Which Oscar dresses were best?

The language of style.
Feb. 25 2008 4:50 AM

Oscar Fashion Report Card

Why so many black dresses? And which ones were best?

Jennifer Garner. Click image to expand.
Jennifer Garner

Julia Turner: Amanda, thanks for joining me once again to discuss this year's Oscar frocks. I was going to start by asking you who had the best dress, but we can narrow it down a bit tonight: Who had the best black dress, and who had the best red one?

Amanda Fortini: I think I counted nine black dresses.

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Julia: At least! Ellen Page, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Garner, Laura Linney, Hilary Swank, Penélope Cruz …

Amanda: Tilda Swinton.

Julia: Yes! Even Little Miss Once. And in red we had Anne Hathaway, Katherine Heigl, Helen Mirren, Miley Cyrus …

Amanda: … Ruby Dee, Heidi Klum, Julie Christie. There was quite a divide. One group seemed to be paying homage to this somber moment we're in, and one group seemed to be attempting a celebratory mood.

Julia: Do you think the preponderance of black had anything to do with the writers' strike?

Amanda: I think so. There has been so much fallout, not just for the writers but for everyone in the industry, and so I guess it seemed a moment for respect. There was an almost funereal aspect to much of the garb—well, strapless looks excepted.

Julia: Right. They all seemed to be in mourning, except that in Hollywood, mourning includes sequins and marabou.

Heidi Klum. Click image to expand.
Heidi Klum

Amanda:  And then there was the opposite approach: Let's celebrate the end of the strike! In bright red! The color seemed a very deliberate effort to brighten things up.

Julia: Or maybe it was Reds red: Cheers to those commies in the unions!

Amanda: Don't you wonder, though, how it comes to be that practically everyone wears red? Who says, This year, girls, it's red! Why not bright green or royal blue?

Julia: I know! Poor Amy Adams didn't get the memo.

Amanda: And yet I liked her dress. It was Cameron Diaz who looked like she was of another moment. Blush felt out of place—like it belonged to a more carefree, innocent time.

Julia: I also thought Keri Russell seemed to have been beamed in from an earlier year. She looked very washed out.

Amanda: Russell also had that problem you get when you put a small-busted woman in a dress with a stiff bodice—it gapes. I'm always baffled when the dresses don't fit. Fit should be the top priority.

Diablo Cody. Click image to expand.
Diablo Cody

Julia:  You're right. The key to looking good is feeling comfortable in a dress that fits perfectly. For example, I really wanted to like Diablo Cody's outfit. She was going for a punk-rock Oscar look, which is difficult to pull off, and I admire her unorthodox approach. But she was clearly uncomfortable in that dress; she held her hand protectively over that high slit as she came off the stage.

Amanda: We both value difficulty and originality in Oscar dressing, don't we? I liked Cody's look—she was rocking the Mrs. Roper muumuu, the skull-and-bones earrings, the exposed tattoo, the black nails, the armload of bracelets. I thought she seemed like she'd had a lot of fun concocting her outfit and was probably having a lot of fun in it. But you're right, it ruined the effect when she had to hold the slit together. I suppose I need to differentiate between admiration for her audacity and admiration for her outfit. The truth is, I really come down more for the former.

Julia: Another look with a high degree of difficulty: Tilda Swinton's.

Tilda Swinton. Click image to expand.
Tilda Swinton 

Amanda: She could have done well with a little lipstick; she looked almost cadaverous. Her look was very austere, very avant-garde—she was probably wearing a Japanese designer. I thought the asymmetry of it—all that draping on one side only—didn't quite work. But it's hard for me to be objective with Swinton; I think she has a kind of amazing reptilian beauty.

Julia: I wish I had a better sense of how the draping on the besleeved side worked. But I didn't think it looked good on camera. The material was too shiny and so every wrinkle in it showed on TV. And the dress didn't suit her slouchy posture. There is something beautifully reptilian and otherworldly about her, but this dress didn't show that off; it just made her look like a gawky teen in hand-me-downs from an aunt who favors the Golden Girls.

Amanda: There was something very Bea Arthur about it!

Julia: The best caftan for public consumption I've seen lately was—no surprise—worn by the inimitable Cate Blanchett to a premiere last year:  a turquoise and black one-shoulder number. Proof that avant-garde can look better than it looked on Tilda tonight.

