In the old days - pre-1990 - you could watch the Oscars for the entertainment value of the fashion disasters - the occasional excesses of soul displayed by those flashy stars who were uninhibited by the international codes of good taste. LA was still a regional outpost as far as fashion was concerned, and the guidance of the studio costume designer had gradually disappeared. Barbra Streisand in the early Seventies could wear transparent Arnold Scaasi lounge pyjamas. Liz Taylor could be teased, squeezed and baubled. Raquel Welch could appear in a royal-blue sequined catsuit (1978). And still there was no mistaking that they were stars.
Now, movie stars look more like fashion models, all lined up in pretty, satin slip dresses or this season's pale-pink ballerina gown. A certain sameness and predictability, however glossy and globally authorised, has set in. Under the heightened scrutiny of more and more cameras, no one can afford to be laughed at - a fear that has fuelled the booming career of "stylists", costume designers and personal dressers to the stars, many of whom have in recent years become minor celebrities themselves.
"It's elegant and fashionable but not directional," observes Valerie Steele, curator of the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, about Oscar-night fashion. "In the last six or seven years, so many actors have been put into the hands of stylists that they have acquired a `fashionista' appearance. It has to do with a blurring between actresses and fashion models. In the early Nineties, models were hot; by the mid- to late-Nineties, they were losing ground to the actresses who were colonising magazine covers and being styled like models, but with curvier bodies and more idiosyncratic faces."
And it's not just at the Oscars - at the Emmys, the MTV music video awards and the Golden Globes, too, clothes are increasingly becoming the focus of entertainment.
"Actors and actresses in general don't normally have a lot of interest in fashion. Historically they haven't," says Steele. "They just dress for their roles. It's because fashion has become so `fashionable' that you started to see famous actors in the front row at the Versace and Armani shows. The designers immediately realised that they got free publicity. The actresses got credit for being stylish as well as glamorous; and the designers for being glamorous as well as stylish."
For actors, fashion is serious. In the right "press dress" even a lesser- known can score a globally distributed photograph and make a brilliant career move. Elizabeth Hurley's evening out in Gianni Versace's safety- pin dress is one stellar example of the clothes making the star.
In the Hollywood fashion calendar, there are press junkets to attire, accessorise and make up, chat-show appearances and film promotion tours, all of which are co-ordinated by professional stylists. Fashion and Hollywood trends are not always in sync, however. Stylists have to come up with clothes that perform well on camera, move freely, won't wrinkle in the limousine, and come in textures and colours that flatter the wearer under strong lights. Just as importantly, they have to translate the often confusing extremes of fashion into something readily understandable to middle America.
"Hollywood likes sexy, tight, fitted clothes. There was a time when nude was a popular colour for fashion, but it's not good for TV," says Susan Ashcroft, whose company, Film Fashion, represents Escada and other labels on the West Coast.
"Then fashion had its grey period, which is not a frequently requested colour in Hollywood. Now people are into jewel tones and muted pastels - camera-friendly colours."
In America, the Awards has become the second most-watched show after the Superbowl. This time around, they mimicked that sports event with a new Sunday time-slot and Oscar equivalents of the pre- and post-game wrap-up.
Phillip Bloch, who early on styled numerous stars for the Oscar ceremony, and gave the red-carpet fashion commentary for CNN and ABC, says the fashion mission at the Academy Awards this year was to make actresses "look like every little girl's dream of `when I grow up I want to be a movie star'".
In designing the dream, stylists can either flop or score. In 1998, the stylist Jessica Paster launched Randolph Duke's career when she put Minnie Driver into the ruby-red jersey dress he had designed for the Halston label, but fellow stylist Arianne Phillips was not universally acclaimed for Madonna's black silk faille and dove-grey tulle outfit, a combination of Olivier Theyskens and Jean Paul Gaultier.
"It's become a war of stylists," says the costume designer Barbara Tfanke about the competition around the Oscars. Tfanke customised the look of Uma Thurman in her hugely successful lilac Prada-Pulp Fiction dress of 1995, considered a fashion triumph for being unexpected (Prada was not known for evening clothes) and quietly glamorous. (The dress was recently auctioned at Christie's Unforgettable: Fashion of the Oscars sale of dresses to benefit Aids research - it sold for $9,200.)
This year's most stylish and muse-like nominees - Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett - were wooed by several designers at once and, as is customary, they had more than one Oscar-night outfit prepared for them. In 1996, instead of wearing the dress Vera Wang had designed for her, Sharon Stone famously showed up in a plain black Gap T-shirt paired with a trumpet skirt by Valentino and a silk Armani coat, which she herself had put together at the last minute - a star's prerogative.
