Forget about the movies: At Oscar time, in homes across America, armchair fashion critics give thumbs up or thumbs down to the clothes worn on the red carpet or on stage as presenters and awardees glam it up.
But for everyone who looked at Bjork in 2001 and thought “taxidermist,” someone else thought “avant-garde.” For everyone who thought Edith Head dressed Grace Kelly like a princess in 1955’s ice blue satin, someone else thought “ice queen.”
Face it: No matter how many worst and best lists there are, we’re never going to agree about who looked fab or drab. But we can agree to remain spellbound by the clothes, and the reasons why, since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1929, stars have looked ravishing -- or not. How did they make their choices? It’s a process far more involved than just spinning around, pointing a finger at a gown, and crying " Voila!” Each choice has a reason -- and, often -- a fascinating story. Politics, trends, contracts, money, loyalty -- fashion is an exceedingly complicated business. And the Academy Awards ceremony, which started off as a rather humble affair, has put it under a microscope. The telecast has grown into an endorsement worth, according to some estimates, $1 million per gown or accessory in publicity for ateliers, with the potential to make fashion designers into stars in their own right.
Every dress tells a story
Many believe that the first designer/celebrity collaboration was the famous pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, which began with work on “Sabrina” in 1953 and continued throughout the star’s life. But Marlene Dietrich and Christian Dior would disagree. The two, who had become close after being introduced by Jean Cocteau, formed a mutually beneficial relationship. In 1951, when she was asked to present the winner for foreign-language film, Dietrich had a problem. She was seen as an aging star who, at almost 50, was on the down slope of her career. But she had a superb sense of style and, with Dior, she hatched a plan to take the Oscar stage by storm. Having researched what the other actresses would be wearing through an insider source, Dietrich knew that the predominant motif was going to be fluffy pastels and beading. So she and Dior opted for dark and minimalist. In the Aug. 18, 1952, Life magazine article, “Dietrich and Her Magic Myth,” written by Winthrop Sargeant, Dietrich further explains how she and Dior devised their plan for her walk across the stage: “Mamma is going to wear black so Mamma had better be slinky -- nice, black.”
The two left no detail unattended. Dior asked whether Dietrich would be entering the stage from the right or from the left. Why? Because he needed to know where to slit her skirt to show off her gorgeous gams. The answer: stage left. As Dietrich came onstage to present the award, she received a standing ovation. What caused the rise from the seats? The sleeveless bolero, showing her decolletage, a nipped waist, a silk velvet bow swaying on her hip, and the figure-hugging ensemble that showed off her “stage-left” leg. It was Dietrich who made the headlines the next day, not the nominees. One observer said it was a shame there’d been no medal for glamour.
In 1936, Bette Davis received a lead actress nod for “Dangerous.” She was the first Warner Bros. actress nominated -- and she was offended. The actress had made 16 films at Warners, but she considered her work embarrassing, the product of abysmal scripts. Moreover, she felt that a year earlier Warners had sabotaged her chances of winning for her role as Mildred Rogers in “Of Human Bondage.” That film had been done for RKO, on loan, and Warners wasn’t about to have its contract player win the Academy Award in a competing studio’s film.
Davis wanted desperately to get out of her seven-year contract with Warners. When the nomination for “Dangerous” came, she planned to set sail for Hawaii with her mother. But Jack Warner got wind of her plans and forced her to attend the Oscars. The final blow came when studio lawyers informed the actress that she wouldn’t be loaned out again to RKO for a role she coveted.
Bronwyn Cosgrave, in her book, “Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards,” wrote that Davis felt “so in ‘servitude’ to Warner that she decided to dress like the hired help.” She found a suitably dowdy dress she’d kept from the film “Housewife” (another pedestrian flick she’d been forced into). It was an Orry-Kelly number, featuring a strong white print on a navy background with glaring white lapels. To the actress’ amazement, she won the statuette that evening, and when she went backstage, the editor of Photoplay shouted, “How could you? You don’t look like a Hollywood star.... Your photograph is going around the world. Don’t you realize? Aren’t you aware?” Davis was, indeed, aware. Her plan had worked, and she had made her point. She would finally get the roles she wanted, thanks to her “anti-fashion” statement.
