“Who are you wearing?” The iconic catchphrase, coined by none other than comically caustic Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa, is inextricably linked with how we view the Academy Awards today. But when did fashion come into the forefront at the Oscars? Nowadays, the red carpet is almost as important as the awards show itself, with media coverage beginning six hours before the broadcast of the ceremony. But that wasn't always the case.
According to The Telegraph, the first Academy Awards took place in 1929 (long before it was even referred to as “The Oscars”). A mere 270 guests showed up for the event, which wasn't broadcasted. To provide some perspective, over 3,300 guests attended the 2016 Academy Awards while 37 million people viewed the show on TV from the comfort of their own homes, also according to The Telegraph. The celebrities in 1929 had no need to be nervous, because there were no nominations: The 12 winners had already been announced in the Los Angeles Times three months before.
At the time, fashion certainly wasn't a major factor for any of the attendees. As The Telegraph states, "The award winner for best actress, Janet Gaynor, who was 22 at the time, wore a small off-the rack dress with a Peter Pan collar she had bought some time before."
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the red carpet itself wasn't actually introduced till 1961, and at that point, it didn't make much of a difference to the viewers at home, who were still watching the broadcast in black and white until 1966.
Vanity Fair reported that the pinnacle turning point for fashion at the Oscars was ushered in by Barbra Streisand's sheer, sequined Scaasi pantsuit as she accepted her Oscar in 1969 for her performance in Funny Girl. After that monumental moment, celebrities began incorporating their own personal style and aesthetic into their awards show choices.
During the following decades, a couple networks enlisted hosts, like Regis Philbin, to report from the red carpet, but it wasn't until 1996 that the carpet coverage really stuck when Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa hosted their first Oscars segment for E! network. The dynamic duo started by asking, "Who are you wearing," a question Joan knew the nervous actors could easily remember and answer as they walked toward the theatre. Though the New York Times berated the Riverses, calling their question "stupid and shallow," the viewers at home were quickly addicted to their quips and comments.
Celebrities began to fear the wrath of Joan, but the focus on fashion kept growing. This was largely due to the influence of Giorgio Armani, known for courting actors and becoming companions of theirs, changed all that when he began dressing his celebrity friends for their big night.
Between the years of 1995 and 2014, Armani had dressed 41 stars for the Oscars alone. Though Edith Head designed many dresses for Oscar-attending starlets during Hollywood's Golden Age, this was the first time a fashion designer with a fashion house strategically styled celebrities for the Academy Awards. Other fashion designers quickly jumped on the trend, trying to nab the biggest names for the biggest publicity.
It's hard to imagine today's red carpet as anything other than the fashion feeding frenzy that it's become. With each passing year, it feels like there are more designers present on the carpet — and yes, even more controversy. Despite the abundance of options, it's hard to ignore the fact that designers have refused to dress certain celebrities, indicating that there are elements of this age-old Hollywood tradition that remain problematic.
Regardless, it's still easy to be enamored with the beauty of the stars and the fantastic fabric draped around their bodies. It's a true runway of art and talent that's vital to the way we experience the Academy Awards today. It's hard to imagine a time when the fashion wasn't as fabulous but, lucky for us, the carpet can only get even more gorgeous.