Oscars red carpet preview: Is modesty the new sexy?


Pity Jennifer Lopez. As far as memorable red carpet moments go, she set such a high bar at the 2000 Grammys with her now-legendary plunging green Versace dress that she seemed destined to never top it.

But many fashion insiders (and followers) have been buzzing about the actress-singer’s Golden Globes gown earlier this month. That’s not because of how much of her body she showed off, but precisely the opposite: The caped, marigold-colored Giambattista Valli dress covered her shoulders, most of her arms and even much of her legs.

J.Lo was hardly the only celeb on the red carpet taking a (relatively) modest turn. Cate Blanchett rocked an elbow- and knee-covering flapper-inspired fringe dress from Givenchy, while Julianne Moore wore a long-sleeved blue sequin Tom Ford gown that would have been appropriately gorgeous attire for a black-tie synagogue event. And all three women landed on many a best dressed list.

Julianne Moore wearing a glamorous, full-coverage Tom Ford gown to the Golden Globe Awards, Jan. 10, 2016. Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“Modesty has very much found its niche within the fashion world, and not just for religious women,” says Adi Heyman, founder of the Jewish fashion blog Fabologie. “There’s an empowerment to owning your look and not having to put everything out there.”

Granted, only a few of these red carpet gowns actually adhere to Orthodox rules of modesty — varying among communities, that typically means covering necklines, backs, elbows and knees. Blanchett’s Golden Globes dress had an open back, after all, and J.Lo’s frock had a slit up to her thigh (and she seemingly spared no opportunity to flaunt said thigh). But compared to the typical trajectory of ever more revealing designs — after all, 2015 showcased the super-bare “naked dress” favored by La Lopez herself — this year’s red carpet represented a shift toward a more covered-up kind of chic.

“You’re not seeing that same in-your-face sex appeal you saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” Heyman says. “Even when a dress is sleeveless, you’re often getting a cape or a higher neckline. Modern fashion is taking a modest spin.”

As such, many fashion insiders are predicting the chaste leanings on display at the Globes are just a taste of what’s to come at the upcoming Academy Awards and eventually, in true trickle-down “fashionomics,” a high-street shop near you.

Esti Burton, owner of Esti’s, a boutique specializing in modest couture with locations on Long Island and in Brooklyn, New York, says she wouldn’t be surprised to see more modesty at the Oscars, which will be held Feb. 28. While her team is often asked to build sleeves and higher necklines onto more revealing dresses, she says her stores also carry dresses from couture designers like Lanvin, Valentino and Carolina Herrera that meet religious clients’ needs. Even Alexander McQueen, a design house known for outrageous style, has “covered-up dresses,” she says.

“The red carpet fashions tend to come in cycles,” Burton says. Now there’s a “been there, done that” feel when it comes to the completely bare look, she says.

“The red carpet will always reflect what’s happening in fashion, and over the past two years or so we’ve seen a definite increase in looks that feature more material and more draping,” says Mimi Hecht, a Hasidic designer who with sister-in-law Mushky Notik runs Mimu Maxi, which has been featured in Vogue. The line specializes in oversized casual clothing, but Hecht says they have plans to roll out some eveningwear in response to requests from religious Jews and Muslims.

“Fashion is always about rebelling, and younger women are now rebelling against the idea that they have to show their skin to be sexy,” Hecht says. “It used to be empowering to show what you have, but now more is more.”

Plus, at the biggest-ticket events in the celebrity circuit, it makes sense that women would want to wear more material, says Heyman — after all, the gowns are works of art.

“When you’re talking in terms of design aesthetic, I say the more the merrier,” she says. “It’s always best when there’s more to look at.”

Heyman credits actresses like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Michelle Williams and Emma Stone — as well as fashionistas like Olivia Palermo and Alexa Chung — for giving a fresher, cutting-edge feel to a more traditional style of dress, both on and off the red carpet.

In some ways, the Olsen twins have become the patron saints of high-end modest fashion. The two women, who are often photographed in layers of voluminous, flowing clothes, have their own high-end line of ready-to-wear clothing with ankle-length skirts, long-sleeve shirts and coats as staples. Called The Row. the line is described by The Council of Fashion Designers of America as “simplistic shapes that speak to discretion.”

“I’ve always been obsessed with them,” Hecht says of the star siblings. “It’s simplicity done so regally and luxuriously. People always talk really highly about their clothes without talking about how modest they are, which just shows you that you can have clothes that are completely fashionable without the modesty aspect being so obvious.”

