Which Oscar dresses were best?

The language of style.
Feb. 26 2007 5:56 AM

Fashion Report Card

Which Oscar dresses were best?

Cate Blanchett. Click image to expand.
Cate Blanchett

Julia: Hello, Amanda. Thanks for letting me enlist you— Slate fashion writer and astute sartorial critic—to dissect the night's frocks. (And tuxes.) Award-fashion criticism is ubiquitous these days, but (as I noted in this piece) something seems to be amiss on the red carpet. Us Weekly's snippily dim Fashion Police, the certifiable Joan Rivers, the delightful Go Fug Yourself girls—all profess to be on the hunt for great style. But as celebrity dresses attract more scrutiny, stars' fashion choices seem increasingly blah.

Amanda: Hi, Julia. There is a sameness to Oscar dresses. It's the stylist problem—most of the actresses hire them. No one wants to end up on the worst-dressed list. Commentators (particularly the television sort) do not suffer risk-taking gladly.

Julia: Perhaps we should judge celebrity fashion the way they judge diving or gymnastics: with one score for execution, and another for degree of difficulty. Tonight Kate Winslet, for example, would have done well on the former scale, but not the latter.

Kate Winslet. Click image to expand.
Kate Winslet
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Amanda: She looked beautiful, but after the Golden Globes I felt weary of all the Grecian-goddess dresses—the sashes, the draping, the bias cuts. I usually love the simplicity and elegance of dresses like these, but there was such a proliferation of them. Tom Ford supposedly once said that the goddess look for women is like the blue blazer for men. After this awards season, I agree with him.

Julia: What saves it is the color—that green is very unusual.

Amanda: Sea-foam? Mint-chocolate chip? In any case, daring.

Nicole Kidman. Click image to expand.
Nicole Kidman

Julia: Did you see Nicole Kidman's monstrosity?

Amanda: The bow! I didn't like it. And it's even worse that the dress was in red—she looked like a Christmas present. I also wasn't a fan of Anne Hathaway's bow; it was matronly.

Julia: What did you think of Penélope Cruz's dress?

Amanda: I like that she wore something that had some volume at the bottom. I liked the blush color on her olive skin. I like that she kept the jewelry simple. And I'm glad it wasn't Grecian.

Penelope Cruz. Click image to expand.
Penélope Cruz

Julia: But the texture of Cruz's skirt looked like Snuffleupagus' coat! Of course, perhaps it's hypocritical to complain about the sameness of Oscar dresses and then step on unexpected twists like Cruz's skirt or Nicole Kidman's bow.

Amanda: But I think it's possible to look different without choosing a bow that looks like it has its own heartbeat. Take Helen Mirren. What a gorgeous dress. She knows how to dress for her body. The ruched, nipped-in waist, the décolleté chest—she looked ravishing.

Julia: I loved the shape. Didn't love the color.

Amanda: I do like nude tones. For dresses, that is, not red-carpet makeup. Nude is certainly the color of the moment, no?

Helen Mirren. Click to expand.
Helen Mirren

Julia: I think flesh-toned dresses have been around for a few years now. It's an interesting choice because they don't seem designed for the camera.

Amanda: They have been around: Naomi Watts wore one last year. Gwyneth Paltrow wore a pale Stella McCartney gown to the Golden Globes. And these dresses are not telegenic at all—they wash people out. But I think I'd like them in person. I suppose I'm making that allowance in my mind. What did you think of Maggie Gyllenhaal? I love blue and black together; it's an unexpected combo, and it almost always works.

Julia: What did she have in her hair? The Fug girls are always ragging on her for not having "done" hair, but I like that she usually looks as though she's done it herself. Was she wearing feathers, though?

Amanda: I couldn't tell. I don't mind undone hair at all. But there's a line. And I draw it at Cameron Diaz.

Maggie Gyllenhaal. Click image to expand.
Maggie Gyllenhaal

Julia: I love blue and black—that's what Portia de Rossi was wearing too, and Reese Witherspoon's purple-and-black gown had a similar feel. Like several women tonight—Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett—Ms. Gyllenhaal was wearing a one-shouldered number.

