Movie premieres and award shows are among the world’s most glamorous events. Beautiful people in beautiful clothes always attract attention, but the awards season red carpet circuit takes dazzling to a whole new level. Hard to believe that behind the glitz and glamour are some of the most cut-throat antics of all time.
But it didn’t start out that way.
The first Academy Awards was held in 1929, a banquet dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for 270 people. It has always been a formal event, but not everyone has always adhered to the dress code. In 1935, for example, Best Actress nominee Claudette Colbert arrived in a knee-length traveling dress because she needed to catch a train afterward. Bette Davis wore an “afternoon frock” for which she was widely criticized, as was Ingrid Bergman in the 1940’s when she wore the same dress two years in a row. Winners were announced via radio, newspaper, and newsreel.
When the Oscars were first televised in 1953, attendees were sent a dress code to follow, which included a definition of formal attire and instructions that women were not to show any cleavage. Broadcast simultaneously from New York and Los Angeles, it was watched by nearly 40 million people.
Veteran costume designer Edith Head received a ton of publicity when she designed the ice blue dress Grace Kelly wore to the Oscars in 1955, where she won Best Actress for The Country Girl (1954). Made of a gorgeous French satin, the material alone cost $4,000 in 1955, or roughly $35,000 today. It was the most expensive Oscar dress ever worn for 50 years. It remains a fan favorite to this day.
After the studio system collapsed in the 1960’s, Oscar attire became much less formal. It also become much less memorable. Perhaps the only standout of the 1960’s – and not in a good way – was Barbra Streisand’s see-through Arnold Scassi-designed pants ensemble that caused a scandal in 1969 when she climbed the stairs to receive her Best Actress award for Funny Girl (1968). Both theater and television audiences gave a collective gasp.
The next Oscar dress to cause a sensation was Cher’s Bob Mackie in 1986. With geometric shapes, black beads, and a spider head dress, it looked more like a costume than a formal gown and gave people plenty to talk about. So much so, that she wore another revealing Bob Mackie two years later when she won Best Actress for Moonlighting (1987).
All that attention spawned copy cats. Demi Moore designed her own gown for the 1989 awards, a sort of Marie Antoinette-goes-bicycling ensemble that has been a fixture on “worst dressed” lists ever since. It’s typically joined by the odd, one-shouldered gown Kim Basinger designed for herself in 1990.
Things went down hill from there. Geena Davis’ “mullet” dress (1992). Whoopi Goldberg’s green and purple ensemble (1993). Costume designer Lizzy Gardiner’s American Express Card dress (1994). They made for scintillating water cooler talk, but they weren’t right for the Academy Awards.
Then, it happened.
The dress that changed everything.
It was 1995, and Uma Thurman was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Pulp Fiction (1994). She stepped on the red carpet in a beautiful lavender gown from a little-know Italian company called Prada – and everyone did a double-take. It was beautiful, elegant, and modern, and it made Uma look like a princess. Everyone wanted to know where she got it. It made Prada famous overnight.
It also started a new industry.
Because Uma had been “styled” by Barbara Tfank, who also designed the dress. Barbara was working as a design consultant for Prada when she called Uma’s agent and asked if she could make Uma’s dress for the Academy Awards. Uma agreed, and Barbara designed the dress and matching wrap, then flew to Los Angeles to help Uma with her hair, makeup, and accessories – a complete head-to-toe look.
It was all Hollywood could talk about for weeks. Suddenly, everyone who was anyone needed a stylist. Suddenly, anyone who had a passing interest in fashion started calling themselves one. It was like the new gold rush as these new stylists – many with very little training – suddenly found themselves flying on private jets with celebrities and being paid $8,000-$10,000 a day for their services.
It also set the fashion industry abuzz. Because in exchange for the dress and Barbara’s time – perhaps $30,000 worth of materials and services – Prada made millions of dollars as new customers beat a path to their doorway, hoping to dress like Uma. It was a much better return on investment than any magazine ad they’d ever run.
All the other fashion houses immediately took note. Over the next few years, they began openly courting celebrities during the award season. Fashion brands would take over a luxury hotel in Los Angeles for a weekend and invite all the nominees to come see fashion shows, tour hospitality suites, take goody bags, etc. Joan Rivers made sure they got their money’s worth by standing on the red carpet and asking celebrities, “Who are you wearing?” It was the first time in forty years people really cared about Oscar fashion.
Then, greed set in.
Stylists and agents were no longer content with just helping their clients look good. No, they wanted a piece of the fashion haul themselves. Some demanded free clothes, shoes, and handbags just to recommend the fashion house to their client. Others were much more devious. They’d demand that all red carpet ensembles be given rather than loaned to the celebrity. Then they’d tell the celebrity they were on loan and had to be returned. Then the stylist would keep the gowns themselves, or sell them on eBay.
Another trick was to get gowns from several fashion houses – sometimes as many as ten or twelve – and then let the star pick what she wanted to wear the day before. That way, they tied up lots of great gowns so no one else could wear them.
When fashion houses found out about all this, according to Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (2007), they went ballistic and refused to deal with anyone but the celebrities themselves. At which point many celebrities – totally over the novelty of getting couture for free – started demanding cash instead. $300,000 to wear a gown, $50,000 to wear a pair of shoes. It became a business transaction instead of a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.
Today, fashion houses loan clothes for movie premieres, press junkets, TV interviews, and award shows. But only to top tier celebrities. While Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman can make a phone call and have any current or vintage dress shipped to their doorsteps within 24 hours, reality TV stars need not even bother (though many try). Luxury brands only want their name associated with the “best of the best,” so they’re very select with whom they work.
Even then, there are problems.
Harry Winston has been loaning jewelry to Oscar attendees since 1943. Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, and Grace Kelly – among others – have dazzled in their jewels. But in 1994, Sharon Stone, at the height of her fame (and arrogance) for Basic Instinct (1992), refused to return the $400,000 necklace she wore to an event, claiming it was a gift. Harry Winston insisted it was not, it was a loan. She then promptly sued them for $12 million, claiming breech of contract. They settled and she returned the necklace, but they’ve never loaned her another piece since.
It’s the same with the greedy stylists. When fashion houses discovered that many were profiting in their positions as celebrity gatekeepers, they refused to work with them any more – as did the celebrities. Today, there’s a select cadre of stylists who still have access to the top celebrities and designers. In fact, they’re so powerful that they can set trends and command high fees…in an industry that really didn’t even exist 20 years ago.
Do all celebrities use stylists? No. Blake Lively, Marion Cotillard, and Diane Kruger – among others – all “do it themselves,” and they frequently make the best dressed list. Renee Zellweger was voted into the Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 2009 without using a stylist. When you hear some of the cut-throat antics that go on behind the scenes, it’s easy to see why some people avoid all the drama.
So the next time you see your favorite celebrities on the red carpet looking pulled together and amazing, think about all the time, effort, and wheeling and dealing that went into getting them that way. Often, it’s more than you realize.
Diana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Wardrobe Magic, an ebook that shows women how to dress well whatever their age, shape, size, or budget. Download Wardrobe Magic right here.