Getting their clothes in front of the Oscar-night cameras may be worth $1m worth of advertising - the cost of a 30-second spot on the show - but the designers have paid in other ways, throughout the year, for that privilege.
A West Coast infrastructure of publicists and representatives, planted by European designers, now cultivates actors' and stylists' attention to ensure product placement. Designers spend as much as $400,000-$600,000, according to Patrick McCarthy, editorial director of W magazine, making Oscar-potential clothes available for viewing and borrowing for the big night. Valentino, Calvin Klein and Escada, among others, customise gowns for stars - now a prerequisite for Awards nominees.
Los Angeles did not become a fashion destination until the late Eighties, when Giorgio Armani stealthily launched a coup on Hollywood. By then, fashion designers born of the ready-to-wear boom in the Seventies had acquired enough financial clout and star status of their own to play Hollywood's game. Leaving nothing to chance as he built up a West Coast retail operation, Armani cultivated the right social contacts by hiring Wanda McDaniel, the wife of a producer on The Godfather, as his publicist. She remains the linchpin of his West Coast operation. His Godfather connection dates from 1982, when Jay Cox, a childhood friend of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, wrote a Time magazine cover story on Armani; subsequently all these people became friends.
More seductive than his personal charms, however, Armani's clothes made actors an offer they couldn't refuse: they promised to keep the wearer from looking ridiculous. As a result, he maintained a monopoly on costuming the Oscar presenters for a while - until Versace, Dolce & Gabbana et al gained some ground.
Simultaneous to Armani's beachhead, Alan Carr, then the producer of the Awards ceremony, decided that the show could do with a fashion make-over. Eleven years ago he asked Fred Hayman, retailer of the recently defunct emporium Fred Hayman of Beverly Hills, and creator of Giorgio perfume, to select Oscar-worthy clothes from European and American collections and make them available on loan to presenters and nominees. At the time, says Hayman, "the fashion being worn was boring and demeaning to the Oscars". Hayman is still the official co-ordinator of Oscar fashion, even if he has now become somewhat eclipsed by the star designers and their media machinery, and he continues to stage a large, pre-Oscar fashion show for the press, and to display and lend clothes to presenters and nominees. This year he attempted to ban black in favour of "princess" pastel tones.
The object is to look like a confection that the camera could devour - with tulle underskirts and shoulder wraps, ballerina skirts, beaded tops and delicate colours. The trouble with the new prettiness, say fashion- lovers, is that it doesn't allow for extremes. Rita Watnick, owner of the vintage couture shop Lilly et Cie, where stars often shop for the Oscars and other awards events, observes: "Sometimes when you look back, the person you think was not well-dressed may have looked great and been trying something fabulous." Criticised for wearing cycling shorts one year, beneath a black velvet bustier and skirt, Demi Moore was apparently making a statement in fashion-speak, "inspired from the Renaissance and empire period. It was fabulous," Watnick says. Entertainment, yes - but the media just wasn't ready for it.
Uma Thurman, rumoured to be wearing several other designers, finally emerged in Chanel couture
Emily Watson's chic, beaded grey number was a bit too similar to Meryl Streep's for comfort...
Judi Dench in coat and dress by Abu Jani and Sandep Khosla. She wisely avoided the full-length look
Jennifer Lopez ignored this year's no-black policy. Strapless was the way to go for gorgeousness
Meryl Streep in grey (no longer the new black). The workmanship simply sighs Valentino. Beautiful
Celine Dion in back-to-front Dior couture. Very modern: the tux is a good alternative to the cream puff
Madonna, in Atelier Versace, has another great new look. The tunic and trousers are subtly elegant
Rachel Griffiths outvamped her `Hilary and Jackie' co-star, Emily Watson, in this clinging pink gown
Minnie Driver could take a leaf out of Madonna's book. Her top takes deconstruction one step too far
Catherine Zeta-Jones opted for jewel colours and cut a dash in this ruby-red Versace couture creation
Cate Blanchett (left) and Gwyneth Paltrow look sublime in black John Galliano and pink Ralph Lauren
Liv Tyler chose dusty lilac over pink (the colour of the Oscar season) and looks less sugary for it
Minnie Driver, 1998. Stylist Jessica Paster scored with this ruby-red jersey Halston dress
Uma Thurman, 1995. A hit. Prada as evening-wear proved to be perfectly understated
Madonna, 1998, in a Jean Paul Gaultier skirt and an Olivier Theyskens top. A designer clash
Barbra Streisand. Back in the 1970s, a girl could get away with transparent pyjamas. Fabulous