Along came 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” and every girl in America wanted to dress just like Scarlett O’Hara. Except Vivien Leigh. The production of the film had been long and tumultuous, and Leigh, who wore Walter Plunkett’s antebellum costumes, had been anything but comfortable. In addition, director Victor Fleming had been annoyed that Leigh lacked sufficient cleavage to portray the character’s sexuality. According to Cosgrave, Fleming "... insisted that Walter Plunkett bind Leigh’s breasts together with adhesive tape which kept them in an uncomfortable position.” The actress had simply hated the ordeal.
Though producer David O. Selznick had been a nightmare to work with, as compensation, for the awards he treated the film’s leading ladies to clothes designed by Irene Gibbons, known then as the Coco Chanel of America. Gibbons had saved her best gown for the English actress. It was described in the printed leaflet simply as “Look 14,” and it was later referred to as “the red poppy evening gown.” In photos, you can see the silk, spaghetti-strapped dress, with oversized flowers bursting on the fabric.
But it was the fit that made the strongest impression on the actress. Gibbons had freed her from the constricting corsetry of Scarlett O’Hara’s wardrobe. Instead, the gown was all about comfort, featuring a built-in soft construction underneath the bodice. According to Cosgrave, “When she won the award, she gracefully accepted and set the trend for floral patterns for celebrities.” The actress’ extreme discomfort in her role had become the impetus behind a winning fashion statement.
In 1941, the U.S. entered World War II. Subsequently, the academy sent out a memo stating that flashy jewels, especially diamonds, were a no-no. Semi-formal was more appropriate, with black being a more respectful hue. (This tradition of sartorial advice from the academy has continued over the years. For example, in 1967, Gregory Peck, then president of the academy, requested that Edith Head write to 2,500 attendees asking them to help reinstate a sense of dignity to the awards. The catalyst was most likely Julie Christie’s barely there baby doll that panicked censors the year before.)
Elizabeth Taylor’s tragedy
Another type of collaboration -- this time between Mike Todd and Elizabeth Taylor -- was hatched for the 30th Academy Awards ceremony in 1958. Todd had been accused of bribery and campaigning for Taylor’s nomination as Susanna Drake in “Raintree County” -- a performance she admitted openly was poor. Remarkably, she received a nomination, and Todd asked Helen Rose, the only studio costume designer who was a true rival with Edith Head at the time, to create Taylor’s gown. Rose knew Taylor’s figure and how to make it look smashing, since she’d worked with the actress for more than a decade and had seen her go from ingenue to adult.
As Rose worked on what came to be known as the Mike Todd Oscar Dress, it was touted as being one of the hottest items that would ever grace the red carpet. A mod look that fell to knee-length, it fit Taylor’s form perfectly. The cowl neck with a low-cut back was ideal for her figure. The silk chiffon jersey was trimmed in pale mink. Cleverly, Rose focused on Taylor’s wasp waist by hand-beading and embroidering the bodice with love birds representing the mutual adoration of Todd and Taylor.
But four days before the ceremony, Todd died in the crash of his private plane. Devastated, Taylor chose not to attend the Oscars ceremony and, instead, watched the telecast wearing Todd’s mangled wedding band, salvaged from the wreck. Joanne Woodward won that year (in a green, homemade dress that had cost her all of $100; she’d been convinced that she had no chance of winning). However, the Mike Todd Dress did reappear in Taylor’s life. There is a 1959 photograph of her with fourth husband Eddie Fisher in which she pairs the dress with long white gloves.
Cher puts on a show
One controversial lady had no trouble putting on her outfit. In fact, it reportedly took only five minutes. Remember those pesky memos the academy sent out about dress codes? Cher, never a conformist, wasn’t going to change her style for academy fashion consultant Nolan Miller, who in 1986 had intoned that everyone should “be elegant.” Her contribution to the awards that year would give the New York Times one reason to call the show the “best Oscars in years -- perhaps ever.”