But when it comes to red carpet designers that really nail the look, “Valentino is the epitome of modern modesty,” Heyman says. Even labels like Dolce & Gabanna — known for some outrageous, show-stopping looks — have more conservative dresses, she says. (In fact, D & G recently launched its very own line of high-end hijabs and abayas.)

Mayim Bialik, an Emmy nominee for “The Big Bang Theory” and an observant Jew, says her self-imposed red carpet dress code (nothing too short, nothing sleeveless) is a mix of social and religious modesty  — and a way to demonstrate her “second-wave feminist side.” The thinking, according to Bialik, is that she doesn’t need to show everything — that keeping parts of your body private is empowering.

Mayim Bialik at the 21st Annual Critics’ Choice Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 17, 2016. Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“There’s a resurgence of younger women who are rebelling against the idea that they have to show skin to be sexy,” she says. “In fact, the more you’re covered up, the more you can show your attitude. It used to be just older women or larger-sized women who dressed modestly, but even the most petite actresses are doing it.”

Bialik has also perfected the art of covered-up chic, such as the green Oliver Tolentino dress she wore on Sunday to accept her Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She’s learned some tricks over the years, too.

“When you dress modestly, you need to keep jewelry, makeup and hair sleek, modern and sexy, or risk looking matronly,” Bialik says.

It’s a lesson that some stars will likely put into practice at the upcoming Oscars. Heyman, for one, predicts that we’ll see stars wearing more covered-up, sparkly frocks, like what Moore wore to the Globes.

And while there will undoubtedly be lots of “strapless and low-cut looks” at the Academy Awards, Hecht expects to see a good showing of modest dresses, too.

“Modesty isn’t considered a matronly, archaic, biblical way of dressing anymore,” she says. “And that creates an opening for a lot of designers.”

The Show Must Go On


On the surface, it could have been any other Hollywood industry event: legendary producer Mike Medavoy and actress-director-producer Penny Marshall received awards before the festival-opening movie screening at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Business as usual in Hollywood.

However, the film being screened, Dover Kosashvili’s “Late Marriage,” was Israeli, as was the film festival it was kicking off.

If the 18th annual Israel Film Festival opening night gala proved anything, it’s that life — and art — must go on, even as the spectre of war, chaos and uncertainty hovers over the Jewish state. The political situation in Israel had grown so chaotic in the days leading up to the festival’s April 10 opening in Los Angeles that Matan Vilnai, Israel’s minister of culture, canceled his visit to the festival’s opening night.

“I was very scared, and I almost wanted to cancel the festival,” admitted Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the festival, which will head to Chicago, Miami and New York after closing in Los Angeles on April 25. “By morning, I felt that the show must go on, and I chose to continue.”

Fenigstein’s Israel Film Festival has been a crucial endorsement of Israel’s still-fledgling film industry, which basically consists of independent filmmakers working with decreasing government financial support. Support from Israeli audiences for the films is equally problematic. Of about 170 features screened each year, only 5 percent are Israeli (compare that to 67 percent American). Contributing to the financial woes is the explosive Israeli-Palestinian situation.

“We are still at the end of a wave we’ve had in Israeli cinema that is escapist stories,” said Katriel Schory, Israeli Film Fund director.

“This period is different,” said Ramat-Gan-based writer-director Danny Wolman (“Foreign Sister”). “I don’t remember it ever being like this. It’s so traumatic, losing people you’ve worked with to the suicide bombings.”

Recent Israeli films have touched on the second generation of Holocaust survivors and relationships in the Israeli military. Regarding comedies, a staple of the late 1960s Israeli film industry, Schory said, “this whole genre has disappeared.”

Films such as “Late Marriage” and Tzahi Grad’s “Giraffes” are the latest offerings from a decade that has shown personal and more universal stories of family and relationships. “Giraffes,” a seductive thriller about the destiny of three women, eschewed politics for a human drama that contained nary a reference to Middle East politics. Grad’s hope is to see more such films emerge.

“If Israel has a lot of ‘Giraffes,’ it will be a better situation in Israel,” Grad said.

However, Schory predicted that “within two years, there will be more films dealing with subject matter” reflecting the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of that is because of the lengthy process of making an Israeli film, which can take a year from choosing a script to approving a production.

