A brief history of black glamour on the Oscars red carpet

From Billy D to Hattie McD, our folks will come correct because they always have

When Hollywood’s A-listers step out of their limousines on Sunday afternoon and onto the Academy Awards’ much-hyped red carpet, it will be a Big Fashion Thing (BFT). So much of a BFT that it’s become the de facto holding pen for pop culture fanatics who may not care to watch three hours of the actual awards show. The carpet is a pregame show with really fit, insanely attractive people whose very smiles seem to say, “I may be starving, but go ahead and hate, ’cause you know I look good.”

The first red carpets may have been laid down in the 1930s as a way to guide the stars into a movie house or theater. Now the show is an international guide to good hairstyles, beautiful makeup and impeccable clothes, all done with great lighting, sound, drugs and romantic shuffling. Very few stars (or their handlers) these days are willing to take the kinds of fashion chances that others in the past were anxious to try. Gone are the days when a starlet could buy a frock at Bloomingdale’s and be done with it. That will earn negative (and immediate) social media attention.

Entire careers have been built on a lucky red carpet appearance. Remember JLo’s infamous Versace split-to-there dress she wore to the 2000 Grammys? And amateur mistakes apparently will perhaps tolerated, but only if you (insert the name Jennifer Hudson here) go forth and sin no more. For African-American filmmakers, wardrobe and beauty snafus such as a poorly-fitting tuxedo, unflattering gown or “unusual” hairstyle can be the final ax blow to an already shaky tree.

If 2016 was labeled #OscarsSoWhite, Sunday’s telecast will be one of the blackest. Red carpet coverage is now as big a thing as the award shows themselves, and the Oscars is the most-watched award show of them all (having once raked in a record 40.4 million total viewers for the 2014 telecast). People will tune in to see what the stars are wearing, how well they are groomed and prepped, whom they brought to the awards as their dates, and whether they can work their way through the phalanx of cameras, flashing lights, screaming publicists and nosy press without having a breakdown.

But know this: No one on this year’s red carpet will stand out for having dressing poorly or having bad taste. We’re all too careful, too coached, too restricted now. The rules of formal dressing are known, and black folks know this stuff better than nearly anyone. This year’s bumper crop of excellent African-American artists — especially this crew! — nominated for and presenting statues at the Oscars will bring the fashion realness. There’s no worrying about Taraji P. Henson wearing the 2017 version of Bjork’s swan dress. Denzel Washington and Mahershala Ali wouldn’t be caught dead in someone’s tacky “alternative tux” suit. And none of us can think of a time when Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer would wear a white silk tuxedo backward (a la Celine Dion) and think she looks cute. Just for giggles, we did a bit of photo research and looked for examples of African-Americans at the Oscars who were fly and felt gloriously free to be themselves. The red carpet may not be as fun a spectator sport as it used to be, but at least our folks will come correct, because they always have.

