Fashion: `I'm ready for my close-up...'

On Oscar night, clothes really can make the woman. (And, in some cases, her career.)

Sometime in the last decade, Hollywood and fashion discovered that, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they could flatter each other on camera. As a result, the red carpet of the televised Academy Awards ceremony has become the world's most watched fashion runway; and the winner is increasingly the best dressed.

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.

Captions:

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

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little