The birth of Cannes as the Mecca of world cinema was the result of political censorship of cinematic expression. The likes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler levied a veto on French war film La Grande Illusion‘s win, at the Venice Film Festival. Festival de Cannes was conceptualised in 1939, as an ideological counter to this veto. However, it would be another seven years until the first edition of the film festival was organised in 1946; a delay resulting from World War II.
Every year in May, the quaint little seaside city of Cannes turns into the glamorous venue for one of the biggest global events celebrating cinema – and undeniably, fashion. While there has always been place for both films and fashion on the Cannes red carpet, contemporary observers have argued, how slowly but surely, fashion has taken precedence over cinema at the film festival. They feel that this phenomenon is a major diversion from the original essence of the annual film gala. This films-versus-fashion debate, therefore, demands a deep dive into the glorious history of the Cannes red carpet. History shows us that this prestigious film event has honoured both films and fashion, since its inception.
Incidentally, the highly sought-after red carpet event of Cannes had not even rolled out an actual red carpet until 1987. The red carpet added a formal touch to the proceedings at the Cannes Film Festival, which previously had been a more casual, cinema-by-the-seaside experience. Photographs from the initial years of Cannes convey the fun and frothy atmosphere at the film festival. Yesteryear moments, like Diana Dors casually lying on the beach with a life-size figurine of Gregory Peck, or Brigitte Bardot ditching her soles for a soulful sprint by the ocean, are representative of the vibe of the festival in its early years.
(Image: Brigitte Bardot sprints by the beach at Cannes. Source: HistoryInPics/Twitter)
The argument of films versus fashion may experience a slight road bump, with the reflection that fashion has been as much a part of the Cannes experience as films, ever since its commencement. Being red carpet-ready painted a much humbler picture back in the day and Cannes red carpet fashion has gone through its own little rollercoaster. It all started with a little more emphasis on style, compared to other film-centric events.
(Image: Elizabeth Taylor attends Cannes in 1957 with husband Mike Todd, donning a tiara. Source: transmission/Twitter)
Be it Brigitte Bardot in 1953 with her fluffy feather shawl and satin gloves, Sophia Loren in her sweetheart lace gown from 1955, Elizabeth Taylor’s bejewelled tiara in 1957, or Catherine Deneunve’s striped sequined number in navy and white from 1966 – the pioneers of the Cannes red carpet aesthetic have always upped the ante when it came to sartorial expression. This radical moment of ballgown supremacy slowly descended back to basics, eventually establising the Cannes Film Festival as a massive fashion event, hand-in-hand with a celebration of cinema. Over the years, gown couture started to rule the red carpet, and a paradigm shift was seen with the turn of the decade – from the 2010s, the bar for what was ‘too much’ for Cannes, simply ceased to exist.
Adding further dimension to the films-versus-fashion debate, are the silent group of Cannes attendees – the bourgeoning list of brands who dress celebrities for their red carpet stride. In 2023, Dua Lipa and Donatella Versace launched their ready-to-purchase high Summer line, La Vacanza, at a Cannes fashion show. This is just one of many instances of the relevance of the Cannes red carpet for the fashion industry, the most evergreen example of it being Chopard.
(Image: Dua Lipa and Donatella Versace launch La Vacanza. Source: donatella_versace/Instagram)
Chopard has been hosting a black tie party at the famous Hotel Martinez every year since 2007, to display its red carpet high jewellery collection, targeted at hefty names who may wear them to the Palais steps – Uma Thurman and Naomi Campbell being the most recent examples. The overlap of world of cinema with the flagbearers of luxury fashion is also demonstrated by luxury giants venturing into film production – case in point being Saint Laurent’s A Strange Way of Life, the short film which premiered this year at Cannes. Prior to this, Swarovski had explored this space with an eponymous entertainment wing in 2011. The rationale behind brands populating the French Riviera every May, is best captured by Gianni who said, “When a star wears a dress, a little of the stardust rubs off on us.”
(Image: Uma Thurman in a Chopard choker at Cannes 2023. Source: 21metgala/Twitter)
Image: Naomi Campbell in Chopard cuffs. Source: 21metgala/Twitter)
Since its inception, the dress code at Cannes has been an immutable factor of its curated persona. The stringency of the black tie dress code is what gave the eminent list of attendees free reign to explore elaborate silhouettes against the backdrop of celebrating cinema. Celebrated moments include Elizabeth Taylor’s bright red Nolan Miller gown and Princess Diana’s blush-blue Catherine Walker number, in 1987. Moving beyond the norms of black tie expectations, experimentation has always been a theme at Cannes. Vanessa Redgrave’s metal-emboirdered co-ord for the premiere of her film Blow Up in 1967 is one of the earliest examples of how integral fashion has been to the Cannes Flm Festival.
(Elizabeth Taylor in Nolan Miller at Cannes 1987, escorted by Geroge Hamilton. Source: ElizabethTaylor/Twitter)
Beyond the stringency of dress codes, some Cannes appearances have immortalised themselves as iconic moments in fashion history, from nonchalant displays to extravagant, out-of-the-box sartorial self-expression. While Pablo Picasso’s shearling-corduroy combo in 1953 was a deviation from the mandated dress code for men, Madonna added her name to the list of noteworthy trailblazers in 1991, as she slipped out of a pink robe to reveal a Jean Paul Gaultier boudoir set for the premiere of In Bed with Madonna.
(Image: Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier at Cannes 1991. Source: MadonnaBible/Twitter)
Red carpet defiance of sartorial standards, especially in context of Cannes, poses itself as a double-edged sword. It caters to those who uphold films over fashion, as well as those who view Cannes as a parallel celebration of fashion. Former Cannes jury member from 2005, Nandita Das recently said that there was a need to prioritise films at Cannes, rather than red carpet looks. However, Das soon clarified that her spontaneous thoughts were misconstrued. Revising her words, Das opined how a ‘festival’ did, in fact call, for festive attire. Richa Chadha, leading lady of Masaan, which received a 7 minute standing ovation at Cannes 2015, shared a more neutral take on the issue. She called the film festival a platform which included more than just one medium of self-expression. Chadha’s argument is justified by attendees prioritising different aspects of the film festival.
The answer to what Festival de Cannes primarily stands for, has no straightforward response. It is only fair to acknowledge that the sun-bathed Croisette has transcended beyond the threshold of just cinema. However, it would be grossly incorrect to believe that Cannes has simply become all about the fashion. Much like Donatella Versace said, Cannes “… is a gathering place for the powerful, the creative and the great artists…”.
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