Throughout Oscar history, clothes and politics have clashed at the podium.

This story first appeared in the March 25, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Clothes generally reflect the times we live in, but at Sunday evening’s Oscars, it was hard to say exactly what sartorial message should be sent, given that war had so recently broken out between the U.S. and Iraq.

“They left it up to each of the guests’ discretion to dress appropriately, which is a change from wartime years in the past,” said Patty Fox, fashion coordinator for the Academy Awards and author of “Star Style at the Academy Awards.” In the end, the glamour factor was turned down a notch Sunday, as many actresses felt the more wasteful gesture would be to scrap their already-commissioned dresses.

In the past, though, the Academy was more explicit about what — and what not — to wear. During World War II, it banned formal wear and dancing, labeling the event a dinner — not a banquet. At the 1941 awards, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt addressed the crowd by telephone, and the women were asked to make donations to the Red Cross in lieu of wearing corsages. Actor Van Heflin even accepted his award at the 1942 awards in full military uniform.

But by 1943, the imposed somber mood was considered stifling. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper waged her own campaign against the glamour ban, leading “a guerrilla war of my own to doll up the Academy Awards, when the studio chieftains still wanted the presentation to look no dressier than a missionary’s sewing bee.”

She telephoned stars directly, urging them to buck the trend. In 1943, Ginger Rogers took the lead, wearing a sparkling gown with flowers in her hair. But others continued to take the edict of informality to heart, most notably Ingrid Bergman, who wore the same dress to both the 1944 and 1945 ceremonies.

There were no such rules during either the Korean or Vietnam wars, however. During Vietnam, several attendees opted for hippie attire, though that perhaps had as much to do with the fashions of the times as any political statement. Sonny and Cher arrived in sandals and casual wear and Ali MacGraw took the stage in a fringed vest. Then there was Vanessa Redgrave’s solemn medieval-inspired robe in 1978, worn during an acceptance speech in which she raised the topic of the Palestinians’ plight.

Last year’s Oscars, even though they took place only six months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, were as glamorous and glitzy as ever, with stars not hesitating to parade their colorful couture and diamonds. The only somberness came in the ceremony itself, which included a filmed tribute to New York. And in 1991 during the Persian Gulf conflict, the only sign of wartime was the metal detectors at the Shrine Auditorium.

Ultimately, every awards show is characterized by its own particular moment in time. Certainly the main legacy of the 75th Academy Awards had little to do with frivolous fashion moments. As Fox observed, “it will be remembered as one of unrest and uncertainty.”

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