'A new form of currency': How activism is re-defining the Hollywood red carpet

The red carpet used to be for fashion statements only but more and more, it's showcasing political ones too.

'Brands recognize the power of speaking up,' says celebrity stylist Karla Welch

How the red carpet became the fabric of the political message

4 years ago
Duration 2:51
Hollywood's award season has arrived. Beginning with the Golden Globes, the stars will be covering many kilometres on the red carpet. And with the promise of a global audience, awards are always an opportunity for fashionable drama. Except now, the question you're more likely to hear, is not "who are you wearing?" But "why are you wearing that?"

Hollywood's red carpets used to be for fashion statements, but more and more, it's the place for political ones too.

First, there were the black dresses at last year's Golden Globes to show solidarity with sexual harassment and assault survivors.

Then came the orange pins at the Oscars to protest gun violence.

And a few months ago at the Emmys, Jenifer Lewis's Nike outfit eschewed red carpet formality in support of Colin Kaepernick.

Activism is "a new form of currency," said Canadian celebrity stylist Karla Welch during an interview at her Los Angeles studio. "And you can use it really powerfully. And use it for good." 

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was among the celebrities wearing an orange pin at the 2018 Oscars to protest gun violence. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

In between fittings for actresses such as American Horror Story's Sarah Paulson and The Handmaid's Tale star Elisabeth Moss, the fashion maven posts social media messages on immigration, voting and Indigenous issues. 

She helped showcase an array of black designers when Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross hosted the American Music Awards in October. She also worked behind the scenes to support the Time's Up movement battling sexual misconduct in show business.

Canadian stylist Karla Welch, who counts Justin Bieber and Tracee Ellis Ross among her clients, says activism is 'a new form of currency' on the red carpet. (Zulekha Nathoo/CBC)

Welch has become one of the most sought-after stylists among Hollywood's elite, not despite her views — but because of them.

"We talk about what's going on in the world," she said about the high-profile people she styles. "I'm such a big part of what they put out into the world, so it's important that we're aligned on stuff."

"I'm in my job because I love fashion. I am who I am because I'm a political human being."

Among the racks of clothes in Welch's office, her activism can be found on the walls and on her Instagram account, where she discusses issues such as immigration, voting and women's rights. (Zulekha Nathoo/CBC)

A growing political presence on the red carpet represents a subtle shift that designers, like the team behind high fashion label Greta Constantine, are noticing too. The Toronto-based duo's clothes have been worn by Meghan Markle, Mindy Kaling and Angelina Jolie, among others.

"It's a thought process now," said designer Kirk Pickersgill. "I think [actors] are starting to become more of who they are rather than seeking their stylists to put out a person who they're not."

Kirk Pickersgill, left, and Stephen Wong, right, are the Canadian duo behind the high fashion label Greta Constantine and say they've noticed a subtle shift in red carpet looks with politics in the picture. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

And young Hollywood is at the forefront of breaking the mould.

Politically active Grown-ish star Yara Shahidi, 18, wore a skirt covered with the face of African-American activist Angela Davis to a high-profile event in April, calling fashion "inherently political" when she posted a photo on social media.

Stranger Things star Millie Bobbie Brown,14, wore the names of the Parkland school shooting victims at the Kids' Choice Awards in March.

Millie Bobby Brown wore a shirt with the names of the Parkland school shooting victims to the 2018 Kids' Choice Awards in March and credited Calvin Klein for the design to her over 18 million Instagram followers. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Canadian Golden Globe nominee Stephan James, 25, said he's been working with up-and-coming black designers to promote inclusion and offer them a chance at the spotlight.

"Anytime you feel strongly about something, you're able to make a statement with your clothes," said James, who starred in the acclaimed film If Beale Street Could Talk and is nominated for his role in the podcast-based series Homecoming. "I think that's just an important thing: One picture can say a thousand words."

Canadian actor and 2019 Golden Globe nominee Stephan James, 25, says he's been working with black designers to promote inclusion. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

With the entertainment industry leaning predominantly left, L.A.-based style blogger Jessica Morgan said many are keen to use their platforms to discuss current issues.

"The rise in social media has allowed celebrities to be a little bit more open about who they truly are," said Morgan, co-founder of the celebrity fashion website Go Fug Yourself. "I also think that the election of Trump has made a lot of people feel like, 'look, I'm not willing to just be quiet.'"

L.A.-based fashion blogger Jessica Morgan says the rise of both social media and Donald Trump have pushed celebrities to express their views louder than ever before. (Zulekha Nathoo/CBC)

Fashion is still big business and brands can get lucrative exposure from cross-promotion.

Brown, who's done ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, credited the brand for her clothing at the Kids' Choice Awards to her 18 million Instagram followers. And Prada got multiple mentions for designing Shahidi's Angela Davis skirt.

"Brands recognize the power of speaking up," said Welch.

"I think the days of 'oh, I look pretty in a dress,' which I love, we love celebrating fashion, we love wearing beautiful clothes, but they're coming a little bit to a close. I think it's a good thing that there's different ways of using power."

With files from Nigel Hunt


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