Amanda: I think she wore it well. The bust fit, the sash wasn't gaping or bagging. Do you think asymmetrical dresses like these play well on television?

Julia: I have a theory about the asymmetrical dress: It's a way of playing it safe that doesn't seem too safe. It's shorthand for "interesting," "high-fashion," "offbeat." When in fact it's just as conservative as a strapless sheath.

Amanda: It's the fashion equivalent of bungee jumping, as opposed to sky diving? I think there's truth to your theory. Now, Cate Blanchett's asymmetry was an asymmetry that worked.

Julia: She looked smashing. That dress looked painted-on and yet still classy. She would look classy in a Hooters waitress uniform.

Jessica Biel. Click image to expand.
Jessica Biel

Amanda: Stunning. I loved all the visual interest—the beading—at the bottom. She could make those orange shorts look regal. What about Jessica Biel? The commentators seemed to think her great butt gives her sartorial carte blanche. But I didn't like the color of her dress. Nor the belt. What did you think?

Julia: I liked it. That color looks great on camera. It fit well, and I also liked how it played against type. Biel has the air of a floozy, and so it was appealing to see her channel Audrey Hepburn with that silhouette. What did you think of Rachel Weisz?

Amanda: Another bow! This time bejeweled. Was there a bow that worked?

Julia: I didn't see one.

Rachel Weisz. Click image to expand.
Rachel Weisz

Amanda: I think the jewelry was the biggest mistake there. What was that on her neck? A pineapple? A scorpion? A good rule of thumb: If your dress is bejeweled you shouldn't add more jewelry. She should have followed the Diana Vreeland theory of dressing and removed one thing before she left the house.

Julia: It must be so tempting to wear it all.

Amanda: I know! If someone offered me a 10-carat necklace I might just have to wear it, jeweled dress be damned. Let's talk about the men for a minute. When did we start seeing long-tied "tuxes"?

Julia: My mom just called and declared the bow-tie dead. She misses it.

Amanda: The bow-tie is already worn so infrequently. Why do away with it? The long black ties remind me of the ties junior high boys wore in the '80s, along with Girbaud pants and a big splash of Drakkar Noir.

Julia: I suppose men feel stuffy in bow ties. I'm not a fan of the shiny long black ties, but Gael Garcia Bernal had a very trim suit and skinny tie that looked mod and stylish.

Amanda: Still, why not be stuffy one night a year?

Cameron Diaz. Click image to expand.
Cameron Diaz

Julia: What did you think of Cameron Diaz's dress?

Amanda: Much better than the Valentino she wore to the Golden Globes—I thought she looked scary, like Miss Havisham. I liked the way this one was cut at the collar. But I do think the bottom needed a straighter hem.

Julia: Yes, exactly. The hem was very coquetteish and swannish and glam, and the neck was more severe.

Amanda: The neck was more edgy and '80s. It was like she sewed together the top and bottom halves of two different dresses.

Julia: Still, there was an experimental quality about it that I admire.

Amanda: Yes, the best-dressed to me generally means the wearer has taken some risk.

Julia: When I wrote that piece on how Oscar fashion got so boring, I discovered that there really was no red-carpet culture until the early '90s, when designers began vying for stars' attention. Then the critics and stylists piled on, and now there is hell to pay for a single misstep, so people don't take as many risks.

Amanda: You're right about the evolution of red-carpet culture. In the '60s, Julie Christie wore a gold-lame pantsuit. Can you remember anyone in the last 10 years wearing pants?

Julia: It is amazing how the Oscars have changed. It used to be that people would practice what they'd say; now they imagine what they'd wear.

Amanda: It's true that the dress has trumped the speech as the pièce de résistance of the evening. But don't you think—and I know it's hard to remember, because we were just kids—the speeches, too, used to seem less practiced? Both the clothes and the speeches seem much more conservative and formal. One might say that the artifice of the event has become more important. I read, for instance, that when Julie Andrews accepted the best director award for Robert Wise, Shirley MacLaine said to her, as she arrived at the podium, "Great dress—I love your dress!" No one would ever say that now. Even though we all know that's what's it all about.

Julia: I wish they would!

