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Don’t Forget to Look Gorgeous

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few weeks ago I was asked a question: “Would you like to cover the Oscars this year?” What I heard was: “Is it physically possible for you to look gorgeous for even one night?”

I said yes. How could I say no?

Normal women are rarely required to look gorgeous. For the occasional New Year’s Eve party or work-related bash, it is perhaps something to aspire to, and on their wedding days, most women would prefer to hear they look “gorgeous” rather than “pretty” or, God forbid, “fine.”

At the Oscars, however, it is required. Even of the press. Oh, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t list it along with all the other commandments and tips (all this year’s guests were advised to wear comfortable shoes). But any woman who finds herself in possession of Hollywood’s golden ticket knows that it is much more than an invitation. It is a challenge. To look gorgeous.

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For actresses, that’s easy. For actresses, getting ready for the Oscars requires little more than showing up to be fitted and plucked and smoothed and dressed by designers.

The process for the rest of us is nowhere near as benign. The only thing in my closet that resembles formal wear is my wedding dress, and though I toyed with the idea of dyeing it black, the marital symbolism that involved seemed far too dangerous. After calling around to everyone I could think of who had gone or is going, I realized that although I am on the very low end of the fashionista spectrum, I am not alone in my quandary. Nor even in my eyeing of the nuptial robe.

When Patty Eliot Tobias got engaged to her husband, Joe Adamson, who works for the academy, she realized she couldn’t afford two great gowns in one year, so she chose a wedding dress that could do double duty.

“It is midnight blue and had this chiffon wrap that could be done in different ways,” said Tobias, a senior editor of publications at the Writers Guild West. “So in March I wore it as a wrap, and then when I got married, I wore it as sleeves.”

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Her husband, she said, was very impressed that he was marrying “someone so sensible.” Since then she’s attended the Oscars a few more times and feels a bit more relaxed. This year she bought a simple black sheath with two fancy jackets. “Now I have enough dresses. I can alternate if I want to,” she said. But, she added, she hasn’t been able to wear the midnight blue dress again anywhere, including the Oscars. “It’s very strange,” she said, “but now it’s my wedding dress.”

Georgianne Bernstein also went all out her first time, several years ago, with a red Bob Mackie covered in about 10 pounds of beads and glitter.

“I got it on sale at Nordstrom,” she said. “It was very, very expensive, and I’ve never worn it since.”

Bernstein’s husband, Charles, has been on the academy’s board of governors for the last seven years, so they have been to the Oscars more often than many celebrities. This year she’s wearing a gown she and a friend constructed from a vintage beaded dress. Bernstein, who is a dancer, always does her own hair and makeup, and ever since the Mackie year she has developed a better sense of her own Oscar style--comfortably elegant rather than high-wattage.

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As in many areas of fashion, some women instinctively find the perfect dress in the shop around the corner, and some women ... don’t. When she was nominated for best short documentary last year, Tracy Seretean hit the usual suspects--Saks, Neiman Marcus and some Beverly Hills boutiques--but couldn’t find a thing.

“Everything I saw required a roll of duct tape to keep on,” she said. “Two wisps of chiffon posing as a dress.”

Panicking slightly, she began calling designers and telling them she was a nominee. “Which was so bogus because no one with any juice in Hollywood would be making these calls,” she said. Her fluency in Italian warmed the heart of a woman at Valentino enough that Seretean was allowed to peek at the designer’s look book. “I picked three dresses I liked, and this woman told me Julia Roberts had all three, so she wouldn’t be able to tell me which one I could have until Friday. I thought, I am anxious enough about this thing without having to wonder what I’m going to be wearing.”

So when Sharon Stone’s assistant happened to call her asking for a copy of her documentary, Seretean, knowing that Stone was a good friend of designer Vera Wang, managed to let the assistant know she was desperately dress-less. A few phone calls later, Seretean was cashing in her frequent-flier miles and flying to New York “because they sure weren’t going to send me a dress sight unseen, and they wouldn’t even make a recommendation without seeing what kind of body I had.”

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Her father bought her the dress she chose. “It really was the perfect dress,” Seretean said. “Everybody said so.” And plenty of people got a look at it--Seretean won her category, realizing as she made her way toward the stage that 4-inch heels--"the highest shoes I’d ever worn"--had probably not been the best choice.

Four-inch heels will also carry Philippa Boyens down the aisle should she and co-writers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh win best adapted screenplay for “The Lord of the Rings.” And they will be the only thing she managed to choose on her own.

Her ensemble has been orchestrated by a group of her friends in New Zealand who did not trust Boyens’ fashion sense in the least. “No one could even mention a nomination possibility around me,” Boyens said. “But meanwhile they were all talking behind my back about how if we should get one, someone would have to take me in hand. They were all very afraid I would show up in something I had just pulled out of my closet.”

When the nominations were announced, one of Boyens’ friends put her in touch with Trelise Cooper, New Zealand’s top designer, who put together a black beaded lace skirt and satin tuxedo jacket. Meanwhile, Boyens said, her friends keep checking in on her. “They keep calling to find out if I had gotten a haircut, if I have someone to do my makeup.”

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The proprietary feeling that New Zealanders have toward the film apparently extends to seeing the filmmakers turned out well--L.A.-based Kiwi hair and makeup stylists stepped forward to help her. “It’s all quite amazing,” she said.

As a non-nominee, I had no such team and nowhere near the pressure. I concentrated on simply getting a dress that would not make me an obvious floating target for Joan Rivers and her straight-from-the-id nightmare shtick. Following Boyens’ lead, I did get a haircut, but I think I am too old to start messing around with makeup. My only hope for gorgeous was the dress.

But here is something you should know: Evening gowns run about two sizes smaller than normal clothes, so at a time when you want to look and feel your sveltest you’re looking at size tags with double digits. Here is something else you should know: Formal dresses cut on the bias, and that is most of them, are the most unforgiving garments you will ever meet. As one friend put it: “I saw lumps I never even knew I had.”

So after a morning of on-again, off-again designer wear, most of which I absolutely could not afford, I pulled into the handkerchief-sized parking lot of One Night Affair, which rents wedding and evening gowns. According to manager Jeffrey Gates, the store dresses from 400 to 600 Oscar guests a year, including, he said, some of the biggest stars. “They figure, why pay $2,800 for a dress they’re going to wear once when they can rent it for $175?”

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A hundred or so of his clients will coolly show up the last week, 30 or so on the day before. “Sometimes we get women who decide at the last minute they aren’t happy with the dress they’ve bought,” Gates said, “but we also do a lot of out-of-town guests. And a lot of press.”

After trying on a half-dozen of my own picks, I threw myself on the mercy of the assistant, a lovely young woman who brought me a stack of dresses I would never ever have thought to try on. She kindly didn’t tell me what size they were. About halfway through, as I tunneled through a satin underskirt and hitched myself into a strapless beaded bodice, I swore I was going to pull a Sharon Stone and go in a floor-length navy matte jersey turtleneck dress, which I actually own and which, I think, looks just fine.

With this in mind, I yanked open the curtain to look in the mirror one last time and literally gasped in shock. Hello, Gorgeous.


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