Pushing products on the Emmy red carpet

The most telling moment during the Emmy pre-show was not when “Masters of Sex” actress Lizzy Caplan walked the red carpet in a magical Donna Karan gown with a black halter bodice and a full skirt lined with an ivory cloud. It was not the appearance of a newly platinum-haired Lena Dunham trapped in a Catholic schoolgirl bodice and a tiered skirt of bright pink ombre ruffles, an ensemble that cannot be aesthetically explained but only diplomatically excused. (She’s so talented!) It was not Julia Roberts’s decision to ignore expectations and choose a short, sparkling Elie Saab dress instead of a grand ballgown.

No, it was the low-grade fear and panic that became palpable when the name of some designer who had contributed to the construction of a star’s perfect red-carpet moment slipped from an actress’s short-term memory.

Monday night, the poor, overwhelmed stars of the small screen were finding it impossible to remember all the names of the brands that gave or lent them their one-night wardrobe of fancy stuff.

“Veep’s” Julia Louis-Dreyfus was dutifully making small talk about her Carolina Herrera gown — raspberry with a red leather belt — when her memory failed her. She was carrying a long, rectangular golden clutch, which she had positioned in front of the “clutch cam,” the latest bit of red-carpet technical tomfoolery conjured up by the E! entertainment network. Who made your handbag, Julia? It is only the slightest exaggeration to say that the blood slowly drained from her perfectly made-up face. She called to an unseen assistant for help. She cheekily vamped for time. That sound off in the distance? That was the wailing and teeth-gnashing of Lee Savage, the accessory designer. He handed over that handbag with little more than the simple understanding that the red carpet is about product placement, and is it too much to ask that in exchange for a freebie, the brand is actually identified — live, on TV?

Of the various trends — the countless red gowns and ethereal white ones — forgetfulness said more about what the red carpet has become than any frock or bauble. Now there is just too much to remember. It used to be that all a starlet had to worry about was the designer of her dress, but now there is a laundry list of jewelers, cobblers, handbag-makers, cosmetic companies and so on, all of which must be properly acknowledged.

From Bryan Cranston's steamy kiss with Julia Louis-Dryfus to the never-ending jabs at Matthew McConaughey, The Post's Emily Yahr highlights the top moments from this year's Primetime Emmy Awards. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Model Camila Alves could not remember who designed her white, embroidered gown. And when husband Matthew McConaughey, wearing a lapis-blue tuxedo by Dolce & Gabbana, whispered the name in her ear, he only managed to remember half of it and mispronounced the half he did recall. Something with a “Z”, he gamely offered. Poor Zuhair Murad was sitting in his atelier weeping.

It must be hard to remember names when they are flung at you in the form of dozens of ballgowns and trays of jewelry spread out in a showroom by a busy stylist who has five other starlets to dress. The forgetfulness is directly linked to the distance between the actress and her own sense of style. January Jones remembered that Prabal Gurung created the dramatic red gown with its asymmetrical bell-shaped skirt that she was wearing. Oh, but who made that single jeweled lightning bolt in your ear, January? Sounds like, uh, “mumble-mumble,” whatever.

And another jeweler weeps.

A few weeks ago, the writer James Wolcott lamented that the red carpet is essentially devouring celebrities. There is so much pressure to look just right, and there are so many occasions for which actors have to look their very best. There are now so many red carpets that one practically expects to see one rolled out to celebrate the opening of a Starbucks.

Our culture’s celebrities are indeed put under a microscope. There are cameras dedicated to showing close-up views of shoes, jewelry, manicures and now handbags. Another camera provides a 360-degree view of a celebrity. The only thing left is X-ray cameras that will let audiences inspect an actress’s Spanx.

But it is not all the fault of the voyeur. Stars have made it quite lucrative to serve as billboards. Sofia Vergara chose a white Roberto Cavalli slink for her stroll past the cameras. But the dress was mentioned only in an off-handed way. As was her show, “Modern Family.” She spent the bulk of her time discussing her makeup, even recalling the shade of Cover Girl lipstick she was wearing.

She happens to appear in their advertising campaign. That has a way of jarring the memory.

Read more:

Three suggestions on how the Emmys can be fixed

Seth Meyers vs. Jimmy Kimmel: Who was the real Emmys host?

Robin Williams, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and more that you missed

Read the full list of winners

Givhan: Pushing products on the red carpet

Billy Crystal pays tribute to Robin Williams

Full recap of the 2014 Emmy Awards

Amy Poehler is Beyonce and everything is wonderful

Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the Washington Post fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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