By now, the pandemic-flavored paparazzi photo has lost its shock value. Just like us, stars have been going about their daily lives with extra caution, stocking up on groceries in surgical masks and taking long, slow walks around their neighborhoods wearing bandannas. Recently, though, they’ve started returning to the red carpet, PPE in hand, and the juxtaposition of flimsy face coverings with couture gowns has been stunningly awkward to behold.
In August, the MTV Video Music Awards hosted one of the first “red carpets” of the COVID era. Because the show was prerecorded, it appeared to take place in a vacuum. Many celebrities posed for photos without face masks, like they were at a well-lit magazine shoot, and Lady Gaga’s over-the-top accessories seemed more like performance art than PPE. Last week, however, the Venice Film Festival happened in real time, giving us a glimpse of what formal events might look like in the future. Attendees were required to wear face coverings at (almost) every moment, which posed a logistical challenge on the red carpet.
Some actors went above and beyond, fashioning custom face masks out of the same fabric as their suits and gowns. While posing for photos, they would hold the mask by its handles, as though it were an elegant wristlet or a small clutch. Others dangled it over an ear like a very large piece of jewelry. Tilda Swinton, in a very Tilda Swinton move, commissioned Björk’s creative director to make her not one but two carnival masks out of gold, which she proudly carried like a torch. Cate Blanchett, meanwhile, wasn’t up for pretending; she opted for a standard blue surgical mask instead.
Scrolling through these photos, it’s amazing to see how quickly people, especially those with means, can adapt. Such earnest attempts to keep the glamour and fantasy of the red carpet alive are both inspiring and, in a twisted way, amusing, because no one is quite able to pull it off. The red carpet has never made room for reality; we expect celebrities to show up looking like wax figures and serve us some outdated idea of perfection. Face masks make this impossible. No matter how hard celebrities try to disguise them as pristine, good-looking objects, they will always be a reminder of our messy, vulnerable humanity.