HIGH fashion: Who'll wear what on Oscars night next Sunday is big business – and can be career-shaping for an actress, writes Celia Walden
For many who won what and why at the Oscars next Sunday won't matter, with the only thing that counts being what the stars wear on the red carpet. Within seconds of the red carpet Oscar coverage beginning, the world's media will be reduced to a scrapbook of fashion images and photo galleries, a seething mass of virtual judgments – more often about women than men – ranging all the way from "she killed it" to "what the hell was she thinking?"
No wonder Hollywood is throbbing with nervous energy. The jewels, shoes and clutches may already be laid out in Beverly Hills hotel penthouses, ripe for the picking, but this weekend a procession of slick messenger vans with more security than a presidential motorcade have started delivering The dresses, fresh from their ateliers in Europe, to top stylists across the city.
That's when Cate, Sandra, Judi, Meryl et al will get the call: "It's here. We need you to come in for a fitting."
The stakes are high enough for A-listers and can be life-changing for industry ingenues. "Young girls can get famous today without having huge roles in blockbusters, just by having style," Leslie Fremar – stylist for Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson – told the March issue of US Vanity Fair.
The right dress, jewels, hair and make-up may not only win an actress the endorsement of a major fashion house, she says, but also "bring awareness to decision-makers who maybe didn't think she was beautiful, sexy, or desirable enough to open a movie. This is now an integral part of the Hollywood business." Just how integral is becoming cause for concern. When Jennifer Lawrence showed off her new pixie cut on the red carpet at the premiere of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire last November, CNN issued a breaking-news alert. "That was the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me in my entire f***ing life," she later told talk-show host Jon Stewart. "Terrorists in the Middle East know I got my hair cut."
Terrorists will also know that actresses Hayden Panettiere and Edie Falco bought their Golden Globe dresses "off-the-rack". Tsk, tsk. "It's the first time I've ever worn Tom Ford," Panettiere said, "because I've been begging."
This confounded fashion journalists and the designer himself, who assured anyone who asked that "he only dressed Naomi Watts" that night.
At last year's Academy Awards, against her harem of stylists' advice, Anne Hathaway decided at the last minute to ditch the Valentino dress she was going to wear and sport a pink Prada column gown instead.
And at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last month Cate Blanchett told off one cameraman for scanning her Givenchy gown from bottom to top, snapping: "Do you do this to the guys?"
Meanwhile, Mad Men actress Elizabeth Moss gave the finger to E! Entertainment's "ManiCam" at the Golden Globes last month – letting her middle finger do the talking for all the "show ponies" who had been demeaned into giving the TV station a close-up of their manicures over the years.
These are just a few uprisings in a red carpet game that most still understand the need to play. Because unlike us, these actresses have been privy to the behind-the-scenes power-broking that has gone on for months in the build-up to Oscar night. Blanchett may find her close-ups sexist but lesser, more cynical members of her profession will have the figures they will receive for every camera zoom firmly in mind.
When a star will be paid an estimated $125,000 (€91,000) for wearing earrings, or $75,000 (€55,000) for a necklace, it's no wonder these girls are drenched in diamonds. They're endorsing not just the brand, but the stylist ingenious enough to put the jewels, dress, shoes and clutch together. They're also being endorsed by the brands in what has become the perfect symbiotic relationship.
"The problem," says British designer Caroline Castigliano, who has dressed the likes of Helen Mirren for the red carpet, "is that because designers are paying a lot of money to get their products on a lot of important people and because it's become more about big business than aesthetics, you often end up with the wrong dresses on the wrong people. And these actresses are just insecure enough to think that they've got to play ball.
"So a lot of them look incredibly uncomfortable with what they're wearing on the night. Can you imagine someone like Elizabeth Taylor, back in her heyday, being told what to wear?"
When Jodie Foster and Annette Bening both decided to wear almost identical beaded Armani gowns to the Oscars in 1992, they agreed beforehand in the designer's salon: "I don't care if you don't care." Six years later, Sharon Stone paired a lilac Vera Wang evening skirt with a Gap shirt from her then husband's closet.
So come next Sunday, can we not look forward to a little red carpet dissidence? Jennifer rocking a Topshop cuff, Sandra in the same beaded Marchesa gown she wore to accept her Best Actress award in 2010 and Meryl idling down the would-be runway in a pair of her own pyjamas?
Castigliano thinks this is unlikely. "We are seeing a rising up against being 'show ponied' but do you think anyone is really going to be the one effectively to say 'I'm not doing this any more'? I don't. I suspect the vast majority are happier being sheep."