Basically, he killed it in a strapless, Christian Siriano black velvet full ballgown paired over a ruffled tuxedo shirt and bolero-length jacket.
“I didn’t come to play, I came to slay,” said Porter.
But it was what he said next that spoke to his truth.
“I wanted to create a space where we could have a dialogue about the masculine and the feminine and everything in between,” Porter said. “What does that mean? I mean, a woman shows up in pants and nobody bats an eye. A man shows up in a dress and it’s like … What are we saying? You know women in pants: it’s masculine, it’s powerful. A man in a dress… I never felt more powerful when I let go of all that stuff that was put on the outside and stepped into Lola [Porter’s drag queen character in Kinky Boots]. I never felt more powerful. I never felt more masculine."
The Oscars weren’t the first time Porter has played with gender on the red carpet. He wowed at the January American Film Institute Awards in a golden, slinky Calvin Klein gown and matching blazer. Two days later, he rolled to the Golden Globes in a decadent Randi Rahm suit and a dramatic cape complete with hot-pink lining.
Though Porter was clearly the belle of the gender-bending red carpet season, by no means was he the only celeb who challenged longstanding gender norms. Women arrived on red carpets in pantsuits (see: rapper and Crazy Rich Asians actress Awkwafina in metallic DSquared), jumpsuits (yassss, Melissa McCarthy!) and pants-meets-ballgown ensembles (like Julia Roberts in Stella McCartney at the Golden Globes).
But after decades of men in boring black tuxes, guys really let their hair down this season, and, like Aquaman’s Jason Momoa — who made my heart flutter on Sunday night in a soft pink velvet Karl Lagerfeld tux, carried their Fendi scrunchies with them. Then there’s Terry Crews’ Louis Vuitton harness and Chadwick Boseman’s metallic Givenchy haute couture coat that was so long it looked like he was carrying a train with him.
Still, it was Porter in his completely fearless, refreshing, unapologetic Oscar style who elicited unfair, untrue, and unprintable ire all over Facebook and Twitter last week. His detractors say that manhood is under fire and that black manhood is being attacked even more so. Porter’s gown, they relentlessly harangued, puts the proverbial nail in the coffin of black masculinity.
“It certainly ruffled some feathers,” said Darin Toliver, vice president of Black Men at Penn Inc., an organization at the University of Pennsylvania that recruits black men for social work. “Most men of color, we look at things from a traditional lens. Men wear suits. Females wear dresses. And men tend to let our clothing define our levels of masculinity. That is the discomfort level many men are feeling."
The fear in the black community is that if Porter is praised for wearing a gown, black men will have yet another hurdle to jump over in the eyes of white America. Black men in sagging jeans and hoodies are already considered thugs — even if they are college graduates. And now that the media is praising black men in skirts, people will consider black men weak.
But, Toliver added, manhood yes, black manhood, too shouldn’t be thought of in such narrow terms. Manhood is not so tenuous that it can be defined by sexuality and/or fashion choices.
“Billy Porter is human. Billy Porter is black. And Billy Porter is a man,” agreed Chad Dion Lassiter, an African American man who is executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. "I saw him in his full splendor. We use these buzzwords, ‘the emasculation of the black man,’ to show otherness. But as black people, we should not engage in such behaviors that fully separate us. We need to realize that none of us own the patent of masculinity.”
Not to mention it’s silly to depend on fashion rules to define what is and isn’t masculine. Because, as we all know, style is cyclical.
There was a time, especially during the medieval era, said Clare Sauro, fashion historian and curator of Drexel University’s costume collection, when men of power wore dresses. “The longer the tunic, the better chance he was a man of stature because men of power didn’t really move around much,” she said.
The tuxedo we recognize today was introduced for the Prince of Wales in the mid-1800s as a suited look that was more comfortable than it was elegant. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was the athleisure of its time,” Sauro said. Eventually, the tuxedo made its way to the United States and found popularity in the community of Tuxedo Park, N.Y. It’s been the dominant men’s special-occasion look since the late 19th century. “When you really think about it,” Sauro laughed, “it’s archaic.”
So, is this year’s red carpet a sign of more change?
“Nothing happens in a vacuum,” Sauro said. “It’s clear what it means to be masculine, what it means to be feminine, and what it means to be ‘appropriate’ is shifting. And I think that’s good, because, ultimately, people should be free to wear what they want. "