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Theme Dressing on the Red Carpet Is Not Going Anywhere

On Tuesday night, Kristen Stewart attended the premiere of her latest film, Love Lies Bleeding, in a very un-Kristen Stewart look. The actress—who is known for her übercool-girl aesthetic and who usually dons dress code-eschewing, custom Chanel—stepped out in a labia-skimming bodysuit. Cut to her hip bone with an attached backless bodice, the piece resembled an exceptionally ’80s unitard (or Borat’s famed mankini), a nod to the plot of Bleeding, in which Stewart plays a gym owner who falls in love with a bodybuilder. In bringing the story of the film off the set, off the screen, and onto the red carpet, Stewart has officially joined a growing list of actors embracing a phenomenon known as “theme dressing.” And if eternally unbothered Stewart is involved, that means absolutely no one is immune.

To be fair, Stewart threw on a pair of pants immediately following the red carpet (and later changed into a t-shirt and blazer for the after party), but the message was already clear by that point. Theme dressing is taking over the red carpet, and Stewart now finds herself—perhaps for the first time—as part of a trend dominated by the likes of Zendaya, Margot Robbie, Maisie Williams, and Halle Bailey.

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The tides of red carpet fashion have been shifting toward theme dressing for the past year or so, as Margot Robbie’s pink-fueled press tour for Barbie produced a parade of ensembles plucked right out of a Mattel box. With the help of her stylist, Andrew Mukamal, the actress worked with luxury fashion brands to recreate Barbie looks of yore. When she didn’t have a recreation in mind, the duo turned to what one imagines is a Narnia-esque closet filled with every pink piece to have walked the runway over the past year—along with the perfect pair of Manolo Blahnik peep-toe mules to match. Robbie and Mukamal’s dedication to bringing Barbie to the actress’s press tour has pushed many to follow suit, including one of Mukamal’s other clients, Billie Eilish (another member of Stewart’s insouciant style squad), who dressed in Barbie garb for her performance at the Grammys last month.

There was once a time when an actress like Robbie would play a role like Barbie and then run in the other direction upon that final “cut,” eager to distance herself from the character to avoid getting pigeonholed. But Robbie doubled down, spending close to an entire year in Barbie’s heels, an almost posthumous-style of method acting. Rarely did she attend an event in the last 12 months without some pink on her person. This, combined with the massive campaign for the film—which saw Barbie branding plastered on everything from NFTs to candles—has pushed the limits of how far a movie’s promotion can go. Once, it was a smattering of trailers and a premiere, maybe two. Now, it’s a world tour, with red carpets that have the ability to spark just as much public interest as traditional promotional material, if not more. “What we do is just as powerful as that trailer that’s running on social media or in the theater,” says Law Roach, the longtime stylist of Zendaya, another actress known for her themed turns on the red carpet. “It’s the newest ideation of what it means to promote a movie.”

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When I call up Roach on a recent afternoon, he admits to being “lightly annoyed” at the moment. “Many think [theme dressing] started with Barbie and that press tour,” he explains, referring to Robbie and Mukamal’s work together. His bristling is warranted, since Roach has been doing this a long time—he traces his own flirting with theme on the red carpet back to promotion for The Greatest Showman in 2017, which saw Zendaya in a butterfly dress by Moschino and a ringmaster-worthy Ralph Lauren suit. Since then, Roach has led the actress through numerous promotional cycles—for the Spider-Man films and Dune—in an abundance of themed looks. But even Roach knows he wasn’t the first to adopt the trend; as Sarah Spellings pointed out at Vogue, theme dressing extends at least to 1992, when Geena Davis wore a baseball-stitched mini dress to the premiere of her film, A League of Their Own. But the modern iteration of theme dressing? That’s likely all thanks to Roach.

