How style can make the star

Oscars: Shimmering threads can weave a stellar image for actresses on fashion's biggest runway.

March 25, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

The year Mira Sorvino earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, she was a little-known starlet thrust into the spotlight for her performance as a bimbo-esque prostitute in "Mighty Aphrodite."

But then the ingenue stepped onto the red carpet that 1996 Oscar night in a glorious Armani ensemble: a shimmery, silver-beaded bustier with a full organza skirt. With her hair dramatically swept up to match her elegant Cinderella outfit, Sorvino's appearance that night was memorable -- even before she took home the Oscar.

"A lot of people weren't aware of her at the time," said Tom Julian, fashion analyst for, the official Web site of the Academy Awards. "But she used Armani well -- she was princess-like, regal and beautiful, and I remember that being a major moment for her."

The biggest awards show of the year is filled with major moments such as these. And with pictures of these moments running in magazines and newspapers for weeks and months after the event, looking perfect on Oscar night has become almost as important as snagging a little gold statue -- especially in an industry where image can make or break a career.

So, at tonight's 73rd Academy Awards, celebrities know that they'd better look great -- or else.

"Look at Penelope Cruz last year," celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch said of the actress who looked radiant at the 2000 awards in a sky-blue Ralph Lauren strapless gown paired with a matching silk chiffon wrap. "She walked on that stage and everybody gasped. These are looks that put celebrities on the map. That's how people will remember them."

Oscar attendees didn't always face so much pressure around this time of year, though. The Academy Awards ceremony wasn't televised until 1953, and even after that, actors and actresses didn't have to worry about what image to project on Oscar night because Hollywood studios often had costume designers create outfits for them.

In the 1960s, actresses began asserting their individuality, with Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy and Elizabeth Taylor donning Christian Dior at the 1961 ceremony, according to "Star Style at the Academy Awards" (Angel City Press, $30). But the frenzied celebrity style-watch didn't go into full throttle until 1995, when Joan Rivers began working the red carpet in a pre-awards show on E! Entertainment Television.

Since then, the public's interest in Oscar night fashion has grown. Only 867,000 viewers tuned in the first year Rivers did her show, according to Nielsen Media Research. Last year, three million viewers watched Rivers critique outfits on the red carpet, and more than 30 million tuned in to ABC's pre show, which began in 1999.

"For a lot of actresses in current times, choosing their gowns for the Academy Awards night is more important than choosing their wedding gowns," said Patty Fox, the Hollywood stylist who wrote "Star Style at the Academy Awards." "The pressure that's on them to make the appropriate fashion statement is tremendous."

Fox recently was named Oscar fashion director and will be a liaison between stars, stylists and designers and help shape couture trends on the red carpet. She said that just 10 years ago, celebrities were under far less pressure. In fact, when Fox started calling the managers and publicists of stars in the early '90s to market her styling services, she said many "had no clue about what we were doing and why."

Most actresses at the time dressed themselves for the Oscars, but today celebrity stylists have become essential to prepping for the biggest awards show of the year. Bloch, for example, was the genius behind Salma Hayek's old time classic look in 1997--- a beaded, backless Armani dress topped with a diamond-encrusted tiara.

Stylists like Bloch also are key for actresses because of the intense competition among designers to have their gowns modeled on the red carpet. Some designers' careers have been launched thanks to exposure on this big night. After Minnie Driver stunned crowds with a slinky berry-red Halston gown at the 1998 awards, the fashion house's head designer, Randolph Duke, garnered enough buzz to leave and start his own label.

"That red carpet is fashion's biggest runway in the world," said Bloch, who also has his own line of jewelry on QVC. "It's the biggest way for a designer to show his work. It's the equivalent of a fashion show except the public actually gets to see it, and sometimes these are pictures that go on for years and years and years."

Actresses nominated for Oscars likely will receive between 40 to 50 gowns from hopeful designers. Some, like Randolph Duke and Carmen Marc Valvo, also are staging fashion shows or private showings in Los Angeles in the weeks preceding the ceremony.

And for nine years now, longtime Hollywood stylist Fred Hayman has put together a fashion show weeks before Oscar night to present the gowns of designers like Richard Tyler, Pamela Dennis and Carolina Herrera.

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