There are all sorts of micro economies that are fed or supported by Hollywood. Picture-making doesn’t just provide a living for actors and the small armies of lawyers, crew members, production and insurance companies enlisted by movie studios; it contributes to the livelihoods of hairdressers, stylists, designers, makeup artists and handlers. When you’re a star, you’re not just famous. You’re a giant, monetizable billboard. The more recognizable you are, the more stuff you get for free.
Unless you’re Melissa McCarthy.
Awards season is the prime opportunity for designers to showcase their most decadent wares; this year’s Oscar telecast had 43.7 million viewers. But two years ago, McCarthy couldn’t find anyone to design an Oscar dress for her.
“When I go shopping, most of the time I’m disappointed,” McCarthy said in the July issue of Redbook. “Two Oscars ago, I couldn’t find anybody to do a dress for me. I asked five or six designers — very high-level ones who make lots of dresses for people — and they all said no.” That year McCarthy wore a dress made by Marina Rinaldi, a ready-to-wear plus line you can find in stores such as Bloomingdale’s or Saks. Bear in mind, with the Oscars in particular, most actresses are wearing borrowed dresses, shoes, and jewelry valued at more than most Americans’ mortgages.
McCarthy, the much-loved breakout star of “Bridesmaids,” won an Emmy in 2011 for her role on CBS’s “Mike & Molly.” Her work with director Paul Feig, including “The Heat,” “Bridesmaids” and the upcoming “Spy” have made her a favorite funny lady, particularly in feminist circles. In interviews, she seems down-to-earth, approachable, and well, normal.
And that’s because she is. Despite her success and the wealth that comes with it, McCarthy faces the same problem of millions of plus-size American women: wanting a wardrobe that’s stylish and fashion forward, and finding slim pickings, which is why she decided to develop her own plus-size clothing line. She collaborated with couture dress maker Daniella Pearl for the gown she wore to the 2011 Emmy Awards, and the two are releasing a line called Pearl. Before becoming an actress, McCarthy studied fashion design at Southern Illinois University.
“Trying to find stuff that’s still fashion-forward in my size is damn near impossible.” McCarthy told the Hollywood Reporter in 2011. “It’s either for like a 98-year-old woman or a 14-year-old hooker, and there is nothing in the middle.”
Sure, every once in a while you’ll see a star walk a red carpet in Topshop, Asos, H&M or some other off-the-rack brand, but it’s the exception, not the rule, and it’s almost always as an official brand ambassador. In April, McCarthy sported a dress from Eloquii as she walked the red carpet at CinemaCon (Eloquii sells the sleeveless version for $118). Eloquii was a plus line by The Limited that fashion bloggers greeted with enthusiasm when it launched in 2011. It was discontinued last year, then reemerged this spring as an online-only store, completely free of its ties with The Limited. Tadashi Shoji is one of the few designers you’ll regularly see on celebrities who don’t fit sample sizes, from Octavia Spencer to Christina Hendricks.
What McCarthy is talking about isn’t just an inability to find designers who would craft dresses for her; it’s about being hampered in your ability to communicate your personality through your style. Rihanna’s ability to sport a range of looks, from boyish to grungy to chic, is the very reason she was honored with the CFDA’s Icon Award. As Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour noted while praising the singer, “The point is to be audacious, even jaw-dropping or button-pushing — and yes, we know she enjoys pushing buttons — while remaining true to yourself.” None of the dresses McCarthy has worn on red carpets since the 2012 Oscars have been nearly as frilly or fussy as the Rinaldi number, which resembled something commissioned for an opera diva. Sure, it fit, but it wasn’t particularly youthful, and the 43-year-old McCarthy has shown an interest in looks that are modern and trendy.
It’s not just McCarthy who found limited style options because she doesn’t fit Hollywood’s hegemonic beauty standards; a few years ago, Hendricks, who plays Joan Holloway on “Mad Men,” had the same problem.
In a 2010 interview with Glamour, she told the magazine: “It is difficult come awards season, and I need to find a gown to walk down the red carpet in, and there are only size zeros and size twos available. Then it becomes downright annoying because all these designers are saying, ‘We love ‘Mad Men,’ we love Christina, but we won’t make her a dress.'”
Like McCarthy, Hendrick’s luck finally began to change, but there is a double standard. Even D-list straight-size celebrities can find houses to loan them clothes, either directly or through a stylist, for red carpet events. But for women like Hendricks and McCarthy, Emmy and Oscar nods aren’t enough. It takes years and years of success.