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Red carpet rebel girls Lil Kim
Lil Kim at the 1999 MTV Music Video Awards in her one boob-covering onesievia

Five rebel girls who shunned red carpet rules

Armpit hair, no make-up and fearlessly flaunting their sexuality: these are the women who refused to play along

“I’m not sure I could’ve come up with a better metaphor for sexism in the film industry if I was really, really trying,” wrote Jezebel’s Anna Merlan on what has now been deemed #flatgate, the scandal that the Cannes film fest had a strict Women Must Wear Heels policy, turning away a group in their 50s for their footwear. “If you wrote this into a novel about sexism in the film industry, it would seem heavy-handed. ‘Too much,’ your editor would say. ‘Tone it down.’”

Alas, it’s true – while parading women like peacocks lined up for our judging pleasure (shout out to the men in tuxes) is well established, it seems red carpet patriarchy also extends to women’s feet, and precisely how far off the ground they’re elevated. While the world collects its collective jaw of the floor, we look back at five women who used the red carpet rather than allowed it use them. Also – don’t forget to check out how J-Lo’s Versace red carpet dress was literally responsible for the invention of Google images.


If a dress has its own Wikipedia page, you know it was major. In 2001, Björk turned up to the Oscars in what will forever be known as the Swan Dress, thanks to the stuffed creature that wrapped its long neck around the singer’s own. “I was very aware when I went to the Academy Awards that it would probably be my first and last time,” she said. “So I thought my input should really be about fertility, and I thought I'd bring some eggs” – which the bodyguards kept informing her she’d dropped. Björk has never been one to do the expected, and this was no exception.  


Although the female body hair on the red carpet mantle has been recently picked up and carried with exceptional grace by fellow actress Mo’nique (that picture of her laughing as she pulls up her gown to reveal her gams at the 2010 Golden Globes is everything), Julia Roberts’ act of hirsute protest in 1999 at the London premiere of Notting Hill set the bar. Accessorising an Armani evening gown with some surprise fuzz, it was a refreshing rejection of the beauty standards that see women waxed, tanned, glossed and groomed for the red carpet.  


Rose McGowan has been an outspoken critic of sexism in film, so it’s safe to say we can imagine what she thinks of #flatgate. As for breaking rules on the red carpet, the actress turned up to the 1998 MTV VMAs with then boyfriend Marilyn Manson in a sheer crystal embellished number paired with a leopard print thong – something of a forerunner to Rihanna’s CFDA dress – throwing ideas of meek feminity out the window faster than you can say “Charmed”. To hell with a coveted spot on the best dressed lists, McGowan “wore it to cause an uproar.” 


One of the first women in rap to use her sexuality in the same way men did, Lil Kim’s wonderful red carpet moments are almost too frequent to choose a favourite, but this look has arguably become the most iconic (and the most imitated). Rocking up to the VMAs in a purple jumpsuit that saw one breast almost completely exposed (this is over a decade before #freethenipple) and a matching lilac wig, Lil Kim took pride in her body and remained totally in control of it. The outfit made a statement – it was a fuck you to what black feminist scholar bell hooks called “the forces of repressive puritanical morality that seek to silence her.”


Tilda Swinton caused something of a stir in 2008 when she showed up to collect her award for Best Supporting Actress for film Michael Clayton. No, it was’t because this is the first (and so far, only) time the celebrated actress, Derek Jarman muse and style icon has won such an accolade, but because she didn’t seem to wear any make-up when doing so. It was later confirmed she did indeed have some on, but how much the Dazed cover star refused to conform to red carpet glam expectations was a refreshing reminder that these events should be about celebrating talent, not policing women.