The best and worst Oscar dresses.

The language of style.
Feb. 23 2009 4:32 AM

Oscar Fashion Report Card

The Cotillard effect, the bead brigade, and the best dress you didn't see on television.

2009 Oscars Slideshow.

Click here  to view a slide-show about the 81st Annual Academy Awards.

Julia Turner: Amanda, thanks for joining me once again to discuss the bizarre fashion ritual that is the Oscars. Let me begin our conversation with a pronouncement: What a blah night! There were way too many safe and boring gowns. What did you think?

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Amanda Fortini: I wasn't blown away by that much, but there were a few standouts.

Julia: Last year, we were stunned by the beautiful, scaly, cream-colored Gaultier number worn by Marion Cotillard, the French actress who won an Oscar for her work in Le Vie en Rose. This year, I thought I noticed a Cotillard effect: Anne Hathaway was encrusted in scaly-looking cream-colored paillettes. (Jay from America's Next Top Model introduced newcomers to the term during the E! preshow, using a football-style telestrator to circle individual sequins; I kept expecting one to start running for the end zone.)

Amanda: And Miley Cyrus showed up in tin-foil tipped fish scales. Honestly, I think she wins the prize for the worst dress. It looked like a tiered cake with those silver beaded things people use to decorate Christmas cookies.

Julia: Dragées!

Amanda: What did you think of Cotillard's dress this year?

Julia: I loved it. I love blue and black together, and I loved the chic belt.

Amanda: I also liked the layers of black tulle, kind of naughty but tempered by the sweet princess style of the dress.

Miley Cyrus. Click image to expand.
Miley Cyrus

Julia: And the I'm-going-out-to-the-cafe-in-jeans necklace. Very casual.

Amanda: Very French, that mixing of high and low, naughty and nice, so that no style or look is too dominant or too costume-y. And a sense of individuality is projected.

Julia: As for the worst look of the night, I think it's either Miley or the usually impeccable Reese Witherspoon. Her blue-and-black number looked so scraggly! I'm afraid Michelle Obama's inauguration gown has spawned a thousand dresses with asymmetrical straps that cross diagonally from the bodice to the shoulder, hitting weirdly close to the neck.

Amanda: Kind of like the straps of a Baby Björn or a backpack.

Julia: It was such an odd thing to be wrong with Michelle's dress that I never thought it would start a trend, but Marisa Tomei's dress had it, and so did Reese's.

Marisa Tomei. Click image to expand.
Marisa Tomei

Amanda: Interesting that the first lady is starting fashion trends rather than following them. We haven't seen that in a long time. Since Jackie O, maybe.

Julia: I know. Although, if she were really starting trends, maybe we would have seen some more interesting color. We saw so many nudes and reds! So few exceptions! Nothing like the amazing citron Michelle wore on Inauguration Day.

Amanda: I'm convinced the pale dress—nude, buff, flesh, Champagne, beige, khaki, however you call it—will never die. Do you think the dresses were perhaps more subdued because of the recession?

Julia: I'm not sure there is such a thing as recession fashion. As many people dress with show-must-go-on braggadocio as with subdued sackcloth.

Amanda: Who do you think took the pull-out-all-stops approach to dressing during a recession?

Angelina Jolie. Click image to expand.
Angelina Jolie

Julia: There was a lot of bold jewelry. Amy Adams was bedecked in that gumball breastplate; Angelina Jolie had those monster emerald-green drops; Taraji P. Henson was wearing what looked like half of a diamond-encrusted snowflake.

Amanda: I was a fan of Angelina's jewels.

Julia: I think Angelina's jewels were the single best item of the night.

Amanda: They were so enormous, so green, so over the top. They looked like they could be either very expensive raw emeralds—they were sort of cloudy—or plastic costume jewelry. It was like they presented a riddle: Are these real or not?

Julia: I was wondering about that, too. Maybe they were costume. Perfect recession jewelry!

Amanda: And probably conflict-free, too.

Julia: I'm sure.

Amanda: I liked Adams' candy-colored jewels. And it's daring for a redhead to wear red. Or daring as far as Oscar fashion goes, anyway. Amanda Seyfried, from Mamma Mia! and Big Love, also wore a red dress, which to me was reminiscent of the red dress Nicole Kidman wore to the 2007 Oscars: Both had oversize red bows, the sort that might look better on a wreath than on a dress.

