If the Met Gala is the all-star showcase of red carpet entrances, the Oscars the skills championship, and the MTV Video Music Awards the X Games, then the Cannes Film Festival is effectively the playoffs: an extended period in which celebrities show up multiple times in clothes high and low, demonstrating all their moves.
And though outfits seem to be getting increasingly extreme with the proliferation of social media, a look back through the history of the festival’s runway (oops, red carpet) — which this year runs May 16-27 — reveals that it was, in fact, ever thus.
The Croisette boulevard has always been a catwalk and we, the rapt audience looking on.
When she attended Cannes on the arm of her third husband, the producer Mike Todd (who was there to promote “Around the World in 80 Days”), Ms. Taylor was Hollywood royalty, and she dressed the part — from the tip of her diamond Cartier tiara to the hem of her white Balmain gown and the fingertips of her opera gloves. The princess dress would forever after be a festival staple (not least on Princesses Grace and Diana when they would take their own Cannes bows).
Ms. Deneuve attended Cannes with her then-husband, the photographer David Bailey, in a long seaside-striped sequin Yves Saint Laurent T-shirt dress. She was a de facto YSL ambassador before that term had even entered the fashion playbook (back then, the usual appellation was “muse”). She would remain one for decades, loyally wearing YSL onscreen and off. When it comes to casual glamour, however, this dress set the tone, proving the concept was not an oxymoron, but a whole potential genre unto itself.
Ms. Birkin popped up at Cannes with her beau, Serge Gainsbourg, and a picnic basket as a handbag, toting it not just during the day, but on the red carpet with a glimmering frock. Reportedly discovered in a fishing village in Portugal, it was the Birkin bag before the Birkin bag. It became a symbol of the British star and of a certain je ne sais quoi in boho style and the freewheeling nature of Cannes.
She came to Cannes to unveil “Madonna: Truth or Dare” — and herself. Decades before Lady Gaga stripped down to her undergarments on the Met Gala steps, Madonna walked the carpet for her premiere in a voluminous pink taffeta coat by Jean Paul Gaultier — only to drop it at the last moment to reveal a white satin cone bra, knickers and a garter belt set. She jolted the public out of their torpor and started a new era of peekaboo dressing.
In 2002 Ms. Stone came to Cannes as a member of the film festival jury and revived her flagging profile by walking the red carpet in a different fashion statement every night. But years before that, she made dressing noise when she arrived at the premiere of “Unzipped” in a champagne-colored satin skirt that was, well, unbuttoned to reveal a bedazzled romper beneath. Ever since, shorts have been a festival staple.
Minimalism came to the Croisette courtesy of Ms. Moss, attending the premiere of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” with her then-boyfriend, Johnny Depp. Ms. Moss wore a black cocktail dress with ostrich feathers at the top and almost no makeup with merely a touch of diamonds and barely-there sandals. She made everyone else look overdone and overdressed, washing the Augean stables of Cannes clean.
Ms. Swinton strode the carpet in a metallic pantsuit, proving that a woman does not need a big dress to make a big statement.
Ms. Evangelista posed like a gold Greek statuette in Lanvin at the premiere of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Models had become key parts of the festival’s opening evening mix, upping the fashion ante even further.
Ms. Nyong’o seemed to embody springtime itself in a green pleated Gucci chiffon dress accented with crystal flowers. It was only a few months after Alessandro Michele had taken over as creative director of the Italian house, and the dress heralded the arrival of a new aesthetic and Hollywood love affair with Gucci.
Ms. Clooney made her Cannes debut in a classic butter yellow Atelier Versace dress with a high slit on one leg, entirely overshadowing her husband, George, at the premiere of his film, “Money Monster,” and, once again, proving style and substance are not antithetical concepts.
She made her first Cannes appearance at the “Okja” premiere in an ivory Dior couture gown with a long matching coat and New Wave-style sunglasses. Two years later, Dior owner LVMH would announce a deal with the artist for her own fashion line, and though it was shut down during the pandemic, her ability to channel cool has never wavered.
Ms. Stewart’s short chain mail Chanel dress was a fighting mix of armor and crystals, but what really made news was her decision to doff her Christian Louboutin stilettos and walk up the stairs barefoot. Coming a year after the actor complained about the festival’s unspoken high heels dress code, it was an unmistakable fashion throw down and, well, a step forward for wardrobe equity.
The French actress made the ultimate elegant refusal of Cannes convention in a high-necked, long-sleeved all-black Balenciaga gown, matching boot leggings and matching shades. It cut through the carpet froth and excess like a knife.
The sole man in this trendsetting list, Mr. Lee put ye olde penguin suits to shame as jury president, eschewing the usual tuxedo or white dinner jacket for a bouquet of sunset-toned suiting, by Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton. He did the right thing.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
Sometimes, it seems like the wide open skies of the Côte d’Azur encourage even wider skirts on the Cannes carpet, but Ms. Bachchan topped them all in a fantastical creation from Gaurav Gupta that made her look like some sort of alien smoke goddess materializing on Earth. Sometimes, it really does seem like the looks at Cannes are out of this world.
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