Caitlin McBride: 'Why this year's Cannes Film Festival red carpet was a lesson in breaking all the (outdated) rules'

Dress codes are a necessary evil. For the average Joe, it provides some guidance on what to wear (and how to wear it) to whatever the occasion, but more often than not, they’re instructional instead of restrictive.

The average Joe, however, is not being pictured on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. The annual film festival’s dress code is famously strict, adhering to the styles commonly found during its early years in the the 1940s: men are required to wear tuxedos a bowtie, while women are expected to attend in full length gowns.

And the rules are enforced.

Back in 1960, writer Henry Miller, who was a jury member, was refused entry based on his lack of dinner jacket and as even this year, Variety magazine’s co-editor-in-chief Claudia Eller was reportedly turned away for wearing flat shoes. On Twitter, she shared a video of her negotiating with security to guarantee her entry, saying she threatened to post the clip to Variety’s website if she wasn’t allowed to proceed. “I got in,” she wrote.

In 2015, a group of women were reportedly turned away from a screening of Carol because they weren’t wearing high heels and in 2018, Kristen Stewart rebelled by removing her Christian Louboutin pumps and sashaying confidently up the stars of the Palais des Festivals after posing for photographers.

“Things have to change immediately,” Stewart said at the time.

“It has become really obvious that if (a man and I) were walking the red carpet together and someone stopped me and said, ‘Excuse me, young lady, you’re not wearing heels. You cannot come in.’ Then (I’m going to say), ‘Neither is my friend. Does he have to wear heels?’ It can work both ways.

The dress code at Cannes has dominated fashion coverage over the last four years and the furore became so difficult to ignore that the organiser said there is nothing in the rules that states that women cannot wear flat shoes, a missive security seems unaware of.

“Regarding the dress code for the red carpet screenings, rules have not changed throughout the years (Tuxedo, formal dress for Gala screenings), and there is no specific mention about the height of the women’s heels as well as for men’s,” festival director Thierry Fremaux said in a statement  after the 2015 incident. 

“Thus, in order to make sure that this rule is respected, the festival’s hosts and hostesses were reminded of it.”

It has a prompted a host of female celebrities to protest dress in spectacular fashion: while the rules are less strict during daytime screenings, Marion Cotillard’s decision to arrive in a crop top, shorts and kimono for a screening of Matthias and Maxime on Wednesday isn’t coincidental. 

One of this year’s standout jury members Elle Fanning performed her own version of a conformist rebellion in a vintage-inspired ensemble by Christian Dior, reminiscent of the brand’s 1947 collection, including a breathtaking wide brim hat. The monochrome ensemble was an ode to days gone by, appropriate to French fashion history, but also, controversially, didn’t feature a full length hem.

Andie McDowell chose a pair of grey check wide trousers and a draped asymmetric top white floor length train for the premiere of The Best Years of a Life, showcasing her ageless style, while Margot Robbie dressed as a 60s dream in a white babydoll top and black sequin trousers by Chanel was a statement.

The barrage of supermodels who take over the city for two weeks are a noticeable addition to the guestlist in recent years. Since Cannes – like everything – has become increasingly commercialised, with sponsorship from L’Oréal and Chopard and the after-parties to match, it has attracted a fashionable clientele to match. Since 2013, models have been an essential presence on the red carpet and this year, everyone from  Karolina Kurkova, Josephine Skriver and Leomie Anderson made an appearance.

As a result, the dress code has been tested in different ways. Naked dress ways. Since Bella Hadid’s Alexandre Vauthier number helped elevate her to mainstream popularity, model after model has been applying the same formula for success to the red carpet. This year, it was Alessandra Ambrosio who was the definition of extra in a barely there Julien MacDonald dress.

Winnie Harlow served couture attitude in a red hooded Shamekh Bluwi number, custom made for the occasion.

Post-Time’s Up and #MeToo, the fashion rules are changing – and fast – and it’s time the old guard caught up.

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