Jennifer Butler judges Oscar looks from Harlow to #MeToo
Fashion designer Jennifer Butler can’t watch the Oscars without mentally re-dressing the actors on the red carpet.
“I would love to dress somebody like Meryl Streep. I don’t think she’s properly represented, ever,” says Butler, who works out of a studio and retail space in the Greenfield Hill section of Fairfield. “I don’t think she ever looks as great as she could.”
She also would love to go back in time and work with such Hollywood icons as Jean Harlow, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. They represent Old Hollywood, a time when actresses dressed themselves as distinctive individuals. Today, too many personalities fall into the hands of stylists, and their fashion choices are disconnected.
“It’s very bland now,” Butler says. “Just one nude, beaded dress after another.”
And don’t get her started about those body-hugging gowns with the flair across the bottom hem.
“I hate all those tight mermaid-looking things; they’re so silly. Every time you think they’re going to stop, they just continue on. Unbelievable.”
She still appears shattered by an Oscar moment that happened almost 20 years ago.
“Look at Gwyneth Paltrow. When she won for “Shakespeare in Love,” she had that big pink dress on from Ralph Lauren that didn’t fit her right in the top. And then, another year she has that white Gucci thing with the cape that was gorgeous, and then another year she wore that see-through T-shirt, where she looked like she just finished nursing. That’s just the idea that you have no style, you’re just flip-flopping all over the place.”
She blames the stars’ over-reliance on stylists who don’t necessarily “get” their client.
“The thing is now it’s all stylists, 100 percent stylists, so it’s very rare that someone would just go pick out a dress that is reflective of what they love,” Butler says. “Some stylists are great and they make it about the person, but a lot of it is just about the dress, or the moment, or who’s paying them.”
It wasn’t always so.
“Grace Kelly always looked like Grace Kelly. Givenchy understood that Audrey Hepburn was a person, not just walking out as a mannequin,” Butler says.
Among today’s stars who get it right, there’s Rooney Mara, who “makes some interesting choices,” and Kate Winslet, who “looks beautiful all the time.”
Butler taught herself to sew by visiting the local library, which contained an archive of Vogue magazines from the 1930s and ’40s. She would figure out how to achieve the looks she found in print. “The thing I loved was thinking of what you wanted to wear and executing it,” she says.
She has been designing clothing since she was 15, selling her first garments in her hometown of Providence, R.I. Perhaps born too late, her career started in an era that made women “look like clowns.”
“The ’80s were terrible,” Butler says without hesitation.
But there was at least one thing about the 1980s that was in Butler’s favor: More independent shops inhabited the RISD-Brown neighborhoods of her hometown, and were receptive to a teenager looking for a start.
“There were a couple of places I would bring clothes into and you’d come back in a couple of weeks, and if they sold, you’d get money for them,” she says. Her style was grounded in a past generation that she was too young to remember firsthand.
“It was definitely a mod-’60s kind of thing, a little bit funky, short skirts and lot of A-line,” Butler says. On campus, apparently, lots of shoppers agreed that mainstream styles were hideous. “It was the second time the ’60s were popular. Then I opened a little studio and started doing shows at different places.”
Butler breaks out of her nostalgic mood when thinking of how the #MeToo movement shaped the Golden Globes red carpet in January. United against the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, the vast majority of women in attendance wore all-black outfits. The gesture fell short, she says.
“I would have rather seen all the men do something,” Butler says. “I would have liked to see all the women wear tuxedos. If they really want to make that statement, why don’t they wear tuxedos? You can do a lot with a tuxedo.”
Pants, overall, are overlooked, she says. “I’d like to see more jumpsuits at the Oscars. I do pants a lot for black-tie events. A fluid pant is just as elegant as a dress, but I think it brings in a masculine element and a lot of people aren’t comfortable with that when they dress for an event like that.”
For the actress who is sticking with a traditional gown, Butler says it’s OK to go big.
“There’s nothing wrong with a giant dress that takes up the space of five people, if that’s what you want to wear.”
Jennifer Butler’s studio and retail space is at 75 Hillside Road, in the Greenfield Hill section of Fairfield; 203-256-5768; www.jenniferbutler.com.