Some may find the practice performative. Decades ago, actors wore their personal, real-life style on the red carpet (see: Barbra Streisand grabbing a dress from her own closet for a Grammys appearance). In many ways, contracts with fashion houses did away with this kind of style authenticity long before theme dressing entered the picture. Back in 2018, Sofia Coppola lamented that “now everyone looks the same, with perfect grooming, gowns, and brand-new jewelry, as they parade a catalog of luxury items.” She praised women like Chloë Sevigny, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Kirsten Dunst (one of her admitted muses) for their style fidelity. “I love when you see an actress who looks like herself, even if her look isn’t perfect.”

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Zendaya, though, has been at it for so long, these over-the-top looks have become a natural extension of her style. While for others, showing up to a premiere in the Mugler Machinenmensch suit may feel inauthentic, we’ve come to expect a healthy dose of chic excess from her red carpet appearances. “I play on the literal, and I’ve always done that,” Roach explains. Roach and Zendaya made a name for themselves in the world of fashion with looks that tiptoed (and maybe even crossed) the threshold between clothing and costume. “I don’t draw the line,” he says of the distinction between the two. “I don’t think we should put limits on ourselves and fashion.”

But not all forms of theme dressing find the actress completely encased in metal (and fully immersed in a character). The spectrum of this trend can vary. While you have your Robbies and Zendayas in full character garb, there are actresses like Emma Stone, who is just now dipping her toe into the water of the trend. Petra Flannery, Stone’s stylist, says she was inspired by Poor Things when planning the actress’ looks for the film’s press tour (and ensuing awards season). And who can blame her? The Yorgos Lanthimos-directed film is a visual feast. Holly Waddington’s costumes belong in a museum, right next to Shona Heath and James Price’s candy-coated production design.

“There’s definitely a nod to the film within Emma’s looks, and inspiration from the textures and those really amazing pastels,” Flannery says. But she admits the resulting dresses were not so literal. A sheer, embellished chartreuse number started Stone’s tour in New York last December, followed by a pale blue slip in London—pieces one could find on any red carpet. Obviously, Stone (and Flannery) wanted to up the ante, because when the Palm Springs Film Festival rolled around in January, the actress wore two pins attached to her Louis Vuitton lapel: golden BBs for her character, Bella Baxter. (Similar silver pieces appeared just a few weeks later on the ends of Stone’s velvet belt at the Critics Choice Awards.) By the time the BAFTAs rolled around, the actress was ready to dive in even further, arriving to the event in an orange sherbet dress with one voluminous sleeve any viewer of Poor Things could slot right into one of the film’s scenes. “It has the essence of the character, but not too much,” Flannery says, pointing out the choice to highlight just one sleeve, as opposed to two, just like Bella did. “It’s still Emma. I always like to make sure she feels like herself when she’s on the red carpet.”

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Is Stone’s slow indoctrination into the world of theme dressing (and Stewart’s full embrace) a sign of what’s to come? Films like Barbie and Dune have resurrected movie theaters and the film industry at large from pandemic-induced death, but the studios are still looking for ways to keep up with the times; this extension into fashion seems like a natural next step. Roach believes the studios still take stylists for granted, but his ability to draw views from a previously uninterested group cannot go unnoticed for much longer. Thanks to Roach and Zendaya, each Dune: Part Two premiere became a must-see event, and the pair delivered every time. “I received words of appreciation from executives and producers on the tour,” Roach says. “So maybe next time, they’ll consider pouring more resources into the styling.”

Even if the studios are slow to catch on, the public is fully on board. Virality was all but guaranteed every time Zendaya or Robbie stepped out in a new themed look, and the former’s recent double header of vintage Mugler and Alexander McQueen will likely go down in red carpet history. The response has all but guaranteed the trend is not going anywhere—and Roach doesn’t even think it has reached its peak. “After us, people will kind of expect that, if there is an overarching theme to the movie, the star will dress like the film,” he says. Unsurprisingly, Roach will stand by this statement when Zendaya’s next press tour, for Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, kicks off in the upcoming weeks. “The movie is centered around tennis, and I’m looking forward to playing in that world.” Sounds like it could be time for spandex and lycra to make their red carpet debuts.

Source: W Magazine

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