Clothes can make people like you!This is the actual point of the red carpet, when you think about it. The red carpet is the only time we watch actors and actresses being themselves. It is their moment to promote their personal brand: fun, kooky, clever, sweet, whatever. The smart ones know that for the long-term longevity of this brand you need people to like you, not just fancy you. Cate Blanchett is brilliant at this. I’ve only ever seen Blanchett being a scary ice queen (Elizabeth, Blue Jasmine) or a kids’ film scary ice queen (The Hobbit; The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe) and, once, a madwoman called Lotte in a German play at the Barbican I couldn’t make head or tail of. And yet she has my lifelong devotion, primarily for the lavender and yellow Givenchy she wore at the 2011 Oscars, but also for livening up every red carpet I’ve ever covered. See also: Claire Danes, who has successfully softened and humanised an image dominated by her stressy black trousersuit-clad on-screen character by joyous, colourful red carpet choices, like the Tiffany-blue Prada dress she wore to the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2013.
For impact, shape matters more than anything elseCorsetry is your friend. Boning is your friend. If your dress lets it all hang out, you have to hold your tummy in. And nobody remembers to hold their tummy in except when they are looking in the mirror, and especially not after two glasses of champagne. This is not just about looking thin, it’s about looking like you have a shape, because shape looks good in photographs. On camera, a dress with a waist looks more dynamic and warm than a loose, blobby shape, which is why every red carpet, ever, is dominated by hourglass shapes. The masterclass: Sandra Bullock at last year’s Oscars in navy blue McQueen. Look inside a really good red-carpet gown and you will find two corsets: an inner one to squeeze you in, and then an outer one that keeps the dress in shape but is fractionally larger than the inner one, so that the dress never looks too small. I am not advocating two corsets in real life, but the takeaway here is that in any situation where you will end up in photos where you want to look nice – from your wedding, to being photographed at work – you will make life easier for yourself if you wear something with a built-in shape.
High collars make you look a bit meanThe thought process behind wearing a high-necked evening dress is impeccable – why should women bare their chests, making themselves exposed and vulnerable, when – at least, since the tragic demise of boyband JLS – a man would never do the same? And anyway, if you’ve been even remotely concentrating on fashion recently, you’ll be aware that polonecks are quite the thing. But the brutal fact is that high collars for evening are deeply offputting. Think of Nicole Kidman in that Balenciaga dress with the raised turtleneck and the red bow at the neck, at the 2007 Oscars. She looked terrifying! (The outsize bow that looked like a mechanical key for a wind-up robot didn’t help.) This doesn’t mean you have to go bare and strapless: both Helen Mirren and Judi Dench always show some skin at the throat, but cover their arms and shoulders.
Pretty-but-blah dresses don’t cut it except on pre-teen bridesmaids
The most common red carpet mistake is to go soft and ruffly and drippy. That lobotimised dolly look is my red carpet bugbear. Also, it is in my experience a bad sign, career-wise. You can basically date the steepening downward trajectory of Jennifer Lopez’s cultural relevance to when she wore a great Southern Belle ballgown to the Met Ball. Can the word “fairytale” be applied to your dress? Have you reached puberty? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, you are in the wrong dress.