Often described as the greatest fashion show on earth, the annual Academy Awards are set to light up Hollywood this evening for the 82th time. As ever, all eyes will be on the spectacular line-up of evening gowns, as well as on the winners of the coveted golden statuettes. Indeed, when we think of the Oscars from several years back, we tend to remember the stars' gowns rather than the awards they won. Who doesn't remember Julia Roberts accepting her Oscar in 2001 wearing that figure-hugging black and white vintage Valentino dress or Natalie Portman in shocking pink Rodarte at last year's awards?
With this year's nominations for Best Leading Actress including Sandra Bullock and Carey Mulligan and Best Supporting Actress nominees such as Penélope Cruz and Maggie Gyllenhaal, there has been much interest in predicting what will be worn on the red carpet, and that is something that even the film industry is compelled to acknowledge. Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Miramax Pictures and the husband of the Marchesa designer Georgina Chapman, has said: "Clothes influence the movies and the movies influence clothes. But these days, fashion seems to be what the awards are for."
For designers, an appearance at the Oscars can be career-defining - witness Jimmy Choo's coup in 1999, when Tamara Mellon and Sandra Choi provided custom-dyed and beaded shoes for 50 actresses. "My favourite Jimmy Choo moment was when Halle Berry won her Oscar in Elie Saab and our shoes in 2002," remembers Mellon. "That was such an iconic win and it was great to be part of it in some small way." Those memorable looks create vivid Oscar images that resonate with the classic shots of earlier Best Actress winners, such as Audrey Hepburn in 1954 wearing her signature Givenchy, and Alfred Hitchcock's leading lady, Grace Kelly, dressed by her studio's costumier, Edith Head, in 1955.
Of course, we also remember the more outlandish moments, from Cher's 1986 Bob Mackie showgirl attire to Björk's 2001 dying swan ensemble, complete with a sculpted egg. "I love Cher because of the craft that went into her costumes; she really dressed up as a character," enthuses Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards. "Björk's swan outfit was straight off designer Marjan Pejoski's runway, and it was really fabulous."
Whether we love or hate the red carpet looks, it is interesting to note that there is no official dress code at the Oscars. "There have been periods through the Oscars history, like during the Second World War, when there was a memo sent out by the Academy recommending that semi-formal attire should be worn by women," reports Cosgrave. "Jewels were also frowned upon." Things have certainly changed since the early days of the Oscars. The leading lady of the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 didn't have the luxury of turning to designers for help: the diminutive Janet Gaynor played down the occasion by wearing a knitted, knee-length dress, apparently bought from a local children's store. Mary Pickford, her successor, got into the swing of things by travelling to Paris and driving a hard bargain with the couture houses.
It was the third Best Actress winner, Norma Shearer, who instigated the trend for studio designers creating outfits for the nominees in 1930, by wearing a shimmering gown created by the MGM costumier Gilbert Adrian. This was an arrangement that continