The Cannes Film Festival, founded in 1946, is arguably the world’s most prestigious celebration of cinema. It’s a certified rite of passage for any emerging actor or director to ascend the steps of the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, where it’s held each year along the promenade that skirts the French Riviera. But in order to attend, one must adhere to the red carpet’s notoriously strict rules and regulations: the austere, old-fashioned dress code mandates that men wear tuxedos with bow-ties and that women wear heels. Pablo Picasso was apparently the first to break the evening dress code, wearing a sheepskin cloak to a screening in 1953, while last year Kristen Stewart made headlines by kicking off her black Christian Louboutin stilettos, walking up the steps with her heels dangling in her hands.
If you’ve been paying attention to the fashion at the festival this year, the sight of Paris-born producer and DJ Kiddy Smile wearing a tiered floral gown to the premiere of Pedro Almodóvar’s Dolor Y Gloria likely came as a bit a shock. It was the second time Smile, who is intimately involved with Paris’s ballroom scene, unapologetically rebuked the men’s dress protocol this year. The day before, he wore a silver, disco-ready jumpsuit that he designed himself to the screening of Mati Diop’s Atlantics. “For men, you have to wear a black tuxedo and a bow tie,” Smile explains of the red carpet rules. “There’s something very old school about it. I’m a cis man but if you’re genderfluid or nonbinary, there is no space for you to exist within this protocol.”
When Smile made his Cannes debut last year, which doubled up as his first red carpet appearance ever, he felt too rushed to find an outfit that matched up to his high standards. Smile had a role (as a DJ, naturally) in Gaspar Noé’s trippy film Climax, which premiered at last year’s festival, and Noé wanted the entire cast on the red carpet. The festival, though, insisted that only six cast members attend. “We all decided that it was going to be all or none of us, and then finally the festival agreed that it should be everybody, so last minute we had to get tuxedos,” says Smile from this year’s festival. “I didn’t have time to get in touch with fashion houses and get something made for my measurements.”
This year, Smile, who is at the festival to DJ an after-party, took on his red carpet festival appearances with a little more foresight. He constructed the silver outfit himself, comprising of a pair of pants and a bodysuit. “The night before, I actually didn’t sleep because I was sewing my outfit. I was very nervous because I’m not very good at tailoring and sewing, but I had no choice—I don’t fit sample sizes unless I ask in advance, and I was very, very nervous because of the protocol,” Smile explains. He was only able to get past the man checking people’s outfits at the entrance of the red carpet because a photographer was screaming for him to step forward so he could snap his picture. “So I just got on the red carpet and they started to take pictures. The festival didn’t say anything because it was daytime and it was very early in the red carpet lineup,” Smile adds of how he slipped through the cracks of the festival’s stringent protocol.
The next day, when he wore the tiered gown at the premiere for Dolor Y Gloria, it was an entirely different story. “I knew it was going to be more difficult, because it’s a big movie and it was nighttime. I was supposed to go with Gaspar [Noé], but he couldn’t make it, so I knew the protocol people wouldn’t let me through,” Smile says. When he arrived in that floral dress (Smile says he chose the print because the flowers matched his hair, which is dyed the exact same shade of orange), the gatekeeper stopped Smile to ask him if he was wearing a traditional African outfit.
“It’s just hilarious to me that if you’re a black person, and you wear something that looks like a gown, people are going to ask you if it’s a traditional outfit,” Smile says. After Smile said that it wasn’t, the man condescendingly responded that he wasn’t going to be able to walk the red carpet. “Then a woman arrived and started discussing with him—from what I understood, she was his boss—and she was telling him that she was taking responsibility for my outfit and that she wanted me to go through to the carpet,” Smile said.
The reaction to Smile’s fearless red carpet showing has been very positive—he’s been receiving plenty of supportive messages from friends and fans. “People are very happy that things are changing a bit,” Smile says. “I’m so happy that I got to do this, and be myself, and wear something that looks like me, that’s representative of my personality. I think it’s good that a festival like that is starting to think about how the world is opening up, and it’s good that these institutions are starting to bend their rules a little bit for people that don’t feel like they’re welcome in those spaces.”
It’s about time that Cannes loosened up. Without some good-natured rule-breaking, Smile wouldn’t have given us one of the most memorable looks of the entire festival so far.