something bitcoin bros or offended incels. But nowhere has masculinity been discussed as much as on the red carpet.
“I think it’s largely because of their inherently spectacular nature,” says iDs fashion features editor, Mahoro Seward. “Although they may not be on screen or stage, the people who usually walk red carpets are, to their audience, still characters. The managers, publicists and stylists responsible for these characters are critically aware of this and will deliberately build a celebrity image in a way they think appeals to that person’s audience—whether by following convention or intentionally pushing the boundaries.”
To Seward’s point, red carpet events are consistently teeming with well-suited gentlemen in velvet tuxedos alongside those who defy protocol. The result is contrast. “I think menswear on the red carpet is still anchored in the suit,” says Paul Toner, 10 the magazine’s features and web editor. “But the stars are turning to brands that cleverly subvert classic tailoring to make it more interesting, like Virgil Abloh did at Louis Vuitton, or Kim Jones does at Dior. Some stars, like Timothée Chalamet and Lil Nas X, have taken it a step further and treated the red carpet as a place for real fashion moment.”
On one side, you have Lil Nas X in cropped, Barbie-pink cowboy leather from Versace; on the other, you have Daniel Craig in yet another Tom Ford tuxedo – groundbreaking! Between these bars emerge subtle twists on the archetype, like Paul Mescal’s 2023 Oscars ensemble: an oversized custom Gucci jacket and flared trees, plus the flourish of a Cartier earring, brooch and rosette. Granted, Mescal’s looks won’t make traditionalists tremble in their boots, but his status as the approachable, wholesome boy-next-door makes these effing touches all the more significant. “As a man, it gives you a huge amount of publicity to wear something that’s slightly outside the norm,” says creative consultant Cozette McCreery. “No one is going to post or report you if you’re dressed ‘normally’.”
Among the ubiquity, even the lightest tweak stands out. To paraphrase Judith Butler’s thesis in Gender issues, it is about cultural maintenance and violation of norms. Because men generally wear black tie on the red carpet, this was coded as male. Add to this that men were often assumed to be heterosexual, and we see how the noble persona of a chaperone walking his female date took hold. With this came another limitation: don’t overpower the woman. As a lady, it went, she would perform a frilled-up rendition of femininity, her walker barely noticeable. Naturally, with this antiquated spectacular as a backdrop, the difference from the norm comes into sharp focus.
That said, in an industry as closely followed as showbiz, gender bending also arouses irritation or suspicion. Elsewhere, queer celebrities have even pulled back in noticeably subtle or straight-coded dress in an ironic rejection of the camp’s choices. Case in point: Frank Ocean’s all-black Prada ensemble at the camp-themed Met Gala in 2019.
In this environment, plays on traditional masculinity must feel effortless to land. “Sam Smith’s recent red carpet looks, while clearly meant to slay and rage in equal measure, are also an exaggerated version of the singer’s off-stage 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 a glimpse of heels, then evolved into lace blouses during tailoring, before finally culminating in an opulent Valentino gown at the Grammys this year. Their style journey has felt less like feminine cosplay and more a flowering of their true selves. “This is why they are seen as far more dangerous to heteronormative masculinity, because they destabilize it.”
Now the pendulum is swinging. As gender fluidity on the red carpet becomes de rigueur, the B-list has followed suit. “I think it sets a precedent for other guys who want to be considered successful dressers, so we’ve seen Love the islandpeople start wearing skeleton blouses,” says Dazedfashion writer Daniel Rodgers. “But celebrities with more esteem and more social capital don’t want to look like that anymore; they don’t want to look like you.”
Rodger’s point was echoed at last weekend’s Oscars, where menswear was visibly knocked back. As with the AW23 collections, a sense of reduction and conservatism was present, perhaps a correlation to inflation, but also the right-wing backlash against non-conforming displays of gender identity.
“The recent Golden Globes and Grammys saw men get more in touch with their playful sides, but I think there’s a degree of respect for the old Hollywood dress code that dictates what people wear to the Oscars,” says Zak Maoui, GQits style editor. “To support this, I think to take a look at Vanity Fair [after-party] shows that men are still pushing boundaries – Lucien Laviscount, Manu Rios, Troye Sivan…”
It is true. These looks were undeniably risque – but camp, they weren’t. For Laviscount, a Dolce & Gabbana velvet waistcoat cinched with a corset and paired with evening gloves; for Rios, Ann Demeulemeester’s knee-high leather boots, black dinner jacket and shirt with apron; for Sivan, a Diesel latex two-piece that would be better placed in a fetish party. Costume aesthetics were nowhere to be seen, replaced with a louch, softened and sexy mix of masculinity, instead of a ripped up cock in a dress.
Reuben? Like all gender-related debates, it goes back to Butler. Now, a cock in a dress is just another sealed and culturally understandable archetype that men can embrace on the red carpet, which means it’s not so subversive. Perhaps the seeds of the next half-decade’s menswear rebellion lie in fetishism and sex appeal, as the most eyebrow-raising glances at the Vanity Fair party might suggest. Of course they felt exciting. But will they one day feel passé when men find other ways to test masculinity? One thing is for sure: the red carpet will always be the best place to find them.