IF LOOKS COULD KILL
IN AN ERA OF CAREFULLY CRAFTED LOOKS, THE BIG OSCAR DISASTER IS MISSED.
Byline: Janet Ozzard
Oh, were they giving out awards?
Armchair fashion analysis at the Academy Awards is a great American tradition, and not a few people say that the outfit critiques are overtaking interest in the winners. A panel of fashion mavens told WWD what their favorite and least favorite Oscar moments were over the years. And several agree that the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (or alternately, Shrine Auditorium) has been looking a bit too tame.
What do our fashion experts want? More glam! More risks! Fewer spaghetti straps!
Style mavens blame the current system for Oscars’ bad case of the blands. Starlets are handed so many outfits that they never develop genuine flair, and serious actresses don’t spend their days having fittings and picking out stilettos. But then comes that deadly red carpet gauntlet they have to run to get to their seats for the ceremony.
“Suddenly, they’re going to be judged, and torn apart,” said Hal Rubenstein, fashion features director at InStyle magazine. “People really are afraid of Joan Rivers. It hurts.”
So what was once a casual relationship between a star and a store or a friend, has now become a full-time pre-Oscar juggernaut of publicists, letters of introduction and relationship brokering. And experts say it’s taken some of the fun out of the evening.
“I don’t think Meryl Streep became an actress so she could decide whether she was going to wear Galliano or Calvin Klein to the Academy Awards,” said Rubinstein. “And these kids — how many of them have had the time to develop a sense of style?”
Here’s some advice from Barneys New York creative director Simon Doonan for shaking off the Oscar blahs: Throw caution to the wind and the stylist out the door, and make your own dress. That just about guarantees memorable Oscar moments.
“Frankly, I’m getting a bit annoyed with the whole thing,” said Doonan. “All these girls have become logo puppets. It doesn’t matter how they look, as long as the dress is Gucci or Prada. It makes me realize what a key element spontaneity is for glamour.”
“Women shouldn’t be so label-conscious,” said Jimmy Hanrahan, a stylist who is dressing Tyra Banks for the Oscars and who has worked with dozens of models and celebrities. “The thinking is that it will save them, but in reality, it crucifies them.”
“I wish there were more disasters,” said Doonan.
Disasters do have a special place in observers’ hearts, whether because of their emotional content or just their sheer — often literally — Las Vegas showgirl joie de vivre. Cher in see-through Bob Mackie, Barbra Streisand in see-through Scaasi, Raquel Welch in a revealing sequin jumpsuit, Courtney Love at the Golden Globes (a bit off the turf, but it counts) in a Christian Dior that she personalized with additional strategic rips.
That’s another favorite theme for fashion mavens: personal touches.
“My favorite Oscar moment was when Kim Basinger made her own dress,” said Doonan. “It had one sleeve, it was asymmetrical. There was something so refreshingly naive about it. I think more stars should make their own outfits.”
When asked to nail down their favorite Oscar ensemble, style mavens often referred to the Seventies as the best and the worst of times. Halston was part of the best of times for Rubinstein and Michael Kors.
“Elizabeth Taylor is really the last great star,” said Rubinstein. “I remember one year, it was right after her Studio 54 period when she was always puffy and bloated. But then she showed up at the Oscars in a red strapless Halston, tan and slim with no jewelry. There was no greater phoenix rising from the ashes. It was glamorous and mature, like every Oscars should be, but never is.”
Kors chose a blue Halston that Marisa Berenson wore, also from the Seventies. “Elegant, timeless, sexy,” he said. “What could be better?”
Hanrahan loved Sophia Loren last year, when she accepted a lifetime achievement award.
“Even with the brown lipliner and the hot roller hair, it was so wrong, but on her it was so right,” he said.
Although he designed one of Oscar night’s most infamous outfits, Bob “Glitz” Mackie’s favorite was a subdued pale blue satin gown worn by Grace Kelly.
“Everyone has been trying to emulate that Helen Rose pale blue satin dress ever since, and they never have,” he said.
And Carolina Herrera loves Kristin Scott Thomas, especially the year she wore the plunge-neck Christian Lacroix.
“Everybody was wearing slinky sequined dresses and they all looked exactly the same,” said Herrera. “Then boom, she comes out. It was fantastic.”
As for the worst, well, as Rubinstein said: “There are so many!” But when forced to narrow it down, Rubinstein chose an outfit worn by Aretha Franklin in 1973 when she sang an Oscar-nominated song, “All That Love Went to Waste.”
“She had a headpiece on, God bless her, that looked like a pair of antlers,” said Rubinstein. “In general, headpieces are a disaster.”
Mackie’s least favorite was Welch’s sliding jumpsuit.
“It got lower and lower throughout the evening, and that was kind of scary,” he said. Kors voted for “Sally Kirkland, any year and every year. Why spice the already spicy?”
Hanrahan chose Geena Davis’s famous short-in-front, long-in-back ruffled white strapless outfit.
But the final word comes from James Galanos, the Los Angeles designer who has certainly put his own stamp on elegance. Galanos, who retired two years ago, said he turns the Academy Awards on for about 15 minutes every year, but he can’t stand to watch the arrivals.
“They don’t know how to walk and they all wear the same thing: see-through strapless slip dresses,” he said. “The stars in the Fifties and Sixties chose their own dresses and they looked great or they didn’t, but at least they had originality.”