If the dress fits: On Oscar night, 1955, Grace Kelly set the standard for red-carpet style

On Oscar night, 1955, one actress set the standard for red-carpet style, argues Susannah Frankel

Some people need sequins, others don't," said Edith Head, the most celebrated Hollywood costumier in history, of the look she conceived for Grace Kelly for the 1955 Oscar ceremony. Kelly was nominated for the Best Actress award as the lead in the George Seaton-directed adaptation of The Country Girl for which she ditched any Hitchcock blonde glamour to play Georgie, the downtrodden, bespectacled wife of fading star/alcoholic, Bing Crosby. Edith Head was, by that point, something of an authority on red carpet attire. She had herself won no less than five Oscars for costume design – most recently for Roman Holiday – and had been appointed official fashion consultant to the annual event, or 'governor of hemlines and bodices' as she herself put it, in charge of ensuring that a sense of propriety was upheld.

In fact, it was not the first time Kelly had worn this ensemble: a simple ice-blue duchess satin coat, column dress and, of course, matching slippers. Kelly was queen of the tightly coordinated good looks that swept the 1950s in her beautiful wake. (The only thing that disrupted the shimmering, aquamarine loveliness of it all were her opera gloves, which, as protocol decreed, were pristine white.) The outfit was originally designed for the New York premiere of The Country Girl the year before, but that didn't stop her stepping into it once again for the most important moment of her career so far. If nothing else, that is testimony to the fact that, back in the Golden Age of cinema, stars were afforded a certain degree of privacy and were, by today's standards at least, positively under-exposed. Kelly would be seen in it for a third time two weeks after the big event in question, incidentally – on the cover of Life magazine.

It should come as no great surprise that Kelly stage-managed her entrance to perfection, only stopping on the red carpet, the following day's news reported, to pluck two yellow rosebuds from a huge vase and to place them neatly into her trademark blonde chignon. Although she was up against tough competition – Judy Garland, for A Star is Born, was also a frontrunner, albeit from her hospital bed where she was recovering from an emergency Caesarean section – Kelly won her gong. For her part, Head went on to design big entrance gowns for everyone from Sophia Loren and Janet Leigh to Shirley MacLaine.

Looking back at it now, the secret of Kelly's sartorial success in this instance lay in understatement. It was that rare thing, the right dress on the right girl, as cool, minimal and unassuming as its wearer, and as modest as the image she always tried – despite persistent gossip suggesting the contrary – to project.

That was then. Head, who worked closely with Kelly on screen costumes for both Rear Window and To Catch a Thief (the costumier called the actor her "favourite"), understood exactly what was required to amplify her charge's image for the masses. Today, with Oscar red-carpet gowns beamed across the world only seconds after they appear – or even live – and the pedestrian details of nominees' lives well-known, things are not quite so simple – or romantically stage-directed for that matter. Add to this the fact that there is rarely the time or inclination for a personal relationship to blossom between an actor and the designer who dresses her in the manner of Marlene Dietrich and Christian Dior, say, or, most famously, Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, and such potent fashion symbolism is a rare thing indeed. The vast majority of the time, it is the job of the celebrity stylist to call in any number of gowns for their cosseted clients, who make a last-minute decision as to the one they will deign to wear. The chosen dress is, more often than not, the safe bet in terms of design. More significantly, most red-carpet fashion is today the work of fashion designers over and above studio costumiers and they are, to a greater or lesser degree, independent entities.

There are, of course, exceptions. When Gwyneth Paltrow won the Best Actress award for John Madden's Shakespeare in Love in 1999, her rose-pink Ralph Lauren gown was widely panned. The reason? Paltrow chose to wear it without the accompanying underpinnings and her slight frame appeared to be drowning in her dress. How brilliant, though, that she looked just like the big baby she really was, sobbing to the point of collapse throughout her entire, longer-than-is-strictly-decorous acceptance speech. A little girl in a big dress in every sense of the words.

Think, too, of Björk's appearance in the infamous Marjan Pejoski swan dress at the 2001 Academy Awards. This was the ultimate tongue-in-cheek statement from a woman who made – and continues to make – a career out of not playing the establishment game. Pretty as the proverbial picture, despite the fact that she appeared to be wearing the sort of over-stuffed animal more often seen at a funfair, Björk went so far as to accessorise her look with an oversized egg. This was the leftfield, modern-day answer to Grace Kelly's matchy-matchy aesthetic if ever there was one.

Step forward, too, Nicole Kidman in an embroidered chartreuse-green gown taken from John Galliano's debut haute couture collection for Christian Dior in 1997. Here was the then uber-powerful actor, with diminutive husband Tom Cruise in tow, dressed in the designer name of the decade. The fact that she'd been paid a reported $2 million by the house in question to endorse their brand failed to detract from the symbiosis and former model Kidman's equally perfect form only served to lift the moment further.

It remains to be seen whether, when Best Actress nominees Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) step out on to the Oscar red carpet tomorrow, their appearance evokes the same degree of wow factor. It almost goes without saying that all have the world's finest fashions at their fingertips, but who knows whether they, or indeed their highly-paid stylists, will have the finely-tuned instinct to put the right dress on the back of the right girl.

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