As Red Carpet affairs go, Cannes is a Film Festival. As Film Festivals go, Cannes is proving to be, well, a rather troubled Red Carpet affair. Cancelled last year for the first time since World War II, the Cannes Film Festival is an unmissable date on the film industry calendar, premiering movies that have gone on to enjoy stratospheric success and a great place for fashionistas to eyeball the latest in good, bad and yes, you guessed it, downright ugly looks.
But Cannes’ dress code is famously strict (some might say passé) and whilst its supporters believe that has contributed to the festival’s position as one of the premier showcases for haute couture and decadent gemstones, others are less sympathetic. Cannes is not casual. Unless you’re this year’s inimitably cool jury president, Spike Lee, you don’t get to walk the steps of the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès wearing sneakers. Maybe that’s OK, to a point. I am not outlawing dress codes. As a professional stylist they can be helpful in narrowing down what is often an overwhelming range of options, but they can also be an unnavigable minefield.
The Cannes Film Festival was created in 1938, primarily as competition to the Venice Film Festival which had shown a growing fascist bias during the preceding few years. When in 1938 Mussolini and Hitler respectively overruled the jury's decision and awarded Best Film to Italian war film ‘Luciano Serra, Pilota’, produced under the supervision of Mussolini's son and Best Foreign Film to ‘Olympia’, a German documentary about the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics produced in association with the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment, the proverbial camel’s back broke. Outraged by the decision and as a measure of protest, the French, British and American jury members withdrew from the festival with the intention of not returning and on May 31 1939, the city of Cannes was selected as the location for the first French International Film Festival. Hollywood stars of the moment arrived on an MGM chartered ocean liner and on 31 August 1939, the opening night gala took place with the private screening of the American film ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.
The next day, on September 1, German troops invaded Poland and the rest, as they say, is history.
In recent years, several gender and sexual controversies have surrounded the Festival. In 2015 the alternately dubbed "Flatgate" and "Heelgate" (depending, apparently, on which kind of shoe you thought was more maligned) hit the news following the revelation that numerous female attendees of a red carpet premiere were barred from entering for wearing flat soled shoes instead of high heels. Predictably perhaps, the incident caused female celebrities to wear flat soled shoes (or no shoes at all) to other red carpet premiers in a show of solidarity and protest. Despite an apology by the festivals director for what he termed to be a single agent’s error, rumours persist that high heels are a requirement for women on the red carpet, and even a casual glance around evening screenings at Cannes reveal that most female guests are still sporting them.
In 2018, and in stark and no doubt intentional contrast to three years earlier actress and competition jury member Kristen Stewart (she of the interminable Twilight Saga) kicked off her shoes and ascended the stairs of the Palais unshod.
It’s always a striking and touching image, the barefoot woman with killer heels in hand, one I suggest that would be significantly less powerful or poignant were she carrying her Nike trainers or Tods, but I digress. Hot on the - no pun intended - heels of this unspoken act of dissension was the march by 82 women (including Stewart) in support of equality at the festival. The figure of 82 was no accident; the festival has long programmed films directed by men over those directed by women and 82 is the number of women directors whose work had been premiered at the festival compared to the 1,688 male directors afforded the same honour.
And in 2018 whether out of tokenism or genuine respect for the #MeToo movement, the festival announced a telephone hotline throughout its duration in which victims could report incidents of sexual harassment and other crimes.
Some progress then, but not enough.
In 2019, DJ Kiddy Smile shared publicly the difficulties he faced at the festival when he wore a floral gown at the premiere of ‘Pain and Glory’. Stopped by festival agents who asked if his look was a “traditional African outfit” (so bad on so many levels) he was initially denied entrance.
Men are expected to wear a black tuxedo and a bow tie. In theory, as a cis man, Smile might have had no problem with that but for someone who identifies as gender-fluid or nonbinary, Cannes’ protocol gives no space for them to exist and that feels wholly out of step with our present day thinking.
Cannes revels in being as much about fashion as film. A year after the Covid-19 pandemic left the Promenade de la Croisette all but empty, it is joyous to see the famed boardwalk glittering and glamorous once again. But if it is to be taken seriously as a cultural home for our times then it needs to recognise that fashion, like film, moves with the times and that the rules about who can wear what and when move too.
Footnote: No matter how chic your outfit is, red carpet selfies are off limits. Organizers banned the practice in 2018 decrying social snapshots. Despite the ban, guests continue to ‘get it for the ’gram’ but between you and me, that’s one rule I am totally rocking.