DECONSTRUCTING OSCAR FASHION
Byline: Peter Braunstein
NEW YORK — Oscar night has come and gone for another year, but if fashion is the mirror of our times, what do Gwyneth Paltrow’s “raccoon chic” and J.Lo’s spaniel hair actually mean?
That’s the question now plaguing cultural critics, scholars and so-called “personal branding” gurus, some of whom WWD contacted for their insights into the deeper meanings of the red carpet.
Fashion Institute of Technology museum curator Valerie Steele detected a vast bad-hair conspiracy. “It was a very strange night for hair — Gwyneth Paltrow’s was odd, Julia Roberts’ was bad, Cameron Diaz’s was worse, and then there was Jennifer Lopez. It makes you wonder about the hostility being played out by hairdressers on their clients. The problem with Lopez was that her “Stepford Wives” hair, which also resembled the hair of those bored rich women in the [Steven] Meisel Versace ads, did not synchronize with her Charles James-style, old-fashion glam prom dress. It was two different eras on one person.”
Steele also saw in Paltrow’s look a radical translation problem. “There was something a bit hostile about Gwyneth, her look was like a giant ‘F— You’. She was trying a Carine Roitfeld, French Vogue-meets-Hollywood montage, and it just didn’t work out.”
Sam Christensen, a Hollywood personal identity consultant who has advised such stars as Rita Wilson and Jean-Claude Van Damme, took a psychoanalytic take on Oscar fashion. “People who have some confusion about who they are tend to make extreme choices, and vice versa. Take Reese Witherspoon, for instance. Now there’s a woman whose identity is really focused; she knows exactly what she wants to be. She’s going for that whole Miss Madcap, Carole Lombard persona. As opposed to Gwyneth, who has no idea who she is. It’s that whole ‘I’m lost’ thing.”
Christensen tended to read spin control into actresses’ choices of wardrobe. On Nicole Kidman: “Nicole’s look was all about saying: ‘Let’s recapture our virginity. I’m not a divorcee, I’m a virgin!’ Meanwhile, you know she’d eat her own grandmother.” On J.Lo: “J.Lo’s hair and prom dress were all about cleaning up the last three years of her life, of saying goodbye to the ‘guns in clubs’ image. But since we know she’s made up of pure ambition, her look was just confusing.” On Jodie Foster: “Jodie was great. She had the perfect dress, but a look that came with it that said: ‘Don’t expect to see this on a regular basis; consider this a gift.”‘ And Halle Berry: “She made the same statement in fashion as she has in acting, that elegance doesn’t have a color.”
Other commentators were less quick to diss Paltrow’s Oscar fashion statement. British scholar Sarah Gilligan, who has already deconstructed Paltrow in an essay appearing in “Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explanations and Analysis” (Routledge), insisted that Paltrow’s fashion schizophrenia is what makes her an enduring icon.
“Through the very instability of her image as evidenced by her Oscar look, Paltrow shifts from being an unattainable star style icon to an accessible point of identification for young women,” said Gilligan. “Women, as Anna Wintour suggests, can ‘follow Gwyneth’s lead’ because even if they do not have her body or the budget for the designer labels, Gwyneth’s look is one that is achieved through combining elements to construct an individual ‘look’ for that season, rather than a stable, classic ‘style.’ Gwyneth may be winning the polls for the worst-dressed actress, but with such a look, she becomes even more accessible, more able to be copied, because women can feel that they can look as good if not better with the right combination of elements.”
Other people read even deeper into the cosmic significance of Gwyneth’s look — way too deep, really. “I believe the charred forest-fire landscape of her gown represents the internal conflict that consumes our desires for peace and a return to normalcy, with the current troubled state of our world,” argued self-appointed Internet cultural critic Valerie Iral. “She is the vessel that is the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes through her choice of dismal, bleak charcoal shadow and eye liner. And with the raised phoenix comes hope and newness.”