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The History of Cannes: From The Beach to the Red Carpet

Every spring, after the award shows have settled, red carpet watchers turn their eyes to the French Riviera. They’re watching the Cannes Film Festival, of course. Ten days of red carpet film premieres and photo calls in the Southern French sun, it never fails to disappoint.

However, while today the red carpet is the focus, it wasn’t always the case. In its early years, Cannes was more celebrity beach party than red carpet event. When Cannes started in 1946, you were just as likely to see movie stars in their bikinis on the beach as you were to see them dolled up for premieres. It wasn’t until the eighties and nineties, that our current idea of Cannes began to take shape. However, whether it was beachwear or formalwear, Cannes style has been center stage. This year was no different as Rihanna, Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and others hit the red carpet in their film premiere best. There were galas and photo calls, product launches and official dinners. Everyone turns out in their best at Cannes and many looks this year were memorable. Check out our favorite Cannes style moments from this year, and years past.

The First Cannes Film Festival

Cannes held the first film festival in 1946. Back then, they held the festival in September. These pictures show the extreme juxtaposition of styles seen at the festival: from bathing suits on the beach to fur coats for award ceremonies. However, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the glamour. But while you can find some glitzed up celebrities, those early years were more about taking advantage of the location, so images of actresses in their bathing suits on the beach were more common than red carpet moments.

CANNES, FRANCE: French Actress Michele Morgan poses in a bathing suit at the 1st Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France in 1946(Photo by Serge DE SAZO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Photo by Serge DE SAZO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The actress Celia JOHNSON and the director David LEAN being awarded the Paris Grand Prix of Cannes Film Festival for the movie BREVE RENCONTRE. The price is given by Georges HUISMAN, (on the left) first president of Cannes film festival. Hôtel George V, Paris. 19461122 L'actrice Celia JOHNSON et le metteur en scène David LEAN recevant des mains de Georges HUISMAN (à gauche) , Premier président du jury du festival le tableau gagné au Festival de Cannes pour leur film BREVE RENCONTRE. Hôtel George V, Paris. 19461122

The 1950s and ‘60s

The fifties and sixties in the film industry continued to be all about glamour. But there was still a more personal and casual feel to the festival. Bob Ahern, Director of the Getty Images Archive, told Business Insider, “You used to really see Cannes – the beach, the trees. There’s less of that today.” Today, you may see some trees peeking out from behind a photo call, but it’s mostly about the red carpet.


Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, though, celebrities let their hair down and candid moments like this one of Brigitte Bardot running down the beach were captured on camera. In most of these early, black and white images, you see how close the crowds get to the stars. This speaks to the intimacy Ahern spoke about. He mentioned that photographers, let alone fans, “simply don’t have this kind of up-close and personal access anymore.” Instead, we get behind the scenes snaps on Instagram.

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Royal Glamour

Of course, even as moments captured in the early years were candid and intimate, there were also moments of high glamour. This is the festival where Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier III, after all. Since then there have been royal moments time and time again – moments of fashion royalty and real royalty alike. Grace Kelly returned as a princess in 1960 and had a major red carpet moment in her fur wrap. In 1966, Princess Margaret met with Sophia Loren. Princess Diana stepped out onto the red carpet several times in the 1980s.


While there may not have been any royalty on the red carpet this year, there were plenty of princess moments. From Winnie Harlow’s sapphire Zuhair Murad ball gown to Diane Kruger’s elegantly embellished custom Dior, royal glamour still suggests Cannes.


Memorable Fashion Moments

Over the years, despite its strict dress code, there have been moments that have stood out from the rest. Like when actress Simone Silva posed topless in 1954, causing her to be asked to leave. Or when Madonna appeared in one of her conical bras, scandalizing Cannes officials when she dropped her bubblegum pink wrap on the red carpet. Then, there was Arnold Schwarzenegger in a speedo, surrounded by prairie-dress-clad Parisian dancers.


While there may not have been anything quite so head turning this year, there were still many jaw-dropping looks. Marion Cotillard’s sequined Halpern two-piece comes to mind. As does Naomie Harris’ dreamy rainbow gown by Gucci. Bella Hadid’s nearly-not-there creation for the AmFar Gala reminds us of those other scandalous Cannes moments, too.


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AmFar 🕊🥂💫

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It’s safe to say that we can never truly know what to expect from Cannes fashion. Whether it’s bathing suits, regal allure or revealing garb, it seems like anything goes at the film festival. But one thing’s certain: we can’t wait to see what next year brings.

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