Amanda: What did you make of the award for best costume design?

Julia: Yet another period piece: Marie Antoinette. What a surprise. Were you rooting for The Devil Wears Prada? You defended its costumes in a piece for Slate.

Amanda: Not especially. I didn't much like the costumes, to tell you the truth. But, as I wrote, I thought that Patricia Field, the costume designer, got them right. She had to telegraph the fashion world to a nonfashion audience, and a lot of subtly and ingeniously cut Marni and Chloe wouldn't have conveyed that.

Naomi Watts. Click image to expand.
Naomi Watts

Julia: I was rooting for The Queen. I loved the way that movie used clothes: to make the sexy Helen Mirren look dowdy and prim; to convey the frugality and thrift the queen brought to the monarchy after the war (that ratty old bathrobe!); to contrast her with the sassy and modern Cherie Blair. But back to the clothes: Did you like Naomi Watts' dress?

Amanda: I don't think it worked to have that empire waist on the same level as the off-the-shoulder sleeves. You can't have too much going on in any one area of a dress—it's too much for the eyes and mind to take in. It's like having a centerpiece and flowers and placemats and napkin holders on a table.

Julia: Yes, the belt and sleeves seemed to be at war.

Gwyneth Paltrow. Click image to expand.
Gwyneth Paltrow

Amanda: OK, we have to talk Gwyneth. Her dress was very Art Deco, as were her earrings. She was the human Chrysler building on the one hand. And on the other she looked like she should be floating in on a seashell. But I liked that it was different. She is another actress who takes risks with her clothing. Remember the Goth outfit everyone pilloried? I actually liked that dress.

Julia: Yes! I loved the Goth dress. Well, I didn't think it worked entirely, but I loved that she was experimenting. I think that she, Cameron Diaz, and Cate Blanchett consistently look the least styled. I liked that this dress used traditional materials and methods (chiffon, accordion pleats) to produce an effect that wasn't totally retro.

Amanda: They're the Least-Styled Triumvirate: three women who consistently appear to be making their own choices about what they wear. They don't always succeed but they are always interesting. As was Catherine Deneuve. What did she have on her dress? Was that an aesthetic statement or a political one?

Catherine Deneuve. Click image to expand.
Catherine Deneuve

Julia: I assume aesthetic. That appliqué looked very flea-market and unusual—and not just asymmetrical-shoulder unusual. There was an insouciance to her look—high neckline, muted material, an item of visual interest that's meant not for the cameras, but to be seen up close—that felt very French. Or perhaps just very Catherine Deneuve. What does she have to prove to any of us about beauty or style?

Amanda: Rien! As the French would say. I think of those style manuals that suggest using some consistent element—a brooch, a scarf, a color—to develop a "signature" look. In fact, I think there is one called How To Dress Like a Frenchwoman that makes this very suggestion. Deneuve probably thinks all these Americans look way too disco. What did you think of J. Lo?

Julia: Think those were real?

Amanda: The jewels or the boobs? Her dress took the Grecian goddess look to its extreme.

Julia: It was so showy and over-the-top that I thought it worked. It's an example of a dress that was designed for TV, and for cameras.

Jennifer Lopez. Click image to expand.
Jennifer Lopez

Amanda: It was very her. But it fell just short of costume-y. She's walking a thin line. It's like showy writing that is just shy of being purple. You're right that it's camera-ready. More stars need to be aware of that. Isn't it surprising that they aren't? Wouldn't you think that would be the first rule of Oscar dressing?

Julia: In that sense it is much more like costume design than clothing design.

Amanda: Excellent point! Perhaps the stars should think of the event as theatrical and hire costume designers instead of stylists. Cate Blanchett understands the Costume Design Theory of Oscar dressing.

Julia: Gwyneth and Cameron, not so much. They're not as unerring as Blanchett, who I thought had the best look of the night.

Amanda: My favorite dress of the evening was Helen Mirren's. With Cate Blanchett as a close second. But Blanchett and Paltrow and Diaz do understand that we want them to look interesting. They follow designers and trends. They want to express their sensibilities—not a stylist's—through fashion.

Julia: Here's to that.

Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

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