An Academy Awards Fashion Lesson with Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan/Photo © Albert Sanchez
Simon Doonan/Photo © Albert Sanchez

It’s 1978 and you’re flying down Hollywood Boulevard in a blacked-out limo late for the fiftieth annual Academy Awards. Making matters worse, you’re not seated, but rather planked out on the limousine floor in fear that sitting upright would rip right through the skin-tight seams on your royal-blue sequined catsuit by French couturier Loris Azzaro. If the above scenario isn’t quite fabulous enough for you, you’re also Raquel Welch.

Simon Doonan, author and doyenne of the Barneys window for more than twenty-five years, traces the red carpet, blue-sequined, trashy chic lineage of vintage 1978 Welch right through Cher’s fuzzy Bob Mackie headdress in 1986, Celine's backward tuxedo jacket in 1999, and Björk’s infamous Marjan Pejoski swan dress in 2001. All else is a wasteland. “It's boring,” Doonan admits, “but you've always got Tilda Swinton.”

Doonan, appearing the day after Valentine’s at Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center in his signature Mao collar and floral-printed shirt, reads from his latest book of essays, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat. The sixty-year-old Barneys Creative Ambassador-at-Large chooses his chapter about hooking in order to afford designer clothing, but the chatter afterward quickly turns to the upcoming Academy Awards and prostitution’s big pimpin' fashion world equivalent: the celebrity stylist.

“The thing about stylists is there are a lot of self-appointed lunatic idiots, but there's also a real need for it because if you're a movie star now, you have to achieve some bizarre level of unimpeachable perfection when you appear on the red carpet,” Doonan says. “Thanks to the internet, your images are all over the place.” It only takes Doonan a moment to extrapolate out to “the entire fashion ecosystem,” casting himself as Anne Hathaway, naturally. “If you're Anne,” Doonan continues, “you have to think about achieving some weird level of glamour and perfection so that you can be considered for that next part and generate makeup contracts and fashion alliances that make all this money. You've got five people working on what you're wearing and that's why those awards shows are so fucking boring. Perfection is not interesting.”

More compelling for Doonan? “Kooky chicks,” or the only women under the fashion bio-dome who are having any fun. "All these other chicks look like they're going to some tight-assed, country club prom,” Doonan says, “while they're fashiony and idiosyncratic, these kooky chicks.”

Doonan is much too laissez-faire to prescribe a corrective, but he does see the entire thing as indicative of “the general population’s delusional identification with celebrity. That's why people are doing all these weird things to themselves," he continues. "That's why they're all Twittering and they're not famous. They're having Restylane and gluing pounds of hair to their head and having spray tans. They think, ‘If she's doing it, I'll do it.’ Everyone is a celebrity now and its delusion identification. In the ‘70s, who watched the Academy Awards? I don't recall anyone even mentioning it. That's when people ran out to Hollywood Boulevard and into Fredericks to buy a top and a bottom. It was so much more interesting and fun, but now they're stuck with this need to achieve this level that has nothing to do with fashion.”

So what is the fashion-conscious viewer to do this Oscar night? “Just cling to Tilda Swinton,” Doonan advises.