Oscar: Fashion Show?

There are a few more important things in the world than fashion,but that’s what’s so crazy about the Oscar. Fashion ends up being
the thing that’s on your mind the whole time.
Frances McDormand, Best Actress, Fargo

You know you’ve entered into a new territory, when you realize your outfit cost more than your film.
Jessica Yu, Docu Short winner, Breathing Lessons

The Academy announcer, Randy Tomans, intoned in 1997: “Second only in interest to the Oscars themselves are what the ladies are wearing.” This feeling was echoed by Oscar nominee Mare Cunningham (for Georgia), who told reporters: “I watch the show every year with my popcorn and my kids, but mostly I look at what people are wearing.”

But men are not exempt from scrutiny either. White tuxedo is anathema on Oscar night. Ben Kingsley made the same mistake twice, showing up for the show decked out in white tuxedo in 1982, when he won for Gandhi, and again year later as a presenter. “I just felt that I had enough darkness this year and I would try to go a little lighter,” said Kevin Spacey in response to criticism of wearing white tuxedo. The press was not pleased, and Spacey would not dare violate the code again.

The times when a top contender like Joanne Woodward could make her own gown, a simple green evening dress, are long gone. Woodward felt good about her achievement, claiming, “I spent 100 dollars on the material, designed the dress and worked on it for two weeks. I’m almost as proud of that dress as I am of my Oscar.” However, Woodward was criticized by Joan Crawford for giving the Oscars a bad name, and “setting the cause of Hollywood glamour at least 20 years back.”

Edith Head, Hollywood’s bestknown costume designer, herself a winner of numerous Oscars and nominations, served as the Academy’s fashion consultant for decades. The fashion aspect of the show has increased over the past decade. Audiences now expect to see the latest trends in haute couture worn by the presenters and the nominees. For director Joel Schumacher, the Oscar night draws millions of fans because “it means glamour, glamour, glamour, just as the Super Bowl means fun, fun, fun.”

Indeed, before the 1979 show, costume consultant Rob Talsky instructed the female nominees: “No comfort, not what’s in style but glamour with a capital G.” Talsky’s advise was in sharp divergence to what Jerry Wald, the producer of the 1959 ceremonies, told the women that year: Please avoid deep cleavage at any cost.” Yet both advises highlight the importance attached to the Oscars’ fashion angle.

Who can forget Cher’s notorious appearance as a presenter in the 1986 show Snubbed by the Acting Branch, which ignored her performance in Mask (for which she won an acting prize in Cannes), Cher wore black pants, knee-high boots, loincloth, a black wool jersey with metal brass plate and a big Mohawk headpiece. Flaunting her belly button, Cher said, “As you can see, I received my Academy booklet on how to dress like a serious actress.”

In the 1996 show, the producers decided that models should parade the Costume Design nominations. The new James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, surrounded by Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, hosted the segment. There was a faux runaway and faux photographers. The announcer intoned the models’ names as if they were the real thing, Hollywood movie stars. But for Stephen Hunter of the Baltimore Sun, the fashion show suggested a concession–“it’s as if Hollywood was acknowledging that it had lost its grip on glamour and beauty, and that those values have been entirely appropriated by the fashion industry.”

In 1996, presenter Winona Ryder, wearing a beaded black tulle Chanel, prompted the Washington Post’s Tom Shale’s nasty quip: “Her dress looked as if an angry mob tried tearing it from her pale little body on her way to the show.” The even stranger Sean Young was criticized for carrying a parasol that matched her blue Bob Mackie gown and made her look like a displaced Southern belle.
In contrast, Brenda Blethyn, who was nominated for playing a frumpy mother in Secrets & Lies, shocked the public with her elegant outfit. Barely recognizable, Blethyn wore a lime green Armani with matching stole, and a 122-carrat-diamond necklace with a 13-carat pedant courtesy of Harry Winston, and valued at 1.5 million dollars.

During and after the 1998 show, people were talking about presenter Ashley Judd’s Richard Tyler dress with its extremely high slit, though they couldn’t decide if Judd’s outfit was “shockingly revealing” or “revealingly shocking.” In the same year, Kate Winslet, Oscar-nominee for Titanic, received the most positive reports for her standout look. There were more body guards from Harry Winston than from any other designer due to the fact that Winslet’s Titanic colleague, nominee Gloria Stuart, wore a 20 million dollar diamond sapphire necklace.

Viewers talked for years about Angelina Jolie’s appearance in the 2000 show. In black Versace gown, and long dyedblack hair and skull ring, she looked like Morticia of The Addams Family. No wonder EW labeled Jolie “Oscar’s latest glimpse of Gothic.”

In 2001, viewers saw the shadow of Ava Gardner looming large over the female nominees. Both Marcia Gay Harden and Catherine Zeta-Jones wore long, elegant red dresses that evoked Hollywood’s glorious past (Harden had earlier played Gardner in a TV-Movie-of-the Week). “I think the Oscars may only come once in a lifetime,” Harden, the talented but not a typically Hollywood celeb, told Joan Rivers, “and I just wanted to feel and look like a movie star.”

Best Actress nominee Laura Linney also wore a red dress–courtesy of Valentino. The dress cost considerably more than Linney’s paycheck for You Can Count on Me, the indie responsible for her nomination, though Linney claimed she would have made that movie for free.

Joan Rivers, who covers the red carpet for E!, wore a Vera Wang dress and a pair of Harry Winston earrings estimated at six million dollars. This kind of excess prompted the L.A. Times fashion reporter, Valli Hermann-Cohen, to comment: “Amid all of the commotion, it’s easy to forget that this almost-gross display of wealth (most of it borrowed or granted gratis) takes place near USC, in a working-class neighborhood.”

Singer Bjork, who performed the Oscar-nominated song from Dancer in the Dark, wore an outfit that became the year’s fashion faux pas: a full body stocking that was covered with a giant swan whose neck wrapped around her with its head and beak resting on her breasts. For the same show, Jennifer Lopez decided to be modest for a change and wore pale green Channel, a departure from the notorious Versace outfit she had worn for the Grammys.