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Political Fashion Is Nothing New for the Grammys

From Clinton-inspired pantsuits to “IMPEACH” jackets.

Kendrick Lamar performs during the 2016 Grammys.
Kendrick Lamar performs during the 2016 Grammys.
Photo: Getty Images for NARAS

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When nearly every major actor and actress showed up at last month’s Golden Globes dressed in black, it was impossible not to notice. Spearheaded by Time’s Up, the entertainment industry’s new coalition to fight sexual harassment, the dark dress code was a direct response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing #MeToo movement. It was a totally new look for the Globes, which — like the Oscars and SAG Awards — have always been more about glitz and glamour than grand-scale political messaging.

Sartorial protests are fairly untrodden territory for film and TV awards shows, but for the Grammys, they’re nothing new. Last year’s broadcast alone was packed with political statements: Katy Perry performed “Chained to the Rhythm” in a Hillary Clinton-inspired pantsuit and “PERSIST” armband, Highly Suspect frontman Johnny Stevens wore an “IMPEACH” jacket, Schoolboy Q supported the Women’s March in a pink “GIRL POWER” hoodie — and who could forget Joy Villa’s instantly viral “Make America Great Again” gown? At the Globes and Oscars, meanwhile, wearable shows of activism were essentially limited to pins and ribbons; nice gestures, sure, but not exactly internet-breaking stuff.

Katy Perry performs in a pantsuit and “PERSIST” armband at the 2017 Grammys.
Katy Perry performs in a pantsuit and “PERSIST” armband at the 2017 Grammys.
Photo: FilmMagic
Highly Suspect’s Johnny Stevens in an “IMPEACH” jacket at the 2017 Grammys.
Highly Suspect’s Johnny Stevens in an “IMPEACH” jacket at the 2017 Grammys.
Photo: WireImage

Grammy performances, in particular, have been incorporating political clothing since long before Donald Trump won the GOP nomination. In February 2016, Kendrick Lamar appeared as part of a chain gang, performing songs from his seminal album To Pimp a Butterfly in a prison uniform and shackles. The year prior, Pharrell dressed his backup dancers in black hoodies as a tribute to Trayvon Martin. And in 2014, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis brought their marriage-equality anthem “Same Love” to life with a mass wedding officiated by Queen Latifah, featuring dozens of same-sex couples in their finest formalwear.

So what’s held the Globes and Oscars back from doubling down on these same issues in recent years? The live-performance aspect of the Grammys certainly offers an advantage; it’s easier to stage a protest when, well, you’ve got a literal stage (and more than a 45-second acceptance speech) to work with. There’s also the fact that when it comes to offering contracts to celebrities, most major fashion houses — Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton — overwhelmingly choose actresses over musicians, presumably with the reasoning that their public image is more malleable. And since most designer contracts stipulate that the star must wear the label on the red carpet (sometimes exclusively), that pretty much limits their protest options to Planned Parenthood pins and “F*ck Paul Ryan” buttons.

A couple weds during Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s performance of “Same Love” at the 2014 Grammys.
A couple weds during Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s performance of “Same Love” at the 2014 Grammys.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

But there’s something else that gives Music’s Biggest Night an advantage when it comes to political statements: The Grammys are simply more diverse from both a racial and gender perspective. Consider the fact that all five of 2018’s Record of the Year nominees are artists of color, while Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — a movie that’s been called “hopelessly bad on race,”problematic,” and “tone-deaf” — continues its awards-season sweep. And that since 1990, 11 female solo artists have won the Grammys’ Album of the Year award, compared to seven male solo artists; meanwhile, only five female directors have been nominated at the Oscars, ever.

The Grammys also celebrate new artists and honor achievements in musical genres like R&B and rap — categories classically dominated by artists of color — while the Oscars and Globes tend to celebrate the same people (mostly white and male) and projects (ditto) year after year. In doing so, the Grammys elevate the voices of creatives who are often overlooked, particularly black and Latinx people, women, and LGBTQ artists; incidentally, the same folks responsible for the vast majority of political fashion statements, speeches, and performances at awards show.

Emma Stone wears a Planned Parenthood pin at the 2017 Oscars.
Emma Stone wears a Planned Parenthood pin at the 2017 Oscars.
Photo: WireImage

That’s not to say that the Grammys don’t still have work to do; despite nominating and showcasing the work of more diverse artists, the ratio of white to non-white Grammy winners is troubling. And a look at the 2018 Oscar nominees does offer some hope. Films that aren’t centered on the straight, white experience, like Get Out, Mudbound, and Call Me by Your Name, are up for multiple awards; two transgender people (A Fantastic Woman’s Daniela Vega and Strong Island’s Yance Ford) are nominated; and the more-diverse-than-ever Best Director category includes Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), and Jordan Peele (Get Out). Still, though, the Academy has a long way to go in order to shake that #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.

Hopefully, by spotlighting talented women, LGBTQ creatives, and artists of color in the way the Grammys have for years, the Oscars will become a place to have these same crucial conversations about race, sexuality, and gender dynamics. As long as Hollywood red carpets are populated primarily by wealthy white people, after all, we can’t expect any sweeping changes: only pins, ribbons, and the occasional red carpet blackout.