“When there is a great trauma, when something is painful, like the Holocaust,” Wolman said, “the expression of it will take time — at least to comment on it in a deep way.”

Israel’s Film Law was passed two years ago to stimulate the country’s film industry. The Israel Film Fund goes through scripts and chooses projects to finance. According to the law, the money comes from 8 percent of the revenue from Israel’s commercial TV channel, Channel 2. About half of the money accrued — 4 percent — goes into financing the production and the marketing of the selected films. For this year, the $5 million allotted for Israeli filmmakers has decreased dramatically, according to Fenigstein.

“Because of war and the second intifada, revenue went down and the industry has suffered for that,” Fenigstein said. Documentarian Ronit Kertsner pointed out that in times of war, not only does government money earmarked for filmmaking get siphoned into the war cause, but cameras and other film equipment become scarce because of the demand for them from foreign press stationed in the Middle East.

Despite such problems, many, such as Fenigstein, believe that the Film Law system is working. Others, such as Eli Cohen, director of “Rutenberg,” are not as thrilled. “What two years ago was so promising is now stuck,” he said.

Another problem over the last two years has been the wait for the arrival of a third commercial channel, which became tied up in the courts. “If you offer [TV stations] material, their slots are full,” said Kertsner, who made an Israel Film Festival entry about Polish crypto-Jews called, “The Secret.” She has had more success airing her film on European channels.

But the difficulty of making films in Israel may make the films better, as Cohen observed: pain translates into art. “The more problems, more catastrophes, more hardships — it becomes food for writers,” he said.

“Actually, I think in times of trouble, you do become more creative, and there’ll be many more films dealing with what’s going on now,” Kertsner said. “We’re up against a situation that we just can’t run away from it. Whenever there’s a bombing, I keep recording news footage because I know I’m going to use it down the line. That was my first instinct. It almost makes me feel guilty. The more I record, the more it seems happens.”

The greatest challenges facing Israeli filmmaking, according to a Greek chorus of talent visiting Los Angeles for the festival, have little to do with political unrest, but with an age-old American filmmaking dilemma: financing.

“It’s the same difficulty of trying to make a film in Hollywood, plus the difference is that there’s not the budget to really advance in this career,” said “Late Marriage” star Ronit Elkabetz, 37. The actress, who now lives in Paris, divides her career between Israeli and French projects.

“Late Marriage” was one of Israel’s highest grossing films in the last two decades, attracting more than 300,000 moviegoers. With “Late Marriage,” this year’s festival represents a first — debuting a film that has American distribution. “Late Marriage,” courtesy of New York-based Magnolia Films, will screen locally at Laemmle Theaters starting May 17.

Elkabetz believes “Late Marriage” worked because “it’s a very good story” immersed in the exotic backdrop of Israel’s Georgian immigrant community.

Fenigstein is proud that his festival, which continues to grow each year, has made some headway in bringing Israel to Hollywood. Despite Israel’s political situation, the festival launch attracted nearly a full house of 1,000 people. Fenigstein credits Israeli-bred Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan (“High Crimes”), the festival’s chair of nine years, for raising the festival’s profile in America.

“Without Arnon, we wouldn’t have that kind of support,” Fenigstein said. “He’s interested in the festival and has brought in many people on our behalf. You know what they say in the nonprofit world — ‘People give to people, not causes.'”

For Cohen, one solution to skirting Israel’s limited financial resources has been partnering. He is currently working on an Israeli-Canadian co-production, but warns of these unions, “You have to be careful not to compromise reality and authenticity.” For “The Secret,” Kertsner derived 60 percent of her funding from Israel’s Film Fund and 40 percent from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

Despite its ongoing bumpy journey, participants and supporters of the Israeli film industry remain optimistic. Elkabetz told The Journal that no matter where her career takes her, she will always remain loyal to Israeli filmmaking and make films there.

“It’s my family, it’s my culture,” Elkabetz said.

Cohen believes that the Israeli film community is more vibrant and sophisticated than ever, having grown over the last few decades from a handful of directors to students coming out of film school.

“It’s a new generation, a better generation,” Cohen said.

“In the last 10 years, they’ve opened film schools in Israel,” Kertsner said. “In my generation, there wasn’t even television.”

Fenigstein, who has had faith in Israeli film industry ever since he hatched his festival idea 19 years ago while attending college in Boston, believes that the best has yet to come. In fact, Fenigstein predicted, “In 2005, Israel will win an Oscar.”