In a strange twist on the standby joke, attendees’ color choices for Sunday night’s Academy Awards could be reduced to, “What’s black and white and red all over?”

With few exceptions, many of the most-photographed female attendees opted for black or white gowns. Think Rihanna’s black semi-sheer Alaïa with a bandeau and leather skirt or groundbreaking Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh’s white feathery Dior couture. While millions tune in for the designer choices, the prizewinning speeches, the unintended on-camera slights and the “Best Song” performances, Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, is focused on the predominant hues.

Surprised as she was by the lack of color worn by many attendees in the crowd, Eiseman said the “modern elegance” styling message underscored their choices. “Even though there were touches of nostalgia, Old Hollywood glamour, the word that kept coming to my mind besides modern elegance was ‘architectural.’” she said. “The banding of the gowns and the body-skimming silhouettes were well-depicted by the black and the white.”

While many would not call black or white colors — in the traditional sense — they still have meanings attached to them. “Black and white literally are presences. That presence of the black and white really bore out the idea of the designs that they were trying to get across,” Eiseman said.

Referring to the dramatic black drop-shouldered Louis Vuitton dress with a halter of rhinestones worn by Jennifer Connelly, Eiseman said, “Talk about architectural. You could just see the sparkle effect on a building. It was that expressive of architecture.”

Jennifer Connelly

Jennifer Connelly

Lexie Moreland/WWD

The reverse of that were the airier, layered, white selections chosen by Yeoh, Michelle Williams in Chanel Couture and Rooney Mara’s vintage Alexander McQueen, Eiseman said.

The preponderance of black and white in the audience — beyond the expected sea of tuxedos — made the limited number of vibrant gowns stand out even more. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” star Angela Bassett’s purple Moschino gown with one puffed sleeve personified that, making her stand out and relaying a regal sense. Always on the lookout for Pantone’s “Color of the Year” at the Oscars, Eiseman singled out Cara Delevigne’s “exuberant, gorgeously worn” red Elie Saab dress.

Costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who became the first Black woman to win two Oscars, was also statement-making with her sunshine off-the-shoulder gown. That choice was “really impactful, because she talked about empowerment [in her acceptance speech] of women, Black women in particular. She was like a ray of brilliant sunshine that broke through with the shimmery texture of her dress and its heavy satin look. Underneath, it was lined with fuchsia with matching shoes. That was such an amazing statement to make. All eyes had to be riveted on her, not that we wouldn’t be, but certainly more so in the yellow.”

However unmissable such hues were at the black-tie event, the absence of color was undeniable and spoke to the let’s-focus-on-the-craft-of-clothesmaking sentiment that European and American designers relayed in their most recent runway shows. The shimmer, sheen, sequins, paillettes and other detailing that “so many of the stars” wore Sunday night was another nod to to the craftsmanship of their garments, Eiseman said. Michelle Williams’ ethereal Chanel Couture, Salma Hayek’s glittery red Gucci dress, Cate Blanchett’s Louis Vuitton gown with a “sapphire, electric blue” top and Janelle Monáe’s orange-skirted custom Vera Wang were prime examples.

Angela Bassett at the 95th Annual Academy Awards held at Ovation Hollywood on March 12, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

Angela Bassett at the 95th annual Academy Awards on Sunday in Los Angeles.

Gilbert Flores for Variety

Sunday night’s unofficial ode to Hollywood glamour dress code reinforced studios’ increasing priority to release more films in theaters versus streaming first and to remind people to sink into the darkness with a crowd. “Absolutely, and there were several comments made during the show, urging people to get back into the movie theaters. That’s why I refer to it as a ‘modern elegance.’ It hearkened to the old movie star days, but it had a modern edge with that architectural influence.”

Another indicator of the mass influence of A-list actresses’ Oscar night fashion choices was clear in pre-awards night bettings. Some placed bets on what color gown Margot Robbie would wear, with black, white and gold being options. The “Barbie” and ‘Babylon” actress went with a black sequin Armani Privé off-the-shoulder gown.

The black and white-centric choices may seem counter to how designers and consumers are embracing bolder colors more than ever, but Eiseman noted, “I always like to look out at the sea of the audience and always up at the balcony, where a lot of the non-pros are seated. What are they wearing? You definitely saw some spots of bright colors. The reds are always a standout. There were yellows, pinks from the lighter to the brighter. Dwayne Johnson making a statement in pink [Dolce & Gabbana] was great. There were also some fuchsia, blue and orange.”

Michelle Williams in Chanel

Michelle Williams in Chanel

Lexie Moreland/WWD

Interestingly, the Pantone colorist considered one of the Oscar night takeaways to be sustainability, citing Blanchett’s seasons-old choice, as well as Winnie Harlow’s pale yellow 2005 Armani Privé gown. “But at the same time with fashion, you’ve got to have some newness. What is bringing this into our lives today and making it relevant?” Eiseman said. “That use of black and white [reflects how] our world is so black and white today. It is filled with so many contradictions. From a sociological standpoint, having that extreme contrast from the black and white with those pops of color is an overall statement.

“Yes, the world seems very divided and we do have very opposing viewpoints. But at the same time, we have the hopefulness of the yellow — like what Ruth Carter wore — some vibrant pinks and red. There is some reason to look to fashion to understand there is always something beyond. It’s not all black and white,” Eiseman said.

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