It is common practice that ahead of the Golden Globes, the women of Hollywood – stars and stylists, alike – devote no shortage of time to finding the perfect headline-grabbing dress for the red carpet, including, of course, the less-than-transparent deals with brands that want to secure placement of their frocks on the red carpet. The gowns – some couture, others bespoke, some straight from the ready-to-wear runway – usually run the gamut of colors and styles. This year, the red carpet looked very different, nearly all of Sunday evening’s attendees opted for all-black (or almost all-black) looks in a sartorial protest centered on sexual harassment.

Yes, all but a few of the Golden Globes red carpet-walking stars chose to use the annual awards show as opportunity to help raise awareness about the significant number of sexual harassment allegations that have shed an ugly light on Hollywood, many involving – but certainly not limited to – film executive Harvey Weinstein. (Either that or they were afraid of falling out of line of the well-understood dress code for the evening). 

Move Over Hollywood

In a sea of black frocks, from the likes of Prada, Armani Prive, Miu Miu, Tom Ford, Chanel, and Prabal Gurung, some of the most striking attendees were not Hollywood stars at all. Instead, they were the invited guests of A-listers. Meryl Streep, for instance, made her entrance alongside Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Michelle Williams, wearing her usual Louis Vuitton, invited Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, as her date. Emma Watson and Marai Larasi, executive director of black feminist organization, Imkaan, attended together, as did Laura Dern and Monica Ramirez, who is the Deputy Director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. 

Amy Poehler and Saru Jayaraman,  the president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and ROC Action, and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, walked the red carpet together, along with Emma Stone, who was accompanied by Billie Jean King, the pro tennis player and activist that Stone portrays in “Battle of the Sexes.”

And according to Variety, Susan Sarandon attended with Rosa Clemente, an organizer, political commentator and independent journalist who campaigns for media justice, voter engagement among youth of color, third party politics, United States political prisoners and the right of Puerto Rico to become an independent nation.

Not Without Controversy

While the message on the red carpet was strong – as Meryl Streep put it, “I think that people are aware now of a power imbalance. … It’s led to abuse in our own industry and led to abuse across the domestic workers field of work. It’s in the military. It’s in Congress. It’s everywhere. And we want to fix that.” – the evening’s protest-by-dress was not without some anticipatory skepticism. 

Rose McGowan, one of the most prominent critics of the culture of abuse in Hollywood and a victim of Weinstein, criticized the campaign in a since-deleted tweet, which read: “Actresses, like Meryl Streep, who happily worked for The Pig Monster, are wearing black @GoldenGlobes in a silent protest. YOUR SILENCE is THE problem. You’ll accept a fake award breathlessly and affect no real change. I despise your hypocrisy. Maybe you should all wear Marchesa.”

(Note: Marchesa is the fashion brand co-owned/designed by Weinstein’s recently estranged wife Georgina Chapman). 

Others have chimed in on the black dress protest. The Washington Post’s fashion critic, Robin Givhan, for instance, wrote this week: “Sexual harassment pours out of our shared culture and spreads in myriad, horrible ways. It affects women in countless degrees and variations of awful. Putting on a black dress is too easy. It doesn’t begin to communicate the treachery and loss. And it obscures any belief in a way forward.” 

In much the same way as we have questioned the efficacy of the fashion industry’s garment and accessory-based protest efforts – whether it be activism-inspired t-shirts, the wearing of white bandanas in furtherance of “solidarity” or the appearance of pussyhats on the runway – this movement requires reflection, as well. 

There is certainly merit to the awareness-raising properties of t-shirts, beanies, and Twitter, and our ability to use the runway, our bodies, and our social media accounts as walking billboards for our causes. This is, of course, different than actually acting upon the ideas that we present vis-à-vis our tees, hats or red carpet dresses.

More than Merely a Dress

This is the black dress protest really shines: There appears to be real action in play in the case at hand. The many actresses that have come together, such as Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams, Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, and Natalie Portman, to launch their initiative called Time’s Up, are taking actual steps and not just wearing the dress. 

For instance, as reported by the Washington Post this week, “The group established a legal fund administered by the National Women’s Law Center and led by Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, and noted attorney Roberta Kaplan, who is representing one of the women who have accused producer Brett Ratner of sexual harassment and abuse. As of Monday afternoon, the fund, which will be used to represent women in sexual harassment cases, had raised nearly $14 million toward a $15 million goal on its GoFundMe page.” 

The funds raised will be used “to provide subsidized legal support to women and men who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace and while in pursuit of their careers.” 

In a letter entitled, “Dear Sisters,” some of Hollywood’s biggest stars alluded to lobbying efforts on behalf of women working both in and outside of Hollywood in order to combat sexual harassment. The letter states, in part, “Now, unlike ever before, our access to the media and to important decision makers has the potential of leading to real accountability and consequences.” 

Hopefully such lobbying efforts are dedicated at least to some extent to addressing the widespread inclusion of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts. A growing number of American companies are requiring individuals, as a condition of their employment, to sign contracts that contain a mandatory arbitration clause, which stipulate they will be required to resolve a dispute with their employer, including charges of sexual harassment, through arbitration. As a result, an estimated 56 percent of American employees — about 60 million — are subject to mandatory arbitration in the U.S., according to the Economic Policy Institute, a practice that has been routinely cited as tending to favor businesses. 

These are worthwhile actions that – when paired, of course, with black dresses – very well may tangibly impact women’s lives and effect greater change, something a garment, alone, could not achieve.