Griping about unimaginative Oscar dresses has become an annual ritual among fashion watchers (myself included).
The list of “atrocities” regularly committed by attendees of the Academy Awards includes hogging the middle of the road, navigating the red carpet while under the influence of beige, and failure to wear any neckline that isn’t strapless.
So while reporting on the Haute Couture shows for The Telegraph in Paris, I mentally put myself in the celebrity stylist’s shoes. Actually, since most celebrity stylists don’t attend couture, being otherwise engaged answering the multiple sartorial demands of their charges, this was better than being in their shoes. This was like being on stilts, standing in front of them. I was ringside at the greatest fashion show on Earth. How hard could it be to pick out a dozen or so ravishing frocks?
Um, where to start? The first issue is that dressing an actress for the biggest night of her career is no longer where many couture houses direct their main energies.
At the Couture shows, it was notable how many maisons have largely turned their backs on safe Oscar-appropriate styles in favour of appealing to their (paying) clients or to prestigious editorial in fashion magazines.
Dolce & Gabbana actively discourage its appearance on the red carpet, knowing their customers prefer exclusivity.
On the couture catwalks, spectacularly lavish ball-dresses and embroidered tunics popular at Middle Eastern weddings, or “avant garde” barely-there experiments that might work for a Rihanna video, but would set off every pace-maker at the Academy Awards, now outnumber generic red carpet dresses.
“The problem is, the Oscars aren’t regarded as fashion any more,” says Fiona Golfar, editor-at-large of British Vogue. Golfar has attended the Oscars with her husband, the producer Robert Fox, and dressed actresses for them. “It’s surprisingly tough getting hold of decent dresses for them,” she adds. “For one thing, there’s a strict pecking order, both among actresses and designers. You can have a great actress who might score an A among her peers, but only rate a B or C in the fashion world, because she isn’t considered to wear clothes well.”
Or she might be the wrong age. When Golfar dressed Dame Maggie Smith the year she was nominated for Gosford Park, she was informed by one house “that they weren’t interested in dressing a woman in her mid-sixties”.
The hierarchy cuts both ways. Actresses want to be seen in labels of commensurate status, or above. Labels tend to feel the same. Double As include Julianne Moore (“despite her age,” as one Hollywood insider put it), Jennifer Lawrence (“she can even make falling over look good,” said the same insider), Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and, suddenly, Alicia Vikander.
Acute status-awareness leads to a degree of unseemly horse-trading behind the scenes, with some stylists stockpiling dresses they have no intention of putting on their clients simply to prevent other stylists having them, or reduced to promising designers they’ll put an A-lister into their dress, provided that designer agrees to dress their other, less exalted clients. It sounds like a bear pit, but then stakes are high.
The right look (hair and make-up are also key) can make casting agents reassess their preconceptions about an actress’s bankability. If she’s just played a dowdy frump or had a run of period parts, the Oscars are her chance to demonstrate that she’s a bankable sex-pot. The perfect dress isn’t one that’s merely flattering. It should position you on the map as a potential fashion muse, which means you can begin collecting fees for wearing certain labels on the red carpet. Not all fashion houses pay actresses by any means, however many jewellery companies do. One Hollywood agent told me that an Oscar nominee can charge up to £200,000 an outing – though it’s more usually jewellery rather than fashion houses which pay.
The Holy Grail of red carpet dressing – apart, possibly from winning an award for your acting – is a contract with one of the big European fashion names. These are even more rare than Oscars however. Cate Blanchett has Armani; Jennifer Lawrence, Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron and Natalie Portman have Dior, Alicia Vikander and Michelle Williams are signed up to Louis Vuitton; Kristen Stewart, Keira Knightley and Julianne Moore have affiliations with Chanel.
Depending on their deals, actresses are obliged to wear these brands at a certain number of key events, appear in advertising campaigns (generally shot by top fashion photographers and therefore considerably more beneficial than the average cheesy, heavily-air-brushed beauty ads they also star in) and make occasional appearances on the front row.