Julia: Bows can be awful. But I admire Seyfried for being so game—can you believe she was out there in that weirdo musical medley in a top hat and bunny costume?—and so, since the size of her bow was all right, I let her off the hook. Quick Tomei question: Were you for the dress or nay?

Amanda: I have been trying to decide. I think I'm for it. I liked the ornate pleating. And it fit her beautifully.

Julia: It reminded me of one of those segmented children's books, where you can flip a giraffe's head onto a camel's body—I loved everything from the waist down but thought the bodice suffered from Obama-ishly-asymmetrical-and-close-to-the-neck syndrome. It got a bit puckered and ill-fitting.

Amanda: I liked the fit.

Freida Pinto. Click image to expand.
Freida Pinto

Julia: What did you think of Freida Pinto's dress? I thought it was another with an odd neck.

Amanda: I don't think I'm as bothered by the asymmetrical necks as you are. But that one did run perilously close to the throat. Still, she's adorable. And I did like the dress: the color, the beading; it was subtly different. We also got to see, in a couple of instances, the difference between the Indian tux and the American one: There were a few Nehru jackets. It was an interesting night for men's fashion, no?

Julia: Indeed! Philip Seymour Hoffman's knit cap will be everywhere next year, mark my words. On James Franco, on little Zac Efron.

Amanda: Ski-cap formal! It'll be all the rage. And I loved seeing Mickey Rourke, ever roguish in his white Gaultier tux, bad-ass jewelry, and a locket portraying his little dog Loki (who recently died) on his neck.

Julia: I loved Rourke's look. A spiffed-up version of his usual wackadoodle self.

Amanda: I like when people let the essence of their non-Oscar-night selves remain.

Mickey Rourke. Click image to expand.
Mickey Rourke

Julia: It's the awards-robot look I can't stand. I liked Anne Hathaway's and Marisa Tomei's gowns, but they could have swapped, and no one would have noticed.

Amanda: Interestingly, Angelina Jolie, who one might think would veer in a slightly more punk direction, always dresses in an extremely understated, almost nondescript manner. Tonight her emeralds, be they real or fake, and her tattoos were the standout elements of her look.

Julia: I always take Jolie's awards understatedness as a bit of cooler-than-thou nonchalance. She knows there's more to life than getting dolled up, so she doesn't go overboard, and then she looks like a knockout anyhow. Did you notice, by the way, that Brad Pitt was wearing some enormous rhinestone ring?

Amanda: I did! There was a fair amount of man-jewelry on display. Will Smith was wearing a diamond lapel pin of some sort.

Julia: And then one of the Slumdog awardees was wearing a sash of what looked like Mardi Gras beads. Another thought about Freida Pinto: She and a number of other young women tonight were wearing a fabric I associate with old ladies, beaded chiffon.

Amanda: That's usually a mother-of-the-bride look, you're right.

Julia: Freida had it, Kate Winslet had it, Anne Hathaway's Nixon dress had it, Sophia Loren finally actually managed to look like a mother of the bride in it ...

Amanda: Oh dear, Sophia Loren. Hard to pick at her, because she is Sophia Loren, but that dress was mother-of-the-bride hits the prom. I really liked the beaded see-through arm on Frieda Pinto's dress, though. I thought the dress managed to maintain a certain youthfulness.

Julia: I thought the beaded look worked for Pinto—and Hathaway, actually.

Amanda: Let's talk about Kate Winslet. Love it or hate it?

Julia: I thought Winslet looked a little matronly. Perhaps if she'd had looser hair, the dress wouldn't have seemed so staid.

Amanda: It was matronly, and it was busy. There was too much going on there. The lace reminded me of a Spanish mantilla—as though she decided not to wear it as a veil but to pin it around her waist. But I give Winslet points for the rich color.

Julia: Yes: That was a great gray.

Amanda: I wish we saw more gray at the Oscars. Gray works when the material is luxe.

Julia: Meryl Streep was also in a gorgeous neutral.

Amanda: I felt it was a bit too neutral.

Julia: Really? I was just glad she managed to avoid the Beaded Chiffon Triangle, which she often falls into. It was great to see her in something with a soft, interesting, modern cut. It was as though all the starlets had torn up her usual outfits for usable scraps, and she'd had to wear something with youthful chic.

Amanda: The cut was sleek and minimalist and modern; I did like that. Last year she wore grade-school-art-teacher jewelry, and there was none of that this year. But really, who cares when you have 15 Oscar nominations!

Julia: Agree.

