I have a confession. I have never spoken openly about this shameful secret, but I can only assume people have noticed it about me and politely said nothing. I frequently throw caution to the fashion wind and, in direct rebellion of all social mores, don a dress, jeans, top – what have you – that I have previously been seen wearing out in public.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, to admit this dark truth. I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me on my path to openness.
I’d particularly like to thank the Duchess of Cambridge, who proudly walked the red carpet at the Baftas on Sunday night, wearing a dress she had worn before, in 2012, to attend a dinner with the king and queen of Malaysia during a tour of Southeast Asia.
By choosing to wear a dress she already owned, Kate was adhering to the Baftas’ new sustainable dress code which encouraged guests to either rewear something they already owned or hire an ensemble instead of buying something new.
This isn’t to shame Kate Middleton but let’s get real: rewearing clothing is just a normal thing that normal people do every day. It’s absurd that we continue to raise celebrities up who do something that most of us consider completely unremarkable, not to mention essential. For who can afford a new outfit every day, and the wardrobe square-footage to match?
This year’s awards season has been rife with nods to sustainability. The Critics’ Choice Awards served only vegan meals to guests following the ceremony and the Oscars has announced it will be doing the same. The Baftas, presumably clawing at the dirt for good publicity after the resurgence of the #BaftasSoWhite hashtag following its abysmally undiverse nominations, announced “sustainable measures” that it would be implementing this year. And yet anyone with a mite of knowledge of how red carpet dressing works (ie Bafta), knows all too well that most celebrities begin sourcing their outfits for awards seasons months before; at the very latest just after the nominations are announced, which was a month ago.
Was Bafta expecting actors to reject the custom-made gowns that couturiers had spent weeks, if not months, creating for them, in favour of something old or borrowed, discarding layers of freshly woven taffeta and organza so they could claim to be rewearing something old for a publicity stunt; a phoney nod to sustainability?
This summer, Britons spent an estimated £2.7bn on outfits they wore once and then discarded. Many of us would have grown up flicking through photographs in magazine coverage of awards, with the accompanying shame of “outfit repeats” and “who wore it best” diptychs. But we desperately need to shake that outlook off. And if we martyr the future queen consort of the UK and commonwealth for outfit repeating, we risk further isolating us laypeople. We think, “Oh, she can only do it because she’s Kate Middleton,” or “it must have been a bold decision, they called her brave. I can’t pull that sort of pluck off.”
It’s all well and good Joaquin Phoenix announcing that he’d be wearing the same suit throughout the entire duration of awards season (first off, sorry to say it pal, but no one would have noticed anyway – the paparazzi aren’t pointing their lenses at an endless throng of tuxedos). But Phoenix, also, is afforded the privilege of being a white man in an industry that favours white men (which he himself admitted in his powerful speech about diversity in the industry). He will receive ample publicity whatever he wears, particularly this year as he walks off with top gongs in most ceremonies.
Women are up against quite different odds on the red carpet. Not only do they spend the best part of a day buffing, plucking and preening themselves to glow and avoid any potential for public shaming when they walk their freezing bodies down a red carpet; they must also make headlines, remain in vogue. It’s absolutely no skin off Phoenix’s nose to rewear a tux, since he isn’t being paraded around like he’s Miss America.
Red carpet dressing is as political as the democratic nominations. It’s a world of precision planning marred by skulduggery and driven by status. Who wears which brand matters in this bonkers world.
Many actors are fulfilling six-figure contracts by wearing certain brands on the red carpet, contracts that are designed for them to announce the name of the brand and see it featured in best-dressed galleries across the internet.
But when it comes to sustainability, most of the women at the awards won’t actually keep the dresses they wear on the night. These are loans, created or adapted for specific people to wear and be walking billboards, and then whisked away the following morning to be cleaned and housed in fashion archives, occasionally being lent out to museums (the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Hollywood costume exhibition contained many such gowns).
Of course this isn’t anywhere as sustainable as outfit repeating (or recycling, as it is absurdly being called, despite none of the fabric ever being recycled in the literal sense of the word), but it’s more complex than Bafta made out.
There is a climate crisis, the fashion industry is enormously unsustainable and massive structural change must happen – and fast. But applauding celebrities for “recycling” outfits is just teasing out the nauseating self-congratulation of awards season even further.
Kate Middleton already rewears outfits, she’s been doing it for years without making a song and dance about it as Phoenix did. That’s what we need more of.
Instagrammers, meanwhile, would do well to dare to normalise outfit repeating and not wait for their gold star. After all, it’s just what normal people do.