Sunday, 8 February 2009

And the Oscar Goes To

With awards season now in full swing, fashion aficionados have a golden opportunity to play their favourite indoor sport: who will wear what on the biggest runway on the planet?
With the arrival of couture shows in Paris and a sneak-peek at what is being touted for Spring and Summer, stars are spoilt for choice. Dare they go down the high fashion route and opt for edgy couture, or play it safe with a beautiful but classic gown? Now viewed by millions around the world, the Oscars are as synonymous with high fashion as they are with weepy acceptance speeches. However, it has not always been a marriage of convenience.
While designers cultivated relationships with actresses through the sixties and seventies (think of Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn – a working relationship that created some of the most memorable fashion moments to be captured on film), it took considerably longer for their calming influence to trickle down to the red carpet. Google any award ceremony that took place during the 1980’s, and you will see this in evidence for yourself.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that actresses began to take fashion a little more seriously. The days of wearing ‘an Armani sack’( to quote Hugh Grant) in order to prove your artistic credentials came to a crashing close when Uma Thurman stepped out at the 1995 Academy Awards wearing a lilac gown and matching stole by Prada. At that point, Miuccia Prada was a secret only fashion insiders knew. By the next morning, Prada’s name had gone international, and Thurman’s picture was in every newspaper. It is this magical, transformative quality that had actresses beginning to appreciate what fashion could do for their career. The right dress at the right time could turn an ingénue into a star.
It is this tantalising promise that now has starlets and more-established talents running to their stylist as soon as the Oscar nominations are announced in January. Now the most-asked question on the red carpet is no longer ‘How does it feel to be nominated?’, but ‘Who are you wearing?’ Unsurprisingly, the unforgiving glare of the world’s media has actresses sensibly cultivating relationships with designers. Renee Zellwegger is rarely seen in anything but Carolina Herrera; Natalie Portman is enamoured with new-kid-on-the-fashion-block, Zac Posen and Katie Holmes is hopelessly devoted to Giorgio Armani (but don’t tell Tom). Actresses are quick to understand that if you want to stand out on the red carpet make nice with your chosen designer like your life depends on it. With the Academy Awards taking place later this month; nominees are already being fitted for their dresses, hoping that their choice will garner the most fashion nods from the world’s press.
Of course, it is not always about the nominees. Many of the most notable fashion Oscar moments have been courtesy of another attendee, creating those gasp-out-loud fashion moments that have everyone talking about them for months after the red carpet has been rolled up and put away. Nicole Kidman famously joined the ranks of the Hollywood fashion elite when she stepped out in a chartreuse Galliano gown at the 1997 Oscars. It was a completely unexpected choice, and Kidman’s gamble paid off. It was a hit, and so was she. Over ten years on, she is a fully paid-up member of the ‘Koala Mafia’, and may well be coaxed out onto the carpet, thanks to her role in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’. Nicole is arguably at the top of her game, and if she decides to put in an appearance, every designer on the planet will be vying for her attention and that nod of approval. If Nicole wears your gown, expect your career to rise in the East like the sun.
Jonathan Saunders could be one of the names on that list of fashion luminaries worn by Kidman, which includes John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier. Saunders is a young British designer, who specialises in austere but striking shapes. His black gown with avant-garde detailing shown earlier this year could be ideal for Nicole, who is known for taking chances on the unusual – both in her career and on the red carpet.
Headlining Jonathan Demme’s film ‘Rachel Getting Married’, Anne Hathaway, star of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, found herself receiving unprecedented Oscar buzz on the internet surrounding her performance months before the nominations were even announced. When the nominations were finally announced, Hathaway scored her very first Best Actress nomination.
A career-making decision potentially awaits Hathaway: being red-carpet initiated, Anne is very much a fan of the dramatic, old-Hollywood look. Taking it beyond the cliché, her smart choice of a wine-coloured Marchesa dress at the Oscars in 2008 scored her numerous Best Dressed nods, even though she was just attending as a presenter. But attending as a nominee for the most hotly-contested category is another fashion ball-game altogether. In making that ultimate choice, Hathaway could do worse than consider the work of Alessandra Facchinetti, who until recently held the design reins of couture house, Valentino. Showcasing fin de siècle gowns in Valentino red, Facchinetti proved that there is nothing better a woman understands than another woman, and a fiery blaze of a gown would compliment Hathaway’s features perfectly. Making the leap to a major design-house like Valentino will show all eyes watching that this girl means business.
The nominees are who just starting out have an even more difficult balancing act ahead of them. A dress is an indicator of how you view yourself, and choosing a show-stopper of a gown could suggest to commentators that your ego is already outstripping your talent. Choose a bland, uninspired frock (like Ellen Page did when nominated for ‘Juno’ in 2008), and you run the risk of being perceived as worthy and taking yourself far too seriously.
It’s tough being young in Hollywood: the younger generation are more aware than any previous generation that their every sartorial move is being watched. Even when they’re just popping out to fetch a latte, their look is routinely photographed and scrutinised, so it’s no wonder these girls have high demands when it comes to finding that perfect red-carpet choice. These girls are no longer happy with an off-the-peg designer gown. It has be couture-quality, perfectly fit and if it’s one of a kind especially made for them – so much the better. The design duo behind label Marchesa has this market cornered. They specialise in soft, romantic gowns that have their roots very firmly in high fashion. This look is worn by the actress who fully expects to be underestimated. But don’t be fooled –she may look as harmless as cotton wool, but underneath the supportive underwear is a core of steely ambition. This gal is headed straight for the top.
Alternatively, if soft and willowy doesn’t cut the mustard, actresses have a plethora of established design houses to choose from that have drafted in young designers to bring an edge to the proceedings. Most notably, Olivier Theyskens has been doing great things at Nina Ricci, bringing a cache of cool with him. His earlier Neo-Gothic pieces, worn by Madonna in her ‘Ray of Light’ era, have evolved and become more red-carpet friendly. It retains the drama of his earlier work, which is now undercut with a swathe of softness and sophistication.
This new direction has famously caught the eye of Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, who has sported several of Theyskens’ creations and received rave reviews on each outing. As a result, Theyskens’ designs could soon become regulars on the red carpet. Theyskens’ gold, embellished dress (seen on the Autumn / Winter 2008-09 runway) is undeniably glamorous, but something that would still suit a very young girl. Despite fashion’s infatuation with youth, it is notoriously difficult for a teenager to pull off red-carpet fashion successfully. (Think of Lindsay Lohan’s flirtation with Lanvin). But a good dress, , when paired with a loose, carefree hairstyle and polished make-up remains age, and occasion, appropriate – a hard balance to strike.
With the high pay-offs of getting it right on the red carpet, come high risks. Along with applause for the Best Dressed, there are a select band of actresses every year whose look did not make the cut. Leaving aside the glorious but defiant disasters (who’s mind went to Bjork in that swan dress?); some fail simply because they try too hard.
For red-carpet absolute beginners, this must be a particularly difficult point to negotiate. Viola Davis, a stalwart of American theatre, scored a Globes nomination for her ground-breaking performance in ‘Doubt’, and has just received an Oscar Best Supporting Actress nomination. For the first time in her career, she has to give serious thought to what to wear when making her debut on the awards circuit.
Davis might be tempted to go for an inoffensive neutral, but it would be a mistake. Not making enough of an effort is nearly as frowned upon as trying too hard. It is a conundrum, but one that can be solved by consulting Italian designers such as Alberta Ferretti and Armani. Their beautiful, elegant designs may not break new fashion ground, but they know how to make a woman look her best when it really counts. Eschewing basic black may be a smart move for Viola, as a bright unexpected colour such as sky blue or canary yellow will make her stand out, and denote that she has the confidence to side-step the familiar and take her dressing (and career) onto the next level.
For one woman in particular, this year’s awards season is especially crucial. This year, Kate Winslet has had the unique honour of competing against herself at the Golden Globes, and a double nomination at the BAFTAs for her performances in ‘Revolutionary Road’ and ‘The Reader’. If that weren’t enough, she is odds-on favourite to walk away with the Best Actress Oscar later this month.
In fact, 2009 may well prove to be a critical juncture in her career. It has been a decade since ‘Titanic’ catapulted her to stardom. The feeling that it may be Winslet’s time is inescapable. With five Oscar nominations already under her belt, the Academy may decide that this is the year that Winslet walks away with an award – or two. In making a decision on what to wear, Kate has two clear options –serious and authoritative, or head down the path of soft and romantic.
A black asymmetric silk dress from Derek Lam’s latest Spring / Summer collection may strike the right note, and would fit in seamlessly with her current award season repertoire. Her SAG Awards electric-blue gown from Narcisco Rodriguez lit up the carpet – the dynamic but pared-down silhouette hugged and flattered her curves, and scored her many Best Dressed nods.
Having prepared us to expect something equally sleek and modern for the Oscars, Kate could well surprise us with something soft and romantic. Many of the gowns featured on the S/S 09 Versace runway would be perfect. These choices may seen asinine (after all a dress is just a dress), but on the world’s most prolific runway, it is a signifier to the world as to how the actress wearing it sees herself – not just now, but five, ten years from now.
No longer is red-carpet fashion seen for the frivolous or the fashion plate. With coverage of the event growing each year, the right dress on the right actress not only means a swift injection of publicity for a designer, but also a badge of honour for the actress, declaring to everyone watching, the kind of artist she wants to become.
With all this riding on a dress, it is unsurprising that many stars feel unable, or unwilling, to take sartorial risks. The red carpet has in recent years become noticeably more refined, but often lacks the joy and surprise of someone who has taken a chance that gets the commentators talking.
Many actresses, fearful of making a wrong move, have opted for couture. These hand-crafted gowns possess plenty of drama and sophistication, and on paper, high fashion and Hollywood should be bons amies. But couture, like the stock market, does not always perform as expected. What is sent down a Parisian runway may not translate on an actress who ends up being overwhelmed by the very dress that is meant to send her career soaring.
Of course, if everyone chooses to sit on the fashion fence, we could end up with an unedifying whirl of blandness each and every year, which is no fun at all. But this depressing projection does not have to be the final word: with a little fashion know-how, and a firm editing hand, red-carpet fashion does not have to equal boring. Last year’s winner of the Best Actress Oscar, Marion Cotillard, shows that a middle ground between flair and restraint is achievable.
Her stunning collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier shows that if actresses employ the same daring instinct they use when selecting roles, it becomes a self-evident truth that beauty and innovation are not mutually exclusive.

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