It might masquerade as a film festival, but Cannes is arguably just as important in the fashion calendar. With industry-leading designers chosen to dress the event’s most eminent stars, Cannes Festival fashion is often seminal and occasionally headline-making.
Hollywood has been flocking to the South of France in celebration of the silver screen since the festival first began in 1946. Don’t be fooled by the serene, sparkling Cote D’Azur setting however; director Olivier Dahan once described Cannes as “a sort of gladiators’ arena”.
While Dahan’s droll comment was aimed at the festival’s history of pitting the au courant blockbusters against low-budget underdogs, the fierce competition spills on to the Cannes red carpet, too. There, stars square up to one another brandishing diamond pendants and embroidered trains.
From Brigitte Bardot popularising the bikini by splashing on the shoreline in a floral two piece in 1953, to her modern incarnation, Blake Lively, enthralling onlookers in a show-stopping black-and-white Gucci gown in 2014, the festival is rife with historical fashion moments.
In 1955, Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren – two of the decade's most exuberantly feminine starlets – walked the red carpet in ensembles that epitomised an era of girlish magnetism. In the middle of promoting her latest film The Country Girl, Kelly appeared anything but provincial while making her foray in Cannes in a blood-red velvet gown and white fur stole.
Kelly went on to become a bona-fide princess after her marriage to the Prince of Monaco just a year later, yet it was Sophia Loren who sported regal regalia at Cannes in a white dress with a full skirt and a cinched-in waist. Reminiscent of Oscar de la Renta's indulgent evening wear, Loren epitomised the classic Golden Age of Hollywood.
Entwined on the red carpet before flashing cameras, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin personified the lust-fuelled revelry of the 1960s. This inimitably cool and controversial couple brought French insouciance to Cannes with Birkin in a revealing velvet dress and Gainsbourg in a classic tux.
Birkin weaved one of her trademark basket bags into her look, proving there’s always room for offbeat Gallic charm within Cannes Film Festival fashion. Master the art of undone evening wear, just like Birkin, with Marco de Vincenzo. The label uses dazzling colours and oversized prints to create elegant yet irreverent designs.
If John Lennon and Yoko Ono proved anything with their Cannes red carpet appearances, it’s that rules, and dress codes, are made to be flouted. The couple’s look was the very essence of London’s streets at the time. In May 1971, artist Ono went minimalist in a black shirt and shorts – with long socks adding a youthful flair – and Lennon opted for head-to-toe denim and a jaunty hat.
Recreate the late star’s casual Cannes Film Festival fashion by taking inspiration from one of the Beatles' own offspring. Stella McCartney denim favours ‘70s silhouettes and irreverent embroidery.
In 1987, Elizabeth Taylor proved that wearing scarlet on the red carpet leaves you anything but camouflaged. Her Nolan Miller Taffeta evening dress embraced and exaggerated the ‘80s penchant for oversized shoulders.
Taylor gave a masterclass in wearing bold colours to elevate herself above the crowds without being overpowered, and cemented her status as a fashion icon in the process.
Some clothes make the designer iconic, others the wearer – but a precious few do both. Madonna's 1991 Cannes outfit, custom-designed for her by Jean Paul Gaultier, launched the 'cone-bra' – an item that would become synonymous with both the brand and the artist herself. Its influence can still be seen in Jean Paul Gaultier Vintage clothing to this day. Wearing an equally risqué outfit in 1997, Milla Jovovich pushed the boundaries of what it means to be 'dressed' in another daring Jean Paul Gaultier creation at the Fifth Element premiere, which opened Cannes that year.
Opting for a comparatively demure interpretation of the era, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss appeared together on the Cannes red carpet in 1998. Armed with youthful skin and innocent smiles, they embraced the monochrome palette typical of ‘90s minimalism. Moss wore a simple white slip dress by Lloyd Klein for Grès, while Schiffer opted for more sensuous black lace.
The films shown at Cannes provide a sort of self-referential inspiration for celebrity gowns, as proven by Moulin Rouge at the festival in 2001. Nicole Kidman allowed the film's kitsch cabaret leanings to influence her red carpet choice with a dress by Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent. It captured a laissez-faire attitude with playful ruffles, but the actress kept her hair sleek and her jewellery understated to avoid appearing in costume.
Likewise, in 2008, Natalie Portman donned a short white dress from Givenchy with layering reminiscent of a ballerina's tutu for the Black Swan premiere at Cannes. The structured neck and hemlines alluded to the film’s eponymous bird.
Seven decades on from its inception, models and film stars continue to debut designer dresses and directional outfits on the red carpet at Cannes. With the fashion on show consistently evolving in line with each era, the prestigious cannes festival fashion still manages to capture the zeitgeist of its time.