Understated vs. Over-the-Top: The Best and Worst Emmys Fashion

Gwendoline Christie’s medieval moment, Zendaya’s corset, Billy Porter’s asymetrical chapeau, and more
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What gets the most attention?

That’s the thought running through the minds of the female Emmy nominees and presenters— and Billy Porter—as they choose their Emmy, Globes, and Oscars red carpet looks. And we’re talking “looks” as in the whole package—gowns, jewelry, shoes, hair, and makeup. They want to be the night’s top trendsetters, and to make the covers of the mags and the leads on digital carousels—or, hell, even land on worst-dressed lists. After all, nothing’s worse than being ignored on the night you’re most likely to draw eyeballs.

Hey, nothing’s worse than being ignored. Period.

Best way to accomplish that? Go big or go home. Big skirts, big cleavage, big hair, big lips, big jewelry—the combo of which is most often impossibly tacky. But going underdone—small earrings, no necklace, sleek hair, natural makeup—can also grab the spotlight. It’s always interesting to discern, if you can, who made which choice…and why.

Because the best thing you can do on the red carpet: surprise.

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We know which way Billy Porter went. The newest crowned queen of the red carpet eschewed a costume, a turban, a caftan—he went in the opposite direction. In a custom shimmery Michael Kors pinstripe suit—OK, the stripes where silver lamé and the pants stovepipe bells—he managed to be surprising by being subtle…for Billy Porter. And now we know one more of the many sides of Porter.

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Also going understated: Sandra Oh in a sleek pink off-shoulder Zac Posen; Zendaya in a startling green satin sleek shiny Vera Wang; Rachel Brosnahan in a blue statuesque glitter Elie Saab (and a blond ponytail), Phoebe Waller-Bridge in her frothy peach Monique Lhullier and short hair and tiny jewelry; Margaret Qualley in simple, almost backless black Chanel; Emilia Clarke, in her deep blue-green, barely-there gown; Jodie Comer in a white Tom Ford cape gown (shades of Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars), and Naomi Watts in a black princess gown—matched beautifully with sleek, side-parted hair and red lips.

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Going big and not going home: Angela Bassett, in some volumized red thing and giant hair; Kim Kardashian in a waaaayyy too long Vivian Westwood corset gown; Kendall Jenner in a waaayyy too long Richard Vinyl vinyl-sleeved floral gown (neither one of these ladies could walk sleekly to the mic); and Niecy Nash, showing lots of cleavage in a pink crystal Christian Siriano. Natasha Lyonne has a big enough personality—and big enough hair—to carry off her gold lamé Gucci pleated pussy bow gown—but it was still a lot to take in. When the dress comes before the star, fashion has triumphed over charisma. Not the desired result.

Not everyone who went subtle looked great: Kerry Washington wore a white blouse, black sequin bellbottoms, and a ponytail. Save that for the Grammys and those without fashion imagination. Girl, we know you’ve got that.

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And not everyone who went oversized looked silly: Gwendoline Christie’s spectacular pale silk Gucci caftan looked like she might have borrowed it from Varys’ wardrobe—but that woman carried if off like it was something she threw on off the floor. Always the heroine, she managed to triumph over the most flamboyant dress of the night.

For those thinking about their holiday wardrobes this year, when it comes to trends, think blue and think red-and-pink combo. A paler shade of blue was the unique choice: Regina King, Sarah Goldberg, Rachel Brosnahan, Emilia Clarke—all looked subtle, clean, crisp. The overdone choice also worked: Mandy Moore, Taraji P. Henson, Marisa Tomei in the clashing-but-not color combo of pink and red.

Interesting fact: Gwyneth Paltrow’s stylist Elizabeth Saltzman, an American fashion pro living in London, whose gotten many kudos for her unique fashion choices for Saoirse Ronan, dressed Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She really was the big winner of the night.