Hattie McDaniel: Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award (for her supporting role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind). The awards were held that year (1940) at the segregated Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador’s Hotel, where the 44-year-old actress sat in a back corner against a ballroom wall. Her turquoise-and-rhinestones gown was memorable, as were the gardenias in her hair.
Mo’Nique: Sixty years after Hattie McDaniel won a best supporting actress Oscar, Baltimore native Mo’Nique took home the statue for her role in Lee Daniels’ heartbreaking film, Precious. Mo’Nique’s blue gown was by Tadashi Shoji, the go-to Japanese designer for plus-sized women who love beautiful formalwear. The gardenia in her hair was a tribute to McDaniel.
Lola Falana and Sammy Davis Jr.: The sexy actress and singer Lola Falana was best known in the early 1970s for her appearances in Italian cinema and for her work as a dancer in Sammy Davis Jr.’s shows. The pair attended an Oscars after-party in 1970 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel wearing matching black-and-white attire.
Diana Ross: Diana Ross was also nominated for Best Actress in 1973, marking the first time that two African-American women (Cicely Tyson was the other) shared the honor in the same year. Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues was a critical triumph for the former Supreme, and though the superstar lost that night to Liza Minnelli, she won the red carpet with her custom ivory satin smoking tuxedo pantsuit designed by Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan.
Isaac Hayes: Isaac Hayes was the third African-American to win an Academy Award — after McDaniel and Sidney Poitier. Hayes’ performance of the theme from the film, Shaft so perfectly captured the artistic sensibility of the over-the-top 1970s that it has itself become a classic. Check out my man’s fur-trimmed tux and bow tie. Yes, we can dig it, Isaac.
Whoopi Goldberg: Having won a best supporting actress Oscar in 1991 for Ghost, the comedian and actress arrived at the 1993 Oscars in a bright purple-and-green ensemble that sent many fashion critics screaming. Purchased at a Beverly Hills, California, boutique, the dress/coat/pants … thing seems downright demure (for Whoopi) compared with some of the outfits the style iconoclast has worn as the longtime co-host of The View.
Three 6 Mafia: It’s probably OK to say that no one ever expected the members of the Memphis, Tennessee-based hip-hop crew, Three 6 Mafia, to be nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, let alone win. But their song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from the Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson film, Hustle and Flow, was infectious, as was the 2006 red carpet and stage appearance of Jordan "Juicy J" Houston, Darnell "Crunchy Black" Carlton, Cedric "Frayser Boy" Coleman and “DJ Paul” Beauregard. They brought street wear to an international stage when folks were least expecting it.
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith: When the Smiths go to the Oscars — or to any top-shelf event that has a red carpet situation — they are not playing. Like, not at all. Will and Jada, and sometimes their children, Jaden and Willow, can be counted on for being impeccably turned out from top to bottom. Mind you, the Versace-clad duo who posed for photos in 2014 had things a bit more in hand than their turn in the Oscar spotlight in 1997, when both had a thing for the color lime green. But this is how you mix laid-back glamour with couples’ goals.
Spike Lee: After being nominated in 1990 for best screenwriting (Do the Right Thing) and again in 1998 for the documentary Four Little Girls, Spike Lee won an honorary Oscar in 2015 and looked terrific doing it. Lee’s go-to trio of actors — Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Wesley Snipes — presented the award to the director, who was decked out in an uber-cool Fort Greene, Brooklyn, way: navy velvet Nehru-style jacket, matching pants, gold chain and cross, Kangol hat and round orange glasses.
Michael B. Jordan: The newest kid on the block landed — BAM! — on the Oscar red carpet in 2014 looking like he’d been born to work that Givenchy tux and shoes. Jordan’s turn in Ryan Coogler’s film, Fruitvale Station, made the Newark, New Jersey, actor into someone to watch, and his subsequent press tour for that film (and this big league follow-up, Creed) let his charisma shine for all the world to see.
Prince: Thank you, Prince, for bringing your purple weirdness to a normally boring Oscar telecast. The Minneapolis legend accepted his Academy Awards for best original song score and best original musical for Purple Rain in 1984 clad in a fringed, sequined hoodie which was a deep purple hue (duh). Man eyeliner, lace gloves, tight pants and high heels were also all present and accounted for.
Alfre Woodard: For some years now, the 12 Years a Slave and Luke Cage actress has famously refused to wear high heels, even (especially?) on the red carpet. Woodard still did her thing at the 2014 Academy Awards in a navy blue Badgley Mischka Couture gown that hugged her curves in all the right places, and it had sleeves!
Pharrell Williams: Tuxedo shorts? On a man? At the Oscars? Triple yes, thank you very much, Mr. Williams. This was Pharrell being Pharrell, which seemed to throw some people off and surprise others. But at what time did anyone expect Skateboard P to dress like anyone else? With this guy, that’s never the point.
David Oyelowo: Oh, hello, David Oyelowo! Esquire magazine named the British thespian best dressed at the 2015 Oscars, and who can argue? This Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo is wine-colored, but the bright red tie and vest bring a lot of pop to the nontraditional formal suit.
Billy Dee Williams: Looove this shot of the debonair Lando Calrissian at the 1973 Oscars supporting his girl, Tracy Chambers, on her big night. Wait, that’s actor Billy Dee Williams from Lady Sings the Blues. So, he’s not a space pirate or a grassroots politician (though he played one opposite Diana Ross in the cult fashion thriller, Mahogany). Whatever his role, Williams always led with a liberal pinch of wit and debonair masculinity.
Diahann Carroll: Nominated for best actress for her role in the film Claudine, the singer/actress chose a sequined gown and MAJOR fur-trimmed coat by Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan for the 47th Academy Awards in 1975. The white dress’ deep decolletage and the coat’s maximum flamboyance have style shades of Dominique Deveraux, Carroll’s fabulous character on the hit TV show, Dynasty.
Halle Berry: “This moment is so much bigger than me,” said Halle Berry at the start of her 2002 Oscar acceptance speech. It was a great, memorable line, and Berry’s win as best actress was the first best actress win for an African-American. Berry looked incredible in her Elie Saab gown, which was half sexy, peekaboo sheerness on top and crimson draping on the bottom.
Gabourey Sidibe: Best Actress nominee Gabourey Sidibe made her rounds on the 2010 Oscars red carpet and said, “If fashion was porn, this dress is the money shot.” We know you were excited about the blue Marchesa gown, my friend, but porn it wasn’t. It was pretty and conservative and refined — all of the things that size zero Hollywood actresses are allowed to aim for on any given red carpet night.
Quvenzhane Wallis: Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest person to be nominated for a best actress Oscar in 2013 for her role as Hushpuppy in the film, Beasts of the Southern Wild. She didn’t win, but she was a lock for cutest lady on the red carpet. The navy blue Armani dress with black tulle is adorable, as are the sparkly ballet flats and headband. But that puppy purse, though!
Jennifer Hudson: Jennifer Hudson went on the record to criticize Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley’s styling of her Oscar de la Renta dress and cropped jacket, but really, it’s not so bad. It was maybe a little too showy for the best supporting actress winner, but the ensemble has actually aged well since its debut in 2007.