Once upon a time, on a red carpet long long ago, the front of the dress was what mattered.
That would be the part of the garment photographed. That “face of the dress” would make it on to front pages and home pages.
But now there are cameras everywhere, and for designers keen to shock and delight a dress isn’t just about what you see first of all, head on. Suddenly, the back is back.
At the Golden Globes, a laundry list of celebrities such as Dakota Fanning, Gemma Chan, Julianne Moore, and Danai Gurira all showed up in gowns that had surprise bows on the back.
One hopes that Penelope Cruz, who spent much of the award show with her head tossed over her shoulder to show off her velvet Ralph & Russo halter back, had an assistant armed with Ibuprofen just in case her neck hurt after all that posing.
Preceding the Globes there was the pale blue Gucci gown Dakota Johnson wore to the closing ceremony of the Marrakech Film Festival last month. At first glance, the dress’ low-cut neckline and black ribbon sash felt standard-issue. When Johnson gamely turned around for the cameras, however, she revealed a large sequin heart that shot out long glitter arrows in all directions.
The front of the crimson red Peter Dundas gown Emily Ratajkowski wore to the Art of Elysium Gala was busy enough, with ample cutouts and a plunging neckline. But it took the model’s twirling and dress-flipping to show that the frock also featured a caped train that straight-on photography alone could not capture.
Backs have been sexualized for centuries, even before everyone misinterpreted the lyrics to Justin Timberlake’s seminal “SexyBack” in 2006.
Consider Michelangelo’s many sketches of nudes seen from the rear, Degas’ “After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself,” or the fact that Marilyn Monroe’s infamous “Happy Birthday Mr. President” gown featured a backline that was lower than its already-plunging neckline.
A 2017 study from Portugal’s University of Minho found that both men and women are “biologically programmed” to find arched backs attractive. So in terms of sheer horniness, the trend of dressing up, or highlighting that hard-to-scratch part of the body makes sense.
“Statement backs are definitely a trend we’re seeing,” Connie Berg, a New York based stylist who has worked with Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and L’Officiel told The Daily Beast. “People want to be different, and this is a way to be dramatic without coming off as too desperate.”
Though red carpets exist for the sole purpose of capturing step-and-repeat photography, the medium is losing relevance when compared to the Instagram videos and Boomerangs many of us watch to see what stars are wearing. As such, pieces have to look good from every angle. (And also in slow motion, as E!’s ever-captivating Glambot proves.)
Just as we live in a 24-hour news cycle, we are now subjected to the 360-degree red carpet. But while a statement back or surprise train can pack a punch, stylists agree that those extra details work when they are just that—extra.
“A great stylist knows that if a dress is not spectacular from the front, no one cares about what’s going on in the back,” said stylist, fashion editor, and TV host George Kotsiopoulos. “Anything that happens on the back should be some sauce on the side.”
There is a bit of strategy that comes with deciding who gets to wear the statement back, too. “Someone like Cate Blanchett can wear a simple, nothing dress that looks better from the back, because she’s already worn a million dresses that are spectacular from the front,” Kotsiopoulos said. “But when you’re new in the game, you can’t go out there with a dress that only looks good in the back, because no one knows your face yet.”
In lieu of a statement back, Billy Porter opted for the statement cape, courtesy of Randi Rahm. The New York-based couture designer told The Daily Beast it took her team six months to create the embellished suit-and-cloak combination, which many believe was the best look of the night.
Most of the piece’s floral embellishments were not-so-hidden, but there was one colorful pop: the cape’s bright fuchsia lining. The Pose star had to twirl for all of us at home to see that detailing. Luckily for all of us, Porter was more than up for the task.
“The same color lines the inside the suit,” Rahm explained. “We don’t get to see it, but Billy knows it’s there, so he feels good about it.”
The statement back, cape, or other tiny features add new dimension to red carpet looks, which are often be the highlight of otherwise bland or interminable award shows. Rahm believes that twirl-demanding pieces will be a mainstay this year.
“Glamour is back,” the designer prophesied. “Everything has movement and fluidity. Any why not? People are tired of being so somber.” To give cheer, red carpet dresses have surprises cut and sewn into every contour, which means—as all those ‘statement backs’ at the Globes showed—sometimes the best surprise comes when an actor turns away from the camera.