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She wore what? How to read the Oscars fashion script

The red carpet has become synonymous with fashion triumphs … and disasters. Daniel Deme/AAP

“She wore what‽” From the fashion commentary on the red carpet to the supermarket checkout, the 2014 Oscars fashion script will be no different at the 86th Academy Awards this weekend.

But what we can learn from the red carpet parade: how does the interplay work between the major fashion houses, celebrity worship and global media? And has it always been this way?

Cat-fight antics

Cate Blanchett at the 2014 BAFTAS. Facundo Arrizabalaga/AAP

In 2009 I was asked by a major high-circulation newspaper to provide commentary on the good, the bad and the ugly outfits at the Oscars. A ritual of judgement that fuels negative commentary and by virtue sells more media both electronic and print.

In my considered response, I wrote only positive critiques and distinctly remember writing that the favoured trend of the day was wearing a grin and that reflected happiness is the best fashion accessory that can be worn.

My commentary did not run in the press. It was no doubt not worthy of generating newspaper sales because I didn’t abide by the cat-fight antics inherent in this ceremony.

The armchair critique of Oscars fashion is part of broader cultural trend equally fuelled by the plethora of reality TV shows where we all can be expert on food, romance, health and renovations. This has been an entrenched custom in fashion for a number of years where the best and worst dressed lists appear across the globe with glossy magazines, daily newspaper editions and fashion blogs all competing to capture our attention.

Fashion flashback

Gilbert Adrian. Wikimedia Commons , CC BY

If we revisit 1950s Hollywood, the Oscars ceremony was a very different and a decidedly tame affair.

Historically the stars of a film would be most likely dressed by the wardrobe supervisor at the film studio such as the iconic Adrian at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) or the legendary and most popular costume designer in Hollywood during this time Edith Head, who started at Paramount Studios and then moved to Universal.

The alternate option was to purchase a preferred gown from a local dressmaker or store.

It did however start to change as described by New York based fashion commentator and creative director of luxury department store Barney’s, Simon Doonan, who titled his blog page on January 14 this year Frockophany! and stated:

In the late ’80s, […] fashion and celebrity began to flirt with each other. By the ’90s the two copulated … and the red-carpet designer devil-baby was born. The fashionification of Hollywood began in earnest.

What Doonan refers to is the massive marketing cogs that moved into motion, whereby major fashion houses with obscene marketing dollars to invest started offering the Hollywood glitterati dresses gratis.

Doonan writes in this same article:

Why would designers fling free gowns at the only people on Earth who actually need them, and can afford them?

The reason is that every media outlet around the globe has access to information about which Hollywood celebrity wore what. Charlize wore Dior Haute Couture, Angelina wore Elie Saab, Cate wore Armani Privé and Nicole wore L’Wren Scott – depending on which red carpet event you are channelling at the time.

Selling Hollywood allure

Charlize Theron at the 2013 Oscars. AAP

The outfits adorning the stars are often straight from the catwalk and not even released for retail sale at the time of the ceremony. Seeing them worn gives the public the impression that the star validates this look and you too should aspire to have something this desirable, this fabulous.

It is a marketing tool to attract those who can afford them to aspire to look just like Charlize, Angelina, Cate and Nicole.

For most of us these exquisitely produced outfits could only be worn in our dreams but the label name spreads across the globe so as to evoke a desire to align to the glamour, prestige and luxury of our favoured actors. It is a blatant attempt to sell more lipsticks, handbags and perfumes to give the world entrée to Hollywood allure.

In one night the designers’ PR machines go into overload to make their label the most noticed. Reader in Cultural and Historical Studies at London College of Fashion Pamela Church Gibson’s book Fashion and Celebrity Culture interrogates this phenomenon with a high level of disdain:

What we should concern ourselves with is the way in which celebrity culture is increasingly driving the very machine of fashion …

A recent article in the London edition of The Sunday Times by fashion editor Claudia Croft announces that some high profile designers are rejecting the Oscar circus because:

the huge fees that actresses demand to wear a designer’s creation on the Hollywood red carpet were not worth it.

A rather bizarre shift from the days when celebrities bought their own outfits to now seeing themselves as a global brand charging a fee, suggested to be in the vicinity of US$1m dollars, so as to generate momentous publicity.

Snubbing the trend

Helena Bonham Carter at the 2013 Golden Globes. Paul Buck/AAP

It could, of course, backfire. What if not only the mass press but armchair critics across the globe watching the Oscars exclaim: “Oh my goodness, did you see what she was wearing?” Followed by judgemental remarks, such as, “what was she thinking?” or worse: “what a dog”.

There is a perception that as long as the designers name is out there the world is hearing of the brand and when buying their lipstick they will subliminally respond to the likes of luxury brands Dior, Chanel, Prada or Balenciaga.

I don’t abide by this sentiment and it fits within the same misconstrued myth that any publicity is good publicity.

Good publicity equals good publicity and bad publicity is just that! I do however pay tribute to those actors who decide to shun the whole media circus and subsequent fashion roller-coaster.

They include stars such as English actress Helena Bonham Carter, who channels her own Goth style no matter what the fashion trend. Hallelujah to American actress Sharon Stone, who in 1998 created an Oscars milestone moment when she adorned a plain Gap shirt from her husband’s closet with a Vera Wang skirt.

As a result, Gap probably sold more shirts than any other designer that year.

And the blokes?

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the 2014 BAFTAs. Facundo Arrizabalaga/AAP

Most of the discourse and interrogation of Oscars fashion appears to be focused on the female. What about the male actor counterparts?

Although the past decade has seen an evolutionary shift strengthening the men’s fashion stakes, a quick scan of websites shows that most men adorn a traditional tuxedo, with few exceptions.

This is not about to start cash registers ringing in fashionland. Pamela Church Gibson acknowledges that there has been a cultural shift in men’s fashion interest since the 1980s with aligned interest in referencing celebrity style icons.

Although there is strong male interest in celebrity figures … the most widespread imitation of celebrity through body shape, dress and adornment, which for the most is gender specific [is young women] … Internet sites are not dominated by men in search of masculine styles of celebrity dress to copy.

For 2014 the buzz is now well underway, with websites and magazines destined for attracting attention at supermarket checkouts starting the roller-coaster by guessing who will wear what.

Post March 2, around the world a plethora of copies of the dress worn by Charlize, Angelina, Cate and Nicole will fill mass fashion racks on high streets globally, unless of course we exclaim: “What on Earth was she thinking‽”

See further Oscars 2014 coverage on The Conversation.

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