Oscars transformed into fashion show

Sunday, March 16, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- For TV viewers, the Academy Awards ceremony has become a fashion show comparable to the best of Paris -- sometimes bizarre, always eye-catching.

It was different in Oscar's youth, though.

Virtually all stars were under contract to major studios, which dictated what the nominees would wear.

Studio costume designer Gilbert Adrian took care of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and other MGM stars; John Kelly worked for Bette Davis and Jane Wyman at Warner Bros.; Irene Sharaff, winner of five costuming Oscars, designed for various studios.

The studios would even supply the stars with the cars they rode up in, and toss in some jewelry and furs in the deal.

Gloria Stuart, the 92-year-old actress who co-starred in "Titanic," remembers the 1932 Oscar celebration. "It was tuxedos for the men and long dresses for the women. Some of us wore opera gloves that reached to our elbow," she said. "The gowns today? It was nothing like that. It was not a fashion contest."

Sometimes stunning

In other words, nothing really outrageous, like Bjork's swan dress in 2001. Not much cleavage either. The film industry's strict self-censorship kept things mostly covered in those days.

In today's movie world, stars are not beholden to studios, and they wear gowns of their own choosing. The result has been creations that are sometimes stunning, sometimes weird, and more often than not, revealing.

"I think you will see more body-conscious clothing coming out. How far can it go? I don't think there's any limitation in fashion," comments Los Angeles designer Richard Tyler, whose Oscar gowns have included Julia Roberts' when she was nominated for 1990's "Pretty Woman."

Bob Mackie, who has provided Oscar wear for Goldie Hawn, Sally Field, Debbie Reynolds, Diahann Carroll, Angie Dickinson and Cher, thinks revealing clothing is only a problem "when you look at it and you say, 'Oh-oh, maybe that should be covered up.' When it looks beautiful, perky and young, then it's fine."

Last year's best actress winner, Halle Berry, comes to mind.

The history of Oscar style can be traced in a new book, "Star Style at the Academy Awards," by Patty Fox. She has been associated with the academy since 1991, when she assisted Mackie in an effort to restore glamour to the awards.

"Fashion was not important in the early days," she says. "Most of the photographs were shot from the waist up.

"Then in the period of the war years, everybody was dressing down. Ingrid Bergman wore the same dress, not a gown, two years in a row (1944-45). The rebellious years of the '60s were a do-your-own-thing time. That rolled over to the '70s, which were relatively lackluster.

"There was Diane Keaton's day-wear look. Cicely Tyson wore what looked like a lace tablecoth. Twiggy had a big, droopy, angel-wings hippie dress. Barbra Streisand had her flapper dress."

Fashion glamour came to the awards in the late 1980s, Fox estimates, when Italy's Giorgio Armani began designing high fashion for nominees. A "designer race" started in the 1990s, when European and New York couturiers recognized the rewards of having a star wear their gowns.

"I think they realized the influence of branding and publicity so it was worth their time and money to be very involved," comments Merle Ginsberg, entertainment editor of Women's Wear Daily and W magazine.

"There is an influence for the fashion business. If Nicole Kidman wore a Chanel dress, do people buy more Chanel perfume? Yes. A lot of the dresses are knocked off by mass companies," continues Ginsberg, a veteran observer of Oscar styles. "Last year Nicole Kidman wore a very, very pink dress. Suddenly that became a huge color in fashion."

Over the years, Cher has been a prime and often outrageous contributor to Oscar styles. In her first appearance she brought Haight-Ashbury to the Oscars in braids, a shapeless floor-length dress and sandals. Her husband at the time, Sonny Bono, wore a damask Cossack suit.

Mackie designed her later gowns, including the famed 1986 "Mohawk meets Dracula" outfit that featured a fluffy black headdress and glittery black squares around her neck and chest. Her belly was bare.

"You'd hardly call it a dress; it's a getup," Mackie confesses with a hearty laugh. "Cher always likes to shock people and get them talking, and also get her picture in the paper the next day, which it always is."

"You can say that Cher's clothes were bad -- but you always wanted to see what they were," says Ginsberg. "Even Cher said, 'The Oscars are boring without me,' and everyone else agrees. I don't know if the (dresses) really were bad, because she wore them with incredible conviction and a great sense of humor."

What are men wearing?

Male fashions have changed during Oscar's 75 years, but not as dramatically as the women's.

Tuxedos have been the norm from the beginning, but vintage photos also reveal a number of white tie and tails (the Astaire influence).

In 1967, Sammy Davis appeared in a Nehru jacket. When Daniel Day-Lewis won as best actor for "My Left Foot" in 1990, his attire was an Edwardian coat with velvet vest and flowing silk scarf tied in a bow. In 1997, Robin Williams collected his supporting Oscar for "Good Will Hunting" wearing a knee-length black jacket with tie-less white shirt; he called it "Armani Amish."

In recent years the traditional black tie has suffered setbacks. "Brad Pitt could wear a turtleneck and he'd look cool," remarks designer Tyler. "Some people might try it and look like a buffoon or a peacock. Other people can dress down and it looks so great."

No matter what they wear, it's a safe bet the stars will again make fashion statements at the March 23 Academy Awards. And Oscar observers will again ponder the usual questions: Who will wear the most stunning creation?

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