The Culture

Will Evan Rachel Wood's red carpet pantsuit inspire other women?

patterns of thought

The actress donned a custom-made suit for the Golden Globes, saying she wanted to show women and girls that dresses aren't 'a requirement' on Hollywood's red carpet.

Evan Rachel Wood arrives at the 74th annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Instead of a ball gown the actress chose a tailored suit, saying she wanted to provide an example that women don't have to wear dresses if they don't want to.
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP | Caption

Evan Rachel Wood’s red carpet ensemble didn’t have a long, flowing skirt or sparkles, but she still managed to turn heads at the Golden Globes.

Ms. Wood, who stars in the new HBO series “Westworld,” wore a custom-made tailored tuxedo Sunday evening, departing from her usual choices of long, feminine ball gowns for the statement-making masculine look that challenged gender norms, hoping to set an example for other women and young girls.

“I’ve been to the Globes six times and I’ve worn a dress every time,” she told Ryan Seacrest during E! Live From the Red Carpet. “I love dresses – I’m not trying to protest dresses – but I wanted to make sure that young girls and women knew that they aren’t a requirement, and that you don’t have to wear one is you don’t want to. And to just be yourself, because your worth is more than that.”

Androgynous styles have surfaced in the fashion world in various forms throughout the past century, with icons like actress Marlene Dietrich debuting pantsuit styles in the 1930s and David Bowie donning outlandish, feminine pieces – both of whom Wood cited as inspiration for her outfit. The gender-bending looks have often arisen in LGBT communities and other subcultures, serving as ways to challenge the mainstream and send messages about one’s sexual or personal identity along the broadening scales of femininity and masculinity. In turn, they've also created controversies for their wearers, often receiving heavy criticism from both men and women for violating societal norms. 

But the styles have often pushed their way into the mainstream fashion world during times of political or societal struggle. The debate surrounding gender identity and women’s rights that dominated many conversations in 2016 could explain why the more blended gender looks are resurfacing, says Mary Rizzo, a professor of professional practice at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and author of the 2015 book “Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle.”

“When we look back and see those moments in the past where gender identity in dress has been pushed in new directions, I think those are moments when our society has been in turmoil,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, noting that “bloomers” came about during the early days of the fringe women’s suffrage movement before becoming a common undergarment for dress-wearers. Similarly, the 1960s saw a sway to “hippie culture,” with anti-establishment looks that later found places in mainstream fashion. “Those are times that are also highly contested in our history.”

Of course, Wood's sartorial choice may have been influenced by Hillary Clinton (a self-described “pantsuit aficionado”). At the end of the 2016 election, the online shopping site Lyst reported a 470 percent increase in searches for "pantsuits" last year. The company said it had sold more pantsuits in the last two weeks leading up to the vote than in the previous two months combined.

With the crushing defeat of the nation’s first major female US presidential candidate and the victory of a president-elect who has repeatedly made disparaging comments about women whose appearances don’t fit the traditional, feminine standard, many Americans are still smarting from the rhetoric and election upset. In some cases, fashion can serve as a way to push back, allowing women to reclaim autonomy over their bodies or exert a professional air formerly reserved for men.

And the same could be said of such a positive reception to a once controversial stunt. Fashion magazines and many social media users raved over Wood's outfit choice, a reaction that wasn’t so common when other celebrities chose to make bold statements in decades past.

“I think the positive response is in part a reaction to [Donald] Trump and making us think a little bit more about how women can look how they choose, not necessarily fitting directly into a narrow definition of what a feminine body looks like,” Dr. Rizzo adds.

While Wood’s suit made the biggest splash, other women donned similar attire, including Octavia Spencer and Kathryn Hahn, further cementing the trend away from feminine stereotypes.

“I was not surprised to see some pantsuits at the Golden Globes after the year of pantsuit nation,” Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, an art historian whose research focuses on fashion and textiles, tells the Monitor. “I don’t think the pantsuit is going to go away anytime soon. I think we’re going to keep seeing that as a tribute to the new idea of women as potential presidents, as powerful figures.”

But the true impact of Wood’s fashion stunt is hard to gauge. For many, the defiant act of abandoning heels and gowns on the red carpet still seems radical. The Cannes Film Festival in France, for example, barred women from stepping on the red carpet in 2015 unless they did so in heels, despite evidence that shows donning such elevated shoes can have a negative impact on the body. With such trends still in play, some say any overhaul of beauty standards would continue to move slowly in the image-conscious circle of celebrities.

“Hollywood is such a behemoth. There’s so much money going around that they have been not as responsive to these needs until now,” Kay Steiger, senior editor for ThinkProgress, a product of the Center for American Progress based in Washington, D.C., previously told the Monitor.

“It really taps into how pervasive the beauty standards are,” she added. “Even though there may not be an explicit rule about whether women need to wear heels on the red carpet at Cannes, it taps into the larger conversation about how women in Hollywood need to look and act a certain way and that forward pacing persona is a part of how they are perceived and marketed in Hollywood.”

More mainstream, mid-range fashion companies have been rolling out advertising and designs for women that fit a range of styles, such a H&M, which unveiled an ad last fall that featured women of different colors and sizes in various walks of life – including one transgender model – breaking feminine stereotypes. 

While women have long experimented with masculine style, a societal shift will become more evident if the choices become widely accepted and are no longer considered "edgy." 

“We’ll see if this has real impact and change if we see women on the street dressing in more men’s style clothing and not being harassed for it,” Rizzo says. “That’s really key.” 

Most would agree that a better measure of gender equality lies in economic and societal factors, such as gender pay gaps, high rates of sexual assault targeting women, and acceptance of transgender and LGBT individuals. But outfits like Wood’s can still send positive message about identity, especially to a young girls who have traditionally been flooded with singular definitions of beauty and femininity.

“She wanted to give little girls an alternative to the big princess dress. This is something that we continuously see,” Dr. Chrisman-Campbell says. “You don’t have to wear a dress to be a princess, to be feminine. This is a wonderful confirmation of that.”