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Celebrities are paid to be “ambassadors” for a brand; to represent it to the world. Contracts specify exactly what that means; sometimes that it is appearing in ads, but almost always it is wearing clothes by the brand at select very public moments — especially awards shows like the Oscars.

Just as important, however, is that even when they are not official ambassadors, stars (and their managers, agents and stylists, all of whom have some skin in this game) often consider a red carpet appearance pretty much a virtual ad, which means in exchange for wearing a dress and the related publicity that ensues, they would like the dress for free.

Because they are often not sample-size, and because they often want clothes that have not been seen before, this means brands have to make dresses especially for the occasion — and sometimes at the last minute celebs change their minds. If you are wondering whether this all privileges giant global brands over small indie names, and that is why the big guns often seem to be the most ubiquitous red carpet choices, the answer is yes.

Ever since #TimesUp convinced attendees to wear black to the 2018 Golden Globes in protest against Hollywood’s culture of sexual harassment, there have been various attempts at politicization of the red carpet fashion machine. A brief groundswell to not focus on the gowns but instead focus on the roles did not last terribly long (there’s been a sort of compromise, and now questions extend to both).

But in September 2020, Regina King wore a T-shirt honoring Breonna Taylor with her hot pink Schiaparelli pantsuit to the virtual Emmy Awards, and earlier this month Jamie Chung carried a “Stop Asian Hate” message handbag to the SAG awards. Given the emotion after the George Floyd trial verdict, the attacks on the Asian community and the drive for vaccines, we could well see statement making than goes beyond style for the Oscars. Still, it tends to be the exception, rather than the rule.

This will not be a case of match-the-mask-to-the-gown dressing. In fact, it will be — shock! — a maskless awards. The Oscars telecast is being treated like a TV production (well, it is a TV production), which means that on-camera talent gets to go barefaced. The producers have suggested, cryptically, that masks will still play a role of their own, but what that means is not entirely clear.

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