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Next time Angelina, do check the label

She is one of the most glamorous women on the planet, whose every red-carpet appearance is scrutinised by an army of photographers and tooth-sucking style commentators. But Angelina Jolie stands accused of an extraordinary fashion faux pas.

The actress sparked heated debate yesterday, after it emerged that the striking, but somehow odd-looking, blue dress she wore to Sunday's Screen Actors Guild awards in Los Angeles had been worn back to front.

Sharp-eyed pundits who pored over the pictures of Jolie negotiating the event's 200-yard red carpet noticed that her dress bore a striking resemblance to a $798 (£560) ball gown showcased at catwalk previews of designer Max Azria's spring collection.

The cornflower-blue frock had the same kimono-style sleeves and waistline as the silk dress worn by Azria's wafer-thin models, they remarked, together with identical detailing on the skirt. But its plunging neckline appeared to have been reversed to show off her back.

After the influential Red Carpet Fashion Awards website noticed the dress-reversal, fashion commentators began discussing the crucial issue of whether Jolie had been aware that it was on back-to-front.

Some speculated that she had accidentally got dressed the wrong way round. In a celebrity version of The Emperor's New Clothes, they said neither her partner Brad Pitt nor dozens of domestic staff had been brave enough to tell her of her wardrobe malfunction. Others described the move as an intentional, and ingenious, way for the 33-year-old actress to wear a dress that would otherwise have exposed an enormous portion of cleavage. They also claimed that reversing the garment allowed Jolie to showcase the collection of tattoos on her back.

Jolie's stylist, Jen Rade, issued a short statement to USMagazine yesterday, saying that her client had intentionally wore the dress that way round to make the outfit "more blouson".

But not everyone was convinced, noting that when Jolie discussed the garment in a red carpet interview with the TV show E! on Sunday, she made no mention of the fact it was on backwards, commenting merely: "I just like to be comfortable, I see what comfortable options are out there."

Cynics also noted that, if she had intended to expose her tattoos, the dress was hardly an unqualified success: the v-shaped neckline actually covered up half of the artworks.

Either way, the affair left some influential fashion commentators with egg on their faces. The Los Angeles Times critic Booth Moore, for example, failed to notice that the dress was on back-to-front when composing a lengthy analysis for Monday's newspaper. "Jolie is one of the few celebrities who has developed a signature red carpet look: drapey, goddess-like dresses that show off her tattooed shoulders, natural hair, minimal make-up and jewellery. Some have criticised the look as dowdy, but I would call it self-aware," he wrote.

"She's using clothing to control her image. In a way, Jolie is telling us she's transcended fashion and won't be at the whims of whatever designer or jeweller happens to be the highest bidder. That alone sets her apart from the starlet pack, giving her integrity as an actress and mother, instead of just a mannequin."

Attention will now turn to Jolie's outfit at next month's Oscars, for which she has been nominated for the Best Actress award for her role in Changeling. Meanwhile, whether she reversed the dress deliberately or not, the actress can at least reflect that she is following in a small yet memorable show-business tradition.

During the 1990s, the adolescent rap duo Kriss Kross sparked a trend for wearing jeans and t-shirts back to front. Meanwhile, at the 1999 Oscars, Celine Dion famously wore a white Dior tuxedo, backwards. That outfit, topped-off with an extravagant white fedora hat, was variously described as "bizarre" and "unflattering", and in some quarters even saw Dion compared to a "pimp".