Once upon a time—in a land that is strange but not so far away, a land known as Hollywood—actresses would walk the red carpet in gowns of their own choosing. There were no stylists or label name-dropping; certainly there were no pre-award shows conceived around the idea of rating an actress’s choice of gown or hair style.
The results were good and bad. Many women looked suitable, a few scored that elusive gown that flatters the wearer instead of overpowering her. And someone always wore something that made the viewer shriek at the television screen, “What was she thinking?” There was Gina Davis in her can-can mullet dress. Or Demi Moore wearing black spandex shapewear with a brocade half skirt. Or Kim Bassinger in a bizarre lop-sided white taffeta gown, looking like Glinda the Good Witch had been run through a Cuisinart.
All that has changed. Some time in the mid-1990’s, stylists started to realize that they could make some big money by putting design houses and actresses together. There was even a seminal moment and a seminal gown of styling for the Oscars: Uma Thurman, in 1995, looking like a dream in a lavender gown by a then little-known label called Prada.
Once again, we will be reminded of the now pervasive pursuit of perfection when the stars walk into the Academy Awards. No one wears anything incredibly shocking any more. Some of the dresses are off, even way off—remember Sandra Bullock last year in an ill-fitting two-toned gown by Marchesa? But nobody looks like a hot mess any more. Individual tastes are now a thing of the past, as outdated as the mink stole Lauren Bacall wore to the 1954 Oscars. Actresses dress similarly now (we saw this at the Golden Globes this year, where low-cut necklines and double-sided tape were the trends of the evening.) All the expressions of personal eccentricity have been ironed out, thanks to stylists.
Every actress knows that stylists are the ones making the real fashion choices, because red carpet fashion is now viewed as a profitable marketing opportunity. The designers get name recognition and actresses can secure magazine covers, internet play, and a cosmetic campaign. For the past two years, the Hollywood Reporter has listed the 25 most powerful stylists in the entertainment industry, along with their bold-faced clients. Fees can run as high as an estimated $10,000 for America’s most famous stylist, Rachel Zoe, who has built a multimedia empire out of her caffeinated sense of style. And the pre-award shows, where actresses drop the name of their label, are credited with reviving the career of comedian Joan Rivers while launching others. Multiple stations carry ad hoc teams of fashion critics who rate the fashion choices. E! cable network even has a zoom-in camera to check out manicures.
The stakes are high for both actresses and stylists. After Michelle Williams’ garnered harsh criticism for wearing a too-casual daisy print gown by Valentino at the 2011 Golden Globes, she fired her long-time stylist Leith Clark. When Angelina Jolie was ridiculed for sticking her leg out of the slit of her Atelier Versace dress last year, she blamed her stylist for not warning her about the skirt.
So what can we expect from this year’s Oscar fashions? Probably not many gowns in brown, orange or yellow—those are the least popular colors in red carpet looks. And for good reason. Amy Adams looked like she fell into a mud hole while wearing in a brown Carolina Herrera gown in 2006. And in 2009 Sophia Loren’s overly ruffled yellow Armani gown made her look more like Big Bird than a glamorous icon.
The trends now are for strapless (the most popular cut of Oscar gowns over the years), in nude, black or gold. And a daring penchant for risk-a-wardrobe-malfunction low necklines.
But when everyone is some version of great, no one really stands out. Perfection is overrated. We probably won’t see any fashion mishaps this year, like Hillary Swank’s too-short Christian Dior underdress beneath skimpy pink net. Or Tyra Banks looking like a Gone with the Wind bridesmaid in a Vera Wang purple gown. But as off-point as those fashion choices were, they still stand out in our minds—for the sheer personality reflected in those choices.