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The complaint that the red carpet is too safe, too boring, held hostage by the dated trappings of old Hollywood is as commonplace at Oscar time as Meryl Streep.

Taste may be subjective, but the staid glamour of awards-show style, the Oscars in particular, is widely accepted as fact within the fashion industry, acknowledged implicitly or explicitly even by working members of the red carpet’s complicated economy.

“I think that old Hollywood is the very archetype of glamour, which is very difficult to replace,” says Giorgio Armani, a designer who practically invented the concept of celebrity dressing. “To repeat that cliché is like reproducing an image that everyone can understand and still manages to make people dream. Personally, I try to change and innovate, because I think it is the right thing to do, but I always keep in mind that this is what people like.”

Put more bluntly, “It’s lacking in originality, innovation, fashion-forwardness—all of those words have been lacking for over a decade. You always come away disappointed, except for one or two people,” bemoans André Leon Talley, who’s critiqued the red carpet extensively for Vogue and been on the receiving end of its vitriol, condemned in the press for styling Jennifer Hudson in a metallic python bolero over her brown jersey Oscar de la Renta dress in 2007. “I still stand by the look,” he says.

You know things have stalled when, nearly 30 years later, Cher’s 1986 Bob Mackie midriff and headdress getup still ranks atop the list of fondest Oscar fashion moments.

Granted, Cher is the rare bird willing to show up, abs bare, head festooned with feathers (and do it while knocking on 40). To expect the average nominee to rise to her level of fashion audacity would be unreasonable. In fact, nowadays within the red-carpet gauntlet driven by fashion-related questions—who are you wearing? And the suddenly polemic, who did your manicure?—proposing an ensemble more challenging than an hourglass or column gown topped with big jewels and bigger hair is increasingly too much to ask.

The ruling logic is that actresses fear the fangs of the ever-growing critical public and official critics. With the advent of social media, literally millions fancy themselves members of the fashion police, whether they’re on the company dime or their couch. The more vicious and cutting the quips, the more traction.

“It’s a tough world because of the intense interest in it,” says Elizabeth Stewart, a Hollywood stylist whose clients include Cate Blanchett and Jessica Chastain, both of whom are presenting at this year’s ceremony. “So many Web sites and forums cover it, you’re basically appealing to the lowest common denominator.

What’s the quote? ‘You can only please some of the people all the time.’” Stewart notes that any time she puts a client in a column gown, it is always incredibly popular.

Where there is such a confluence of fame and money, there is also politics. “You’re talking about an Oscar nominee,” says Joe Zee, editor in chief of Yahoo Style, who covers the red carpet for ABC. “An Oscar nominee is calling favors. They have agents and publicists and managers around them who need the public to love them because they’re the ones who are going to fill the seats in the theaters. If everybody loves you, you get more roles,” Then a slight backpedal. “I don’t want to make it quite as deep as that. At the end of the day, it’s just a dress,” he says.

But isn’t that a quaint notion in this day and age, when whole careers ride on cultivating an image that sets one apart? Looking beautiful is the bottom-line goal, but looking beautiful and unique is powerful. If fashion enthusiasts long for actresses to make more exciting choices from a purely aesthetic point of view, then the actresses themselves should want to step it up for other reasons. Since when does it pay to be part of the pack?

To be an Oscar-caliber actress is to court criticism. Most want to take risks professionally with the roles that they choose; why does that desire end with their public wardrobes? No one is being asked to show up strangled by a swan (although with 14 years hindsight, Björk’s red carpet fowl now stands as a warm, fuzzy memory for some), but to move the needle and do it right can mean reaping big rewards. There are the luxury deals, gaining a higher editorial and endorsement punching weight. But fashion credibility can fuel the artistic persona of an actress. Look at Tilda Swinton, who favors Grecian Lanvin, and the cerebral, sculptural lines of Haider Ackermann. One imagines she wouldn’t be caught dead in a sweetheart neckline.

Deciding what to wear ultimately comes down to the actress, says Stewart, says Zee, says Narciso Rodriguez, a modernist with a religious following of red-carpet clients that includes Julianna Margulies, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Rachel Weisz. He dressed Lorde for the Golden Globes this year in a crop top and suit.

“For me it’s about creating a frame for their personality, for them to shine. That’s really my role,” Rodriguez says. “It’s uncomfortable to see people in awkward dresses that have come off runways. I don’t understand the thinking behind it.” That said, “dressing like Lorde, who has a different take on going to an awards ceremony and taking a risk and looking different, it’s much more exciting than some of the things you see.”

After decades of designing some of the most exquisite, fantastical dresses that some said wore the actress, and not the other way around (Uma Thurman, 2005, railed as “Swiss Miss”), Christian Lacroix is feeling for a more minimal ethos. “The simpler the better, since the most important thing for an actress is the charisma on her face, the spirit, the expression of a smile, the obviousness of talent,” says Lacroix. “These qualities only need a second skin, grand, not red, not gold—in case you get it, the statue has to be visible!”

Talley puts more responsibility on designers, whom he thinks should push their clients in more adventurous directions.

“People need to work with designers and create something that is totally compelling, riveting, a bit of shock value and entertainment value because it’s TV,” he says. “We’re looking at that show to see who’s wearing what.”

But thinking outside the box (or the hourglass or column) is harder than it seems. Put on the spot for what they would love to see women wear to the Oscars, with no particular actress in mind, just something new and fresh, Talley and Zee both came up with another classic belonging to the other sex: suits.

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