Byline: Merle Ginsberg

What a difference a dress makes.
A few years ago, Halle Berry was just another gorgeous sexpot — OK, more gorgeous than most — whose caramel cleavage and toned midriff got plenty of exposure on Hollywood’s endless red carpet. Even though the Cleveland native had starred in numerous TV and feature films, with a breakout performance in 1995’s “Losing Isaiah” and a highly praised turn in Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth” (1998), her resume was always obscured by that fabulous face and figure.
It wasn’t until Berry’s star-making role in HBO’s “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” in 1999 that people began to take her more seriously — at least, fashion people. That was the year Berry came into her own by learning an indispensible fashion lesson: that balancing the sexy siren look with ladylike couture gowns is a good way to keep ’em guessing.
Philip Bloch, who has been styling Berry for the red carpet and photo shoots for the past three years, had met her at parties, but really began working with her during “Dorothy Dandridge,” which had a total of five premieres: Cleveland (where Dorothy and Halle were both born), Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles — for which the red-carpet looks varied widely.
“Halle likes to support young designers,” said Bloch, “so we had Bradley Bayou design a corset with a slit skirt for New York. Amsale made a white dress for the L.A. premiere — we went very dowdy for that one, because Dorothy wore a lot of white. For one premiere, she wore a very tiny mesh thing by Versace. Cleveland was more elegant and creamy. “But that’s what’s great about Halle — she can look like a lady or a sex bomb, but she never looks like a hootchie girl. She never goes Toni Braxton or Christina Aguilera — even when she goes rock ‘n’ roll, which she loves to do for the right occasion, like the MTV movie awards. But I do think Dorothy Dandridge was the beginning of her looking like a movie star.”
The Golden Globes in 2000, where Berry won Best Actress in a made-for-TV movie, was the scene of a major transformation. Berry and Bloch together chose a stately Valentino white dress with detailed red rosettes that that stood out in fresh contrast to her short, choppy hair and natural makeup.
“We weren’t going for an image change, per se,” said Bloch. “Or certainly, it wasn’t conscious. What I was thinking of was Natalie Wood. I like references — it’s a good way of communicating fashion through shorthand. I wanted her to be demure, and that dress had such a wholesomeness.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Berry went for Valentino elegance and luxury, as we saw in her coffee-colored silk gown at this year’s Globes or in the black Valentino in which she won her Emmy. But interchanging the lady look — she wore a grand Badgley Mischka to the Oscars in 2001 — with the occasional Versace va-va-voom (a big tulle skirt with a black cropped camisole at the Globes in 1999) or a miniskirt and boots at the “X-Men” premiere — has kept Berry’s fans in a constant state of anticipation. She simply hasn’t succumbed to the juggernaut of “image control.” Instead, she goes with her mood.
“Halle has always surprised me with her sense of style and daring,” said Valentino himself, a great admirer. “She never plays by Hollywood rules and always comes out winning. For me, it is such a joy to see her walk out on a red carpet dressed in a creation of mine.
“In Hollywood, stars have been trying to act ‘elegant’ by using gowns that do not reflect themselves,” he continued. “Sometimes you see hair and clothing that don’t match the actor’s personality. The way I perceive young Hollywood elegance is that you should have more fun dressing.”
Mark Badgley and James Mischka agree that it’s Berry herself who gives more regal-looking clothing a warmer, friendlier feel.
“I love that she’s dabbling in couture now,” said Badgley. “It’s so refined, but it never looks uptight on her. It looks sexy. Halle has the curves and the right attitude to warm up those clothes. Her smile makes the look more approachable, less intimidating. But yes, she’s definitely growing up. When Halle started, her clothes had a more simple, California attitude. Over time, we’ve all watched her become more and more sophisticated. And boy, do our runway samples fit her like a mannequin!”
Berry herself, says Bloch, seems to have an uncanny sense of fit.
“That Valentino white dress with the rosettes looked better on Halle than it did on the runway,” said Bloch. “During the fitting, she kept saying, ‘Tighter! Tighter!’ It had more waist, and she kept taking it in more. Those rosettes could make you look bigger, but on her, with her tiny waist, they made her curvier, and she knew that.”
It’s hard to imagine another actress who’d select looks as diverse as a Roberto Cavalli to one event, a Maggie Norris to another (the recent BAFTA awards), Vivienne Westwood to a third, and then a proper angel-white William Ivey Long creation to the recent Screen Actors Guild Awards (where she won best actress for “Monster’s Ball”). But somehow, by showing enough and holding enough back, Berry has remade herself as a fashion icon who also understands the value of good, old-fashioned showmanship.
“As we were going through all the pressure of the Oscars,” said Bloch, “I looked at Halle and said, ‘Remember, baby — it’s all a show!’ But she always knew that. Halle’s innately chic — she’s no bimbo — but she knows how to entertain with clothes. She keeps stunning people. That’s why when it comes to the Oscars, she’ll stay in the vein she’s always dressed: unpredictable.”

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