The lady with one name epitomized 1980s flair, but she felt Hollywood didn’t give her proper recognition and respect. Cosgrave writes, “Just as British punks adopted the aggressive spiked Mohawk hairstyle to display their disaffection with the country’s monarchy and its elitist Conservative government, Cher intended to don a Bob Mackie Oscar punk ensemble that would translate the enmity she harbored toward the academy.”
Mackie was worried for several reasons. He didn’t want Cher to upstage the supporting actor award she was presenting. He had also recently come out with a flamboyant collection that contrasted with Calvin Klein’s emerging minimalist chic. Mackie’s show had been a dud. But loyalty was loyalty -- Cher owned more than 1,100 of his costumes -- so he set to work. He constructed a jeweled bikini from a patterned breastplate with a choker. Black Lycra acted as a torso-skirting beaded loincloth. A cashmere cape came next, along with jet bead earrings that hung almost to her collarbones. He added accessories of armbands and cuffs. But the Mohawk was Mackie’s crowning piece. Almost 1,000 dyed rooster feathers stood 2 feet tall, shimmering in the light. It took 14 days to create this rebellious Oscar headpiece.
Cher kept the details of Mackie’s design from everyone, including her boyfriend, Joshua Donen, who was her date for the awards. On Oscar day, when she first appeared before her swain, who was dressed in a classic white dinner jacket, Donen blanched and reportedly let loose a curse but then stuck to his promise and escorted her to the event. She had to sit on the floor of the limo to avoid damaging the headpiece. When it was time for her to present the supporting actor award to Don Ameche, she was shaking, but -- tough and confident -- she worked the look.
The actress-designer complex
Circa 1990, designers started to get savvy about the value of film stars wearing their dresses. Giorgio Armani was the first commercial designer to court Hollywood’s elite, persuading them to attend his shows and let him dress them in his collections. Wanda McDaniel, his West Coast rep during that era, threw parties at the store to generate label loyalty, and she helped actresses upgrade their images. With Armani’s assistance, Jodie Foster ditched the dowdy wardrobe that had landed her on several worst-dressed lists and became a best dresser. On the 1990s red carpet, Armani was cock of the walk.
Just as actresses helped designers gain exposure, designers helped the stars gain influence. In 1997, Nicole Kidman wore a John Galliano piece, known simply as “Absinthe,” from his first collection for Dior. It proved such a sensation that Vogue’s Anna Wintour realized that stars in designer fashion were proving a more powerful force than supermodels. Magazines began to make A-listers into cover girls, sending their sales skyward. By the new millennium, Kidman had scored a multimillion-dollar deal with Chanel. Clearly, the days of wearing your own dress or one provided by the studio wardrobe department were over.
Still, there could be fashion drama. Why was Gwyneth Paltrow bashed for the princess pink Ralph Lauren ball gown she wore to the 1999 awards ceremony? She had lost weight in the weeks leading up to the event, and the dress was an ill fit. Compounding the problem, she chose not to wear the corset that was made to accompany the gown. It would have filled out and supported her bust line, making it appear less concave. Harking back to the days of Vivien Leigh, she just wanted to be comfortable.
In 2001, Renee Zellweger had behind-the-scenes drama. Browsing in vintage couture store Lily et Cie, she decided to wear a pale yellow strapless gown by Jean Desses from 1959. But the more than 40-year-old piece needed custom fitting and reconstruction. The cost (covered by the studio) would be $14,000. Turmoil ensued when Lily et Cie got wind that other ateliers were copying the dress in different colors as alternatives should something go wrong. Lily et Cie halted work on the gown. Cosgrave writes that owner Rita Watnick was shaken by the perceived breach of faith. But ultimately Zellweger wore the Lily et Cie dress -- and looked ravishing.