Amanda: Did you notice that the two pregnant women, Jessica Alba and Cate Blanchett, both wore purple dresses? And purple is a color so rarely worn to the Oscars.

Julia: There were the two purple pregnant ladies and then Nicole Kidman's black satin look. I am not usually a big fan of Kidman's, but I think she wins two prizes tonight: Best Black Dress and Best Maternity Look (although Miss Alba put in a good bid for the latter title).

Amanda: What did you like about Nicole's dress?

Nicole Kidman. Click image to expand.
Nicole Kidman

Julia:  I think a black dress works best on TV when its dominant feature is its cut, not its frippery.

Amanda: Right, because you can't see the frippery on-screen. I liked Laura Linney's black dress for that reason; it had a simple, severe cut.

Julia: On Kidman's dress, the crisscross satin neckline, Empire sash, and perfect fit across her slightly pregnant belly were subtle but beautifully done. What I really liked about that look, though, was the diamonds. In fact, Nicole Kidman caused me to have a revelation about Oscar jewels tonight.

Amanda: Oh?

Julia: So often, the rented gems look like breastplates; stiff, segmented armaments sitting aggressively on the clavicle. But Nicole was dripping with diamonds, as the song goes. There were gads of them, but she looked totally comfortable in them, and I liked how they moved on her.

Amanda: Nicole's jewels were something to behold. I did like that they moved, but I wished she'd arranged them before she got up to present. That they were falling all over the place was distracting to me. I guess I think Oscar outfits should be less about fluidity and movement—qualities you would want in any get-up you'd wear in the real world—and more about creating a static, iconic fashion moment.

Julia: I can see that. In general, do you think the black looks worked?

Amanda: I love a good black dress as much as the next woman, but I don't think they're an ideal choice for the Oscars, do you? They're too dark, and if there's any detail on them, you just can't see what's going on. Actually, I can't say I loved any of the black dresses. I did really like Amy Ryan's navy blue one-shouldered number. I love navy for evening wear. It's usually such a buttoned-up color, the color of sports jackets and suits, and so I like it on a gown for a festive occasion.

Amy Ryan. Click image to expand.
Amy Ryan

Julia:  Amy Ryan looked amazing! She was channeling early-'90s Jodie Foster. She was also utterly charming on the red carpet explaining how thrilled she was even to be at the Oscars, and in the theater reacting with glee and pride to seeing the clip of her performance in Gone Baby Gone. Between Ryan, George Clooney's cocktail-waitress girlfriend Sarah Larson, and Steve Carrell's wife, comedienne Nancy Walls, the red carpet was full of "normal girls gone to the Oscars," which added a fun element of fantasy. They all took different approaches, of course. The Clooney girlfriend look was terrible; it seemed to have been stitched from an iridescent Barbie shower curtain.

Amanda: Amy Adams has a regular-girl air, too. And Patrick Dempsey was there with his wife. There was no Gwyneth or Angelina or Julia or Reese.

Julia: The plebes were storming the red carpet.

Amanda: Actually, I liked the looks of both Amys, Ryan and Adams. I had a similar reaction to the color of Amy Adams' dress as I did to Amy Ryan's—I think hunter green on an evening gown is unexpected, an interesting counterpoint. I also liked the slim belts on both dresses.

Julia: And both looks point up the move toward bold, dark colors. Thank God we're done with nudes and blushes and champagnes and creams. With a darker color you can pay more attention to the silhouette. The best red dress of the night was Anne Hathaway's, I thought, primarily because it was the best red of the night: The color itself had a little blue in it and was really deep and rich and rose-petally. Katherine Heigl's red seemed a bit brassy by comparison.

Katherine Heigl. Click image to expand.
Katherine Heigl

Amanda:  Down with the nudes and blushes! I liked Anne Hathaway's dress, but it seemed a little old for her. She's young and lovely; why doesn't she have more fun? I actually liked Heigl's dress. I thought the ruching and the peekaboo cutout on the shoulder were interesting, and it fit her beautifully. She also had a normal-girl-goes-to-the-Oscars air about her. She was charmingly nervous.

Julia: That's true, I did like her nerves. But I wanted to tamp down her hair.

