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Illustration by Laura Quick

An Illustrated Compendium of Red Carpet Glamour

In honour of this year's Met Gala, we recall the remarkable red carpet outfits that have flouted traditional dress codes. From Britney's double-denim dream to Lil' Kim's unforgettable turn as a mermaid

TextOlivia SingerIllustrationLaura QuickPhotographic EditorHolly Hay
Lead ImageIllustration by Laura Quick

The morning after the Met Gala is a peculiar time in the realm of fashion journalism: a time when hordes of writers, from those at the weekly glossies to the daily newspapers, are stuck to their computer screens, examining who wore what, and why, and what it could possibly mean to the world at large. An annual celebration of fabulous artifice with a specific dress code (this year, in honour of the Manus x Machina theme of the Met exhibition, guests were specifically instructed by Anna Wintour to wear "tech white tie”), the most extravagant outfits will win miles of column inches, the most ridiculous even more. Here, in honour of the occasion, we recall the red carpet moments that ought never be forgotten, those that are etched into the cultural landscape of our memories, for better or worse. Here, we present Laura Quick's illustrated compendium of red carpet glamour.

Angelina Jolie at the BAFTAs, 2014
While much of this article focuses on fairly outré numbers, a look that deserves recognition is Angelina Jolie's rejection of tradition in 2014, when she donned a Saint Laurent tuxedo (one which matched Brad's) in lieu of a gown. Effortlessly fabulous, she proved that an undone bow-tie can be just as impactful as a plunging neckline or a bandeau assembled from a scarf, reminding women everywhere that frankly, you can wear what you please and (so long as you look like Angie), you'll be just fine on the red carpet.

Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake at the American Music Awards, 2001
Few couples occupy such space in our collective hearts as Britney and Justin, whose virginal devotion to each other extended beyond promise rings and into the realm of matching outfits. This fabulously co-ordinated aesthetic was instigated by Britney, whose Southern belle-meets-diamante glamour was met by Justin's cowboy suave, completed by the addition of those ombré tinted glasses that define the era so completely. Remember the furore surrounding their breakup? This is a visual reminder as to why it was so devastating.

Lil' Kim at the MTV Video Music Awards, 1999
When Lil' Kim arrived at the VMAs wearing a custom-designed, mermaid-inspired, purple-sequinned number (featuring a seashell-shaped nipple pasty to preserve her modesty), her impact was so impressive that it inspired Diana Ross to grope her on-stage. It has since gone down in sartorial history, inspiring any number of Halloween outfits (a likeness has been donned by Miley Cyrus, among myriad others) and a deserved place in the hall of red carpet fame. Whatever the controversy around her current appearance, it is a moment that ought be praised for its shimmering sassiness.

Christina Aguilera at the MTV Video Music Awards, 2002
Before Christina became an advocate for self-love and Christianity, there were her glory years: the period during which she was advocating for thrusting in boxing rings and being downright Dirrrty. A determined desire to shake off her Disney Club teenage years saw her embrace the idea that a scarf can be more than just an accessory – in fact, it can comprise almost an entire red carpet outfit – and that no look is complete without some questionably attached hair extensions. Adorable.

Björk at the Oscars, 2001
Few looks are as unquestionably fabulous as when Björk donned the ortnithological creation of Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski to grace the Oscars – but her dedicating to subverting award show glamour extended beyond her outfit. As she wandered down the red carpet, she pretended to lay ostrich eggs in celebration of creative fertility but, plebain as they were, none of the surrounding bodyguards understood that this was an act of performance artistry; as she later told GQ: “other people’s bodyguards kept picking them up and saying in their thick American accents, ‘’Scuse me, ma’am, you dropped this.’”

Jennifer Lopez at The Grammy Awards, 2000
When J Lo donned her diaphonous, jungle-print chiffon gown for The Grammys, she could scarcely have known how monumentally it would be received – a copy of it is even memorialised in The Grammy Museum (the perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon if you're ever in LA). Geri Halliwell had actually worn the same plunge-neck Versace piece to the NRJ Music Awards the month before but nobody cared, thus we are reminded that it as much about the woman wearing the dress as it is the dress itself. A sentiment to live by.

Elizabeth Hurley at the Movie Premiere of Four Weddings and A Funeral, 1994
No run-down of red carpet style would be complete without a mention of Liz Hurley's infamous safety-pin number, a Versace tribute to the "neo-punk" movement in black lycra, silk and plenty of gold. While it has come to symbolise the best style of the nineties, it was a complete coincidence that she turned up in it; she later explained that, "That dress was a favour from Versace because I couldn't afford to buy one. His [Grant's] people told me they didn't have any evening wear, but there was one item left in their press office. So I tried it on and that was it.” But, in hindsight, she has questioned her decision, telling The Mail on Sunday that “One of my favourite concepts in life is that of sliding doors. It is interesting to think about the better or worse outcomes had you not had that particular moment. From an acting point of view, who knows? I guess it could have been different. Perhaps I could have joined the National Theatre and become a much more worthy actress.”

Rihanna at the CFDA Fashion Awards, 2014
There are only a handful of women in the world who can transform a see-through Adam Selman gown encrusted with 230,000 Swarovski crystals into unquestionable glamour rather than stripper chic, but Rihanna is one of them – as Anna Wintour summated later that evening when bestowing her with the CFDA Fashion Icon Award, "Rihanna communicates through fashion, because that is what style icons do... [she's] a vision of Hedy Lamarr Hollywood glamour mixed with the hard-edged chic of Grace Jones." Using only a pink fur stole to conceal her modesty, she looked more film noir than porno short, proving that nobody does nudity quite like Riri.

Lizzy Gardiner at the Academy Awards, 1995
She might not be a household name, but costume designer Lizzy Gardiner – the woman behind the outfits featured in campy cult favourite The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – is well deserving of a mention in any red carpet list. She turned up to collect her award wearing a floor-length dress comprised of 254 gold Amex cards; it had originally been created for Priscilla but, unauthorised by American Express, was cut from the wardrobe. Although she was criticised across the board, we think it was absolutely fabulous – plus, it was later auctioned off to raise $12,650 for the American Foundation for AIDS research. Philanthropic and phenomenal.

Lady Gaga at the MTV Video Music Awards, 2010
Designed by Franc Fernandez and styled by our very own Nicola Formichetti, when Lady Gaga turned up to the VMAs wearing nothing other than a cowl-neck dress made of raw flank steak, it was a special moment for us all – not least for Cher, who presented her with the Video of the Year trophy and was told by Gaga, "I never thought I'd be asking Cher to hold my meat purse." It has since been preserved by Sergio Vigilato as a form of jerky, and is on permanent display at Cleveland, Ohio's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.