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Dress to express replaces statement frocks at the Baftas

A year on from 2018’s Baftas blackout, this year’s red carpet was remarkable for not being remarkable, with black, white – and occasionally black and white – the dominant trends on an otherwise trendless evening.

It was perhaps intentional. Since the #MeToo movement, we have looked to the red carpet for a visual response to the allegations of abuse that have surfaced. This had its genesis in Hollywood, after all. But the idea of Time’s Up was that it would transcend the red carpet. “[It] was never intended to live on the red carpet or serve as a red carpet campaign,” a spokesperson for the movement told the Guardian.

Still, there were gowns – at least more gowns than trousers – and even a royal appearance by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. So what were the trends? Black and floor-length, primarily. Two of the five nominees for best leading actress – Glenn Close and Melissa McCarthy – went head to toe, while Olivia Colman and Viola Davis wore black and white monochrome (Emilia Wickstead and Armani Privé, respectively). The other nominee, Lady Gaga, was absent but one likes to think she too would have got the memo. Cate Blanchett went one step further, matching her newly dyed dark hair to her Christopher Kane dress. Also in black.

White was also a theme. Rising star winner, Letitia Wright, talked about “breaking barriers” in a white tuxedo by Stella McCartney. Mary J Blige wore white trousers, designed by Ralph Russo, while the duchess arrived late, but well put together, in an asymmetric bespoke white gown. Most prominent of all was host Joanna Lumley who also wore a white suit, echoing the uniform of “suffragette white” adopted by Democratic women in the US.

Flourishes came via addendums, such as giant bows (Amy Adams’s were used to keep her burgundy Prada dress hoiked up) and a smattering of cream tulle for Rachel Weisz, and black for Margot Robbie in Chanel Couture. Some of the best dresses were strapless – see Claire Foy, Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio and Thandie Newton – proof that the most effective gowns can be the simplest ones, well executed.

As for the men, they largely balanced polite traditionalism with silliness. Timothée Chalamet, an early adopter of the luxury harness, wore a silk damask jacket by Haider Ackermann, while Luke Evans went for a velvet tuxedo in green.

Polite traditionalism with silliness … Timothée Chalamet. Photograph: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

There were moments of personal expression. Spike Lee clashed reliably with the status quo and red carpet in a purple tux and beret, while Octavia Spencer matched it in a red sequinned gown. Zawe Ashton and Regina King both wore cerise, and Ashton wore flats. Although when one of the most famous lingerie models – in this instance, Irina Shayk – wears a plain black suit, you know change is afoot.

Any political discourse moved back to the films, though. In timely fashion, The Wife, a favourite to win Close the best actress award, is focused on gender imbalance. Speaking on the red carpet before the event, Close said it added to that dialogue.

US director Spike Lee’s shoes. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

It’s worth remembering the red carpet is not an easy place for ongoing activism. The dress code from last year might have been the movement’s most striking example, but even by the time the Oscars had rolled around, a few weeks later, activism was absent. It’s no surprise that a year later, the sole act of dissent were the words “speak on it” written on Spike Lee’s trainers. After Liam Neeson’s comments this week, Lee said he wouldn’t cast him in a film.

And then there was the weather. Compared to its west coast cousins, the Baftas are the chilliest of the season. Salma Hayek, resplendent though she was in black slender column and mesh headband, spoke for everyone when she told the assembled fans who wanted a photo: “It’s too cold!”

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