Clothes are more than just the cloth they’re made of. We often use them as symbols to reflect or hide who we are, including our gender identity. The point may be obvious, but it’s worth reiterating when considering the dress Caitlyn Jenner wore to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards on July 15.
It was Jenner’s first big awards show since her transition, and for it she chose a long, columnar white gown by Atelier Versace. Its wrapped front brought the dress in at the waist, giving it a classically feminine shape, and the long, fitted sleeves showed off Jenner’s arms. Glamorous and subtly Grecian, it felt like a nod to the Olympics Jenner once triumphed in, and was fitting for an awards show held by a sports network.
Perhaps more than the dress itself, however, it was the whole ceremony of selecting the dress and finally presenting herself in it that was meaningful. In Caitlyn Jenner’s case, the process served as a rite of passage—her introduction to one of the trials of being a female celebrity, as women far more than men must labor over their appearance at these events. It’s worth noting that she began her emotional speech about the need for acceptance of transgender individuals by joking about this initiation.
“Picking out this outfit—Ok, girls, I get it,” she said. “You gotta get the shoes, the hair, the makeup. The whole process—it was exhausting. And next: the fashion police. Please be kind on me; I’m new at this.”
Clearly, she had been thinking about her awards outfit for weeks. She worked with Jen Rade, stylist to Angelina Jolie Pitt, on her look, and she even tweeted about her wardrobe concerns when it was first announced that she would receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
The fuss surrounding what women wear to galas and awards ceremonies can seem silly. Often it is. But these moments can be significant, too, for the women themselves and the designers who dress them. The dress Amal Clooney wore to the Met Gala earlier this year served as a major signpost on the road to recovery of its designer, John Galliano, and Jennifer Lopez’s deep-cut Versace gown at the Grammy Awards in 2000 spawned Google’s now-indispensable image search.
This moment was freighted with perhaps more meaning than any other red carpet moment in recent history. Simple and sophisticated, Jenner’s dress presented her to the world as an elegant, confident woman. She looked great.