Amanda: It did look like her friend set her hair in rollers before the prom. What did you think of Helen Mirren's dress? That was a successful red, I thought. I loved the bejeweled sleeves—actually, the jewelling extended around the back, like a shrug. I heard her say on the red carpet that she'd had it made for her, and it looked like it. She and her sartorial choices are utterly regal.

Helen Mirren. Click image to expand.
Helen Mirren

Julia:  And have you ever seen someone deliver Oscar patter with such conviction? Imagine sweet Heigl chirping out that bit about greed and venality; it'd feel so canned. I think Mirren pulled off the dress in the same way. At first glance the sleeves looked a bit awkward and stitched-on-after-the-fact to me. But then she came strutting out with her hot middle-aged hips swishing, and it was clear she felt stunning. Another case where feeling great in a dress makes it.

Amanda: She has such enviable confidence.

Julia: There's one thing we still haven't figured out, though: Who does send the memo saying Girls, this year, it's red! How does that happen?

Amanda: I don't know. I wondered that last year, when it was all Grecian all the time. Who says "red is the new black"?

Julia: Or "red and black are the new blush"? The thing that's remarkable about Oscar trends is that they seem to operate on a fashion plane distinct from regular trends. We didn't see a lot of sparkly blushes in stores over the past few years, and I doubt we'll see a lot of red and black in the coming months. Although I suppose we might see some, since red and black are easier to do well on the cheap than blush-colored and bedazzled.

Amanda: True. Have you ever seen a woman in the real world wear a blush dress? I think you need a spray-on tan to pull it off. As for the red, perhaps the stars were taking their cues from the presidential candidates' wives, who seem to be loving that Nancy Reagan red.

Julia: Hm, maybe you're right: Between the candidates' wives, the Oscars, and Diet Coke's ubiquitous and mystifying red-dresses-will-eradicate-heart-disease campaign, perhaps we'll see nothing else for the next year!

Amanda: We're also entering, or have entered—depending on who you ask—a recession, and then there's the war. It's a dark moment, and red is a cheerful, chin-up sort of color.

Julia: True. It's a color with a lot of bravado.

Amanda: And swagger.

Amy Adams. Click image to expand.
Amy Adams

Julia:  Well, it'll be interesting to see if it sticks. As for Amy Adams, I liked the bodice of her dress much better than the skirt. The conical cups and that spare notch between them felt sleek, aeronautical and futuristic. The skirt felt like the same old mermaid hash.

Amanda: I'll give you the mermaid complaint. If I could have changed that dress in any way, I would have straightened the bottom.

Julia: Dana Stevens noted in Slate's Oscar dialogue that she's tired of the "sparkly mermaid" look, and I know exactly what she means: Bedazzled all over, flared at the bottom, close-fitting around the hips. Renee Zellweger fit the bill tonight (and her dress even featured, pinned to the breastbone, a spiny, sea urchin-looking brooch). Tired. But Marion Cotillard's dress, which was by John Paul Gaultier and was explicitly mermaid-y, was by far my favorite of the night. In fact, it may be my favorite Oscar dress ever.

Renee Zellweger. Click image to expand.
Renee Zellweger

Amanda:  That dress was hands down my favorite look of the night. The craftsmanship was exquisite: It looked at once vintage and of the moment; it had fine details and a bold, telegenic cut. It was a fresh take on the mermaid look.

Julia: Exactly. He was like, I'll show you mermaid.

Amanda: You could call it a witty dress. Which in a way makes it rather French.

Julia: I think the key was that, instead of focusing on the mermaid shape and using sparkles to make the whole thing look vaguely wet, Gaultier focused on the idea of scales. And scales are creepy! Evocative of reptiles and sexy because they suggest a slithery movement, the mechanics of which we don't understand.

Amanda: It was slithery and sexy, and yet the color lent it a certain innocence.

Marion Cotillard. Click image to expand.
Marion Cotillard

Julia:  And to make matters even better, the white scales were edged with gold, so they stood out on-screen. I'm not sure the detail work on her dress was better than that on, say, Hilary Swank's, but we could see it, and it was beautiful.

Amanda: And it fit her!

Julia: Perfectly. Her dress had everything: wit, beauty, inventiveness, telegenic detail, a bit of risk. We couldn't ask for more.

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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