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.

Voices
voices
News
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
newsBumping fists rather than shaking hands could reduce the spread of infectious diseases, it is claimed
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Year 5 Teacher

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to wo...

    Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

    Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

    Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

    £32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried