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The Venice Film Festival opened on Wednesday with a sight so unusual, it could almost merit special status as an endangered species: a full-on red carpet.
But not, perhaps, a red carpet as we’ve ever known one before. Because (first of all) this was a red carpet subject to Covid-era safety precautions: masks, temperature checks and social distancing were all in effect. Second, this was a red carpet on which the most eye-catching look was old news.
Cate Blanchett, president of the Festival jury, attended the opening event in a gown she first wore five years ago. She previously wore the black sequinned gown with white-trimmed waterfall sleeves to the London premiere of Carol in November 2015. The Esteban Cortazar design looked just as fresh in 2020, and she styled it similarly, adding a statement necklace by Pomellato but keeping the pointed black stilettos.
Typically red-carpet events present lucrative opportunities for stars to appear in fresh-from-the-catwalk designs from sponsoring brands, but Blanchett has turned that idea on its head. Before the festival, she said that she would wear gowns from her personal collection for all of her red-carpet appearances.
The move is at least partly practical - organising fittings and shipping gowns internationally is yet another logistical challenge complicated by Covid. Far more convenient, then, for Blanchett to select some of the stellar gowns at her fingertips in her London home, where she has resided since February.
But it’s more than that, too. Blanchett hopes to shine a spotlight on sustainable practices - and she enjoys the nostalgia in every rewear.
“I am working with what I’ve got in the attic,” she told WWD. “It’s an opportunity to clear the cobwebs out and see what I’ve got. And it’s fun, I remember seeing my mother’s wedding dress, and it was the first time in my life I truly appreciated the history of a garment. So whenever you do re-wear something, you have this shadow memory of the time you wore it before.”
In her case, those shadow memories may include any number of showstopping gowns: the embellished Alexander McQueen gown from the 2016 BAFTA Awards at London’s Royal Opera House. The gold-fringed Balenciaga column dress from the 2007 Met Gala. The vampy, feather-shouldered Armani Privé gown she wore to the Venice Film Festival premiere of A Star is Born in 2018. The £60,000 Armani Privé gown she wore to collect her 2014 Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine (so much Armani…).
Many red-carpet regulars will have an archive of, if not Blanchett-level, then still spectacular past looks packed away in lofts and storage facilities. Which begs the question: could rewearing past looks mark the end of the traditional red-carpet fashion system? Is there really any need for actors to ‘collaborate’ with brands on runway-fresh designs, when there are already so many extant examples of fabulous red-carpet gowns out there?
Not so fast. Tilda Swinton, in town to collect the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award, has already treated Venice to two head-to-toe Chanel looks. She emerged from the airport (the airport! No red carpet there) in top-to-toe Chanel: a brown trench coat, coordinating bag and two-tone vinyl heels.
Then she walked the red carpet with Blanchett in Chanel Haute Couture. She livened up her smocked white cotton top and tiered black skirt with a handheld gold butterfly mask - a mask that had more in common with its Venetian festival cousins than anything as basic as a cloth face covering.
The two women represent different approaches to Festival dressing, but both are embracing the power of the red carpet to delight and divert at-home audiences hungering for something exciting to look at. On that front, they've both delivered.
Whether Swinton serves more Chanel or not (on Thursday she wore an absinthe-green Haider Ackermann blazer), we can look forward to Blanchett’s hit parade continuing through the duration of the Festival. Oh, and it has a charity angle: She and Cortazar have donated the gown she wore on Wednesday to a charity auction.
The sale of the gown will benefit Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organisation that uses lessons from history to challenge teachers and students to stand up to bigotry and hate; and UN Women, the United Nations body that advocates for gender equality. Using star power to support women? Now that's an idea sure to stand the test of time at least as well as Blanchett’s gowns.