Tilda Swinton. Click image to expand.
Tilda Swinton

Amanda: The only true bit of fashion derring-do we saw was from the inimitable Tilda Swinton. What did you think?

Julia: I always want to applaud Tilda for being so out there. When actresses turn up in awards-robot attire, I think, "Be more adventurous!" But then Tilda will show up in something crazy, and I think, "Not that adventurous." Her less successful looks throw my desire for the interesting or avant-garde back in my face.

Amanda: Her clothes are always high fashion in the truest sense. Did you really think this was so out there?

Julia: No, for her this was fairly tame. But it was out there for the Oscars in that it wasn't a gown, but separates, and that it wasn't designed to flatter her figure but to obscure it.

Amanda: Her hair and makeup were kind of David Bowie.

Julia: Yes, I liked her sharp lip this year. But I just kept worrying that the dress was going to come untucked or untied. How about the two Princesses Poufy, Sarah Jessica Parker and Penélope Cruz?

Amanda: Penélope Cruz's dress, I read, was a 60-year-old vintage Balmain. The lace was gorgeous. Still, I thought it looked kind of like a wedding dress.

Penelope Cruz. Click image to expand.
Penélope Cruz

Julia: Cruz almost always goes with a dress that would look fine on a cake topper.

Amanda: I preferred her dress to SJP's. She needed a bigger size, or different upper-body undergarments.

Julia: Agree about SJP. She and Goldie Hawn were vying for weirdest décolletage of the night.

Amanda: You could see Goldie Hawn's tan lines.

Julia: That, I kind of love. She's an actress who hasn't adapted to the world of the spray-on tan and still gets actual sun? Good for her.

Amanda: Great that she tans, but I'm not sure I want to see her tan lines peeking out of formalwear.

Julia: Point taken.

Amanda: Did you notice we saw some disco-inflected numbers? Viola Davis' gold-lamé gown, and Jennifer Aniston's dress, with its diagonal spangles. That dress was right for her: It conveyed her Malibu Barbie essence—tanned, toned, blond—without being remotely tacky. Nor was it boring.

Julia: You're right, it wasn't. I also loved Davis' gold accordion pleats. The dress was sexy and interesting. There was a lot of great glitz and shimmer tonight. I liked Tina Fey's shimmery number, too.

Leslie Mann. Click image to expand.
Leslie Mann

Amanda: And Leslie Mann, whom we didn't see on-screen but whom I did spot on the red carpet, was also disco-inspired, though in silver.

Julia: That was a fantastic dress. Leslie Mann should have presented. Or tap-danced! We need to see more of that thing. She should wear it in Judd Apatow's next movie. Or just gardening.

Amanda: Out grocery shopping at Ralph's.

Julia: Another dress I loved: The red charmeuse worn by Megan Mylan, who won for best documentary short. I love it when the laypeople outdress the starlets.

Amanda: That was a good one.

Julia: Mylan's dress was beautiful, flattering, telegenic, and interesting, with those strange winglets on the back and the Champagne-colored lining they revealed.

Amanda: I wished the winglets had been a bit snugger, but that's my only complaint. One thing I liked about this year, at least from a fashion perspective, was the game-show-like array of actors and actresses who came up to present. It made it easy to get a full-length view of many more dresses.

Julia: And we got to see more actresses of different ages.

Amanda: Precisely. There were some eccentric choices up there. Like Shirley MacLaine's black tux.

Julia: I loved that!

Amanda: I imagine those diamonds she was wearing were imbued with some talismanic powers.

Julia: The power to make Anne Hathaway weepy, at least.

Amanda: And Angelica Huston's maroon spandex with silver spangles. I was reminded of the costumes I used to wear for dance recitals in the '80s. And yet, I liked it. It was original.

Julia: She always looks fantastic. I wouldn't give this outfit particularly high marks.

Amanda: No, but it was amusing. And that's worth something. The boring bar is so low that it's become easy to impress me. Just be different. Try something new.

Julia: I know. It's bleak.

Amanda: An Old Hollywood Glamour wasteland.

Julia: Any wishes for next year?

Amanda: I hope we see more in the way of sartorial daring. And that the actresses who are willing to be a bit out there—and risk being flayed by the press—come back. Where were they all? Where was Cate Blanchett?

Julia: Or Gwyneth Paltrow or Cameron Diaz?

Amanda: Or Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kirsten Dunst?

Julia: All right, so let's hope for big years for all of them. And let's hope Leslie Mann delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, gets nominated, and then wears that dress again!

Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.

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