What a difference a dress makes

ROBIN GIVHAN
Last updated 05:00 01/03/2014

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Rare is the actress who'd dare venture down a red carpet without having consulted a professional stylist. The stakes are high for personal branding, the history books and ego. And the Academy Awards roll out the most visible, obsessively scrutinised and lavishly photographed red carpet of them all.

So Amy Adams, Lupita Nyong'o, Cate Blanchett et al., what will it be on March 2? Chanel haute couture, vintage Valentino or a lightning strike by some barely known or nearly forgotten couturier? Perhaps the lady nominees will soothe us with animated Hollywood fantasies, evoke the complexity of modern-day gender, toy with racial stereotypes or reflect our cultural ennui. Will they look pretty? That's beside the point.

"If you just want someone to look fabulous, put them in a black, fitted dress," said stylist Kate Young. "A good dress helps you remember the era."

"If you wear something that's just pretty, no one ever remembers," Young continued. "The pretty dress is the most forgettable."

Young has a roster of famous clients - Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams, Hilary Swank - who rely on her to help them make memorable impressions on the red carpet. In 2012, Young dressed Portman for the Oscars. The actress had recently given birth to her son and was coming off an award-winning year for her role in the dark drama Black Swan. Young also styled Williams, who was nominated for her work in My Week With Marilyn.

Portman wore a striking, red-polka dot, strapless vintage Christian Dior gown. It had the look of sweet, calming glamour. It realigned Portman's image in the public eye, resettling her in the territory of ingenue. But the dress choice was also a soothing social balm a year after an ugly brouhaha at Dior had spilled into the mass consciousness. Designer John Galliano had been fired from the French house for making anti-Semitic remarks. Portman - who had appeared in Dior ads - denounced the designer, and onlookers wondered what would become of the historic brand.

Williams walked the red carpet in a bright orange Louis Vuitton dress that Young accessorised with a hot-pink Bottega Veneta clutch. The chirpy colour combination startled the eyes, but it was also charmingly optimistic. It perfectly reflected the "snuggly nostalgia" of that year's nominees, among them The Help and The Artist.

The right dress, Young said, can capture the mood of the times, the id of the culture, the precise moment. That's a lot of pressure on a few yards of silk or organza.

Or - in the case of a particular gown from the 2005 Oscar red carpet - acres of flowing jersey.

That was the year Swank stepped in front of more than 40 million amateur fashion critics wearing an elegantly draped, navy-blue floor-length dress with a sweeping train from the dusty French design house Guy Laroche. From the front, the dress was not just demure, it was practically ascetic. It had long sleeves and a neckline that was so reserved it covered the actress's collarbone. But from the back, the dress was entirely open. It plunged to reveal Swank's stunningly sculpted back all the way down to the rise of her derriere.

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Swank won the best actress Oscar that year for her role as a tenacious female boxer in Million Dollar Baby. Styled by Young, the dress perfectly captured Swank's transformation from award-winning indie star into mainstream, glamorous actress. The dress was serious and grown-up. It also reflected a culture that had a widening streak of pessimism, fear, divisiveness and gravity. It was a celebratory dress without being frothy, seductive without resorting to cheap charm.

The dress so captured the public imagination that it has its own Wikipedia page: "Navy blue Guy Laroche dress of Hilary Swank."

Few dresses rise to that level of pop cultural acclaim. But that is the goal. In Hal Rubenstein's book 100 Unforgettable Dresses, the editor-at-large for InStyle magazine pinpoints dresses that have settled into our collective memory. From the Oscars, he includes the Jean Desses yellow column that Renee Zellweger wore in 2001, which helped introduce the concept of vintage fashion to the red carpet. (Now, even first lady Michelle Obama has worn vintage Norman Norell to a public event.) And in 1997, Nicole Kidman wore a Christian Dior slink in chartreuse satin with embroidered chinoiserie to the Oscars. It was a distinctive hue that stood out in a rainbow of primary colours and pastels. And it was haute couture, not ready-to-wear. The dress ratcheted up the arms race for fashion supremacy on the red carpet.

In considering the dress and the cultural clout it can carry, an actress must wrestle with her taste; she has to negotiate the line separating the character she has portrayed on screen from her own personality. How far apart does she want to push them? Does it benefit her career to have the two merge?

"Think about Carrie Bradshaw and Sarah Jessica Parker. They have different styles, but there's a through line," said stylist Robert Verdi. "Amy Adams has been channelling her character [from 'American Hustle']."

"But I also think she looks best in those things," Verdi added. "She's got that 1970s, Studio 54 body. She's got that bone structure."

Adams wore a red-and-burgundy Valentino halter gown with a plunging neckline to the recent Golden Globe awards. She paired it with perfect posture. She chose another gravity-defying neckline at the SAG awards, an electric-blue Antonio Berardi gown.

Will the Oscars bring more of the same? "I wouldn't say she shouldn't wear that look," Verdi said. "But fashion is often the first voice for these girls." Should Adams keep emphasising her new, sexy image? When is it time for her to diversify her message?

Over the years, Verdi has advised Eva Longoria, Mariska Hargitay and Kristen Wiig. They've all felt the tension between the personal and public versions of themselves. "Eva is a great example," Verdi said. "I didn't want her to be like her character [in 'Desperate Housewives'], because it was too one-dimensional. It was the sexy girl. But Eva is brilliant. She's politically savvy."

"If you've been on the cover of Maxim as the sexiest woman alive," Verdi said, "you try to say something else on the red carpet."

Actors also look to the red carpet as an opportunity to speak to the cultural moment. Indeed, Bradley Cooper has eschewed Giorgio Armani's once-dominant aesthetic of swaggering masculinity and taken up Tom Ford's hyper-tailored - frankly, tight - tuxedos that express narcissistic masculinity. (A good thing there are now Spanx for men.)

Embodying the zeitgeist involves more than selecting a knockout dress or a nice tuxedo. "I always think you have to push one step beyond the comfort zone," Young said. And that means giving both the actress and the audience a bit of a nudge.

- The Washington Post

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