Ways of Preening: Notes on the Cannes 2019 Waistland

Ways of Preening: Notes on the Cannes 2019 Waistland

Do stars from different cultures and film industries preen differently on the red carpet—mirroring their inner selves as much as where they belong?

From May 14 till Friday last week, an assorted array of film stars from different continents and film industries flocked to the red carpet of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. Among the first were American singer-actor and former member of a South Korean all-girls band Jessica Jung in a feathery, mirror-embellished white gown; red lips, hair tinted auburn and roller curled; Indian TV person Hina Khan in a smokey grey embroidered concoction, American mega star Tilda Swinton in a long, sequinned silver grey dress. Then there was Selena Gomez or SelGo as some sections of fashion press call her, for the premiere of The Dead Don’t Die—youth power, red lips, a silken Louis Vuitton bustier and skirt with a high slit.


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American actor-singer Jessica Jung attended the screening of ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ at Cannes 2019.

If star wattage, the roles these women play in films and real life, their publicity profiles and choice of couture were facets of differentiation, there was another less observed angle. Ways and variants of preening and posing on the red carpet. Jung did the full coquettish gig, a Korean takeaway of the hands-on-waist red carpet ritual, chin down, eyes up, damsel-like, kittenish smiles. While Khan waved enthusiastically at the photographers, preening as an eager first timer, her spine tilting this way and that, she bowed momentarily too, a giveaway almost of the multiple rehearsals that may have gone into making this moment shine.

Swinton on the other hand was smooth and enviably unflappable. Especially during a photo call for The Dead Don’t Die where she came wearing a white jacket and cappuccino trousers with stilettos. She acknowledged the power of the event, without succumbing to its vanity. Gomez was posture perfect too. Her spine looked in better shape than her eyebrows, head held up in contentment, smile measured but never over the top.


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(L) Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez and the cast of ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ during a photo call.

Over the next many days, an engrossing theatre of the politics of self-image played out. Cultural and personal differences in preening, levels of composure and confidence, femaleness as different from femininity, vanity versus self-consciousness, spectacle versus a grounded, let’s-go-to-work attitude. Men preened too but were not androgynous as they are being constantly painted in popular culture writing these days. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio gave middle-aged masculinity swagger and starry-ness, but nothing that shrieked macho.

Indian actor Aishwarya RaiBachchan, a long time L’Oréal Paris ambassador is a veteran in coquettish preening. She waves with one hand, puts another pretty hand on her waist, often blows kisses that taxi gently on her palm before taking off towards the photo press. She repeated some of that routine this time too. Deepika Padukone, another L’Oréal Paris face from India giggled constantly, smiling a tad too widely, perhaps to convey that she was having a great time. Well, not all are big fans of such insistent cheer.

Actor Kangana Ranaut came wearing a full set of her “far yet near” expressions. Mostly gung-ho as a successful film star with style and swag, gold Kanjeevaram sari and mauve opera gloves, Ranaut also dripped some disdain. Since she is usually cheesed off with those who she feels took the cheese, it’s only fair.


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Indian actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the Cannes 2019 red carpet.

By the time crossover star Priyanka Chopra Jonas arrived wearing Nick Jonas on her sleeve and some good Western couture including a white bridal gown from Georges Hobeika’s Spring 2020 bridal collection, Chopard jewels and a body that seems like it is going through an exercise and diet-guided shift away from being waif-ish, the Cannes 2019 red carpet was preening conclusively. Some socked the idea of coquettishness hard on its face—Bela Hadid for instance: so ramrod straight were her sleek legs. Julianne Moore too: non-stop gentle smiles and some great dresses, but no kittenish moves or ‘look-at-me swaying on the red carpet’. Elle Fanning was not just a lesson in exceptional couture but in body language too. Hands on waist now and then, dainty waves too, some big smiles especially in a champagne Reem Acra bridal gown, but no vainglorious posing. None.


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Global star Priyanka Chopra with husband Nick Jonas on the Cannes 2019 red carpet.

Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, the Indian fashion idol for L’Oréal Paris  at Cannes has clearly given vain posing a break. One of the reasons Kapoor Ahuja looked utterly glamorous and well-suited in her white Ralph and Russo tux with a trail was because of her restrained body language. She is no longer overtly self-conscious and the red carpet routine is as amusing for her as it is for her audience.


Photo: Instagrm\Rheakapoor

Indian actor Sonam Kapoor Ahuja on the Cannes 2019 red carpet.

In a chapter titled The Fashion Runaway, Nancy Etcoff, the author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty calls fashion an art form, a display marker of attitude that we create as architecture or furniture. “As a visual expression of our persons, it also mirrors our desires in complex ways….,” she writes. And: “Fashion may chatter about many things but the conversation is mainly about sex and status.”

Cultures that encourage gestures of female vanity as non-verbal expressions of desire or of self-seeking attention perhaps seed these strains so deeply that the penetrating (if welcome) scrutiny of the red carpet only reflects them more clearly.

There are of course the learned moves of stardom that celebrities master, the stylist’s guidelines of how to hold one’s dress and wave at the paps. Who knows, there exists perhaps an unwritten but already best-selling ultimate Guide to Red Carpet Posing in the Age of Instagram. Yet cultural and private histories will invariably appear like shadows, casting their influences on how we do what we do. Even if that means smiling a rehearsed smile on the red carpet in the most expensive jewels and clothes.

That’s why stars from countries at cultural crossroads or film industries in the churn of transitions speak multiple body languages on the red carpet. If Rai Bachchan and Ranaut are possibly giving away an otherwise guarded moment from their personal trajectories through their spinal postures or how they hold their heads, don’t forget Danish-Thai actor Sririta Jensen. This year her posture was all coquettish, all female, spine curved inwards.


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Danish-Thai actor Sririta Jensen on the Cannes 2019 red carpet.

It’s however the Chinese whose red carpet poses mirror the revolving facets of their film industry and industriousness as a people. If actor Zhang Ziyi shone bright, showering fond air kisses on her spectators, her other hand on the proverbial waist, Chinese singer Chris Lee was all feathers and fashion aggression in a conspicuous ensemble. Then there was small-time Chinese actor Shi Yufei, who refused to budge from the red carpet and had to be reminded to leave.

The best perhaps was a news report on Subchina.com that spoke about “micro influencers” and little known bloggers and unheard actors from China who had bought ridiculously high priced tickets to the Cannes red carpet to bask there in couture. The accompanying photograph showed a bunch of young women, holding up their gowns a trifle above floor level. Lest they tripped in their stride towards purchased fame?