The money is the big draw. “Many Hollywood actresses earn less than the public imagines,” says Anna Bingemann, who has styled Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts and Uma Thurman. “Most films are pretty low budget these days. Many indie films pay actors less than they’re paying their nannies, and there’s no back-end.” A financial association with a prestigious fashion house can be a career life line.
Brands like to lock their mascots in for several years, not least because it allows them to build a creative relationship based on trust. Too many of them have been burned by actresses and stylists demanding five enormously expensive options, only to ditch all of them at the last moment, while somehow failing to return any of them.
The twinkling Armani Privé ballgown Cate Blanchett collected her Oscar in two years ago showed what happens when an actress and a designer hit the sweet spot, creatively. But these exclusive arrangements also means there are fewer dresses to go round those actresses outside the magic circle.
Another chink in the system, says Bingemann, is that there are now so many noteworthy awards. “In the old days, no one in America really watched the Baftas. You had the Globes and the Oscars. Now you have the Sag Awards, the Baftas, the Independent Spirit Awards, the Emmys…no one ever cared about the Emmys. But now that television is sexy, everyone watches those too. You’re talking months of awards.”
Campaign trails can start back in September with the Venice film festival. That’s a huge number of dresses. “The sensible strategy,” says Bingemann, “ would be to hold back the best dresses until the Oscars, but it doesn’t work like that.”
So to my Oscar picks from Couture. Hmm. All I can say is that compromises were made. I’ve omitted sheer, although in real life, designers could probably be coaxed into adding linings and I’ve bypassed anything that won’t play well in Milwaukee. I had a hard time finding much colour – then again, given the controversy surrounding this year’s nominations and the sobering situation in Syria, monochrome might be the order of the evening.
I thought hard about weaning Kate Winslet out of her habitual stiff columns and into something floaty and about trying to make Rachel McAdams look a bit more left of field. But Winslet’s stiff columns work for her and left of field might look all wrong on McAdams.
And what do you do about Charlotte? Once she was a Double A – 69, but a hot fashion property because, hell, she’s Charlotte Rampling and innately stylish. Then came the race row. Now some designers may feel cautious about dressing her… this Oscar dressing business is not as easy as it looks.
Valentino for Rooney Mara
A striking colour and a touch of Gothic drama, this has Rooney Mara’s (Best Supporting Actress nomination) name on it.
Chanel for Charlotte Rampling
Widely expected to wear a Saint Laurent-style Le Smoking, Charlotte Rampling (Best Actress nomination) could still surprise in something softer but still quintessentially French. Plus Karl Lagerfeld won’t give a damn about her controversial remarks on the Oscars race row.
Ralph & Russo for Saoirse Ronan
Best Actress nominee, Saoirse Ronan’s stylist has gradually been coaxing her into more daring choices. Ronan, who says she stipulated no flowers or pastels, has worn both to great effect. This metallic floral lace is youthful but Oscar worthy.
Dior for Jennifer Lawrence
Admittedly the neckline’s quite a statement, but nothing Jennifer Lawrence (Best Actress nomination) can’t handle. She’d look amazing with bright red lips and minimalist make up too. Less for her to trip up in too.
Dice Kayek for Rachel McAdams
This flattering combination of classic and interesting, would considerably up the fashion ante for Rachel McAdams (Best Supporting Actress Nomination) without alienating her fans.
Schiaparelli for Brie Larsson
Your classic girl next door (if you live in Hollywood). Brie Larsson’s (Best Actress nomination) style credentials are untested. Lavender Schiaparelli, with strong hair and make‑up would mark her card as a potential fashion player.
Atelier Versace for Jennifer Jason Leigh
Undoubtedly a great actress, Jennifer Jason Leigh (Best Supporting Actress nominee) is Hollywood’s odd-ball. Versace would be an unexpected curve-ball for her. This Versace also happens to look quite edgy, yet sexy.
Armani Prive For Cate Blanchett
After the taupe ballgown she wore to collect her last Oscar, Cate Blanchett (Best Actress nomination) may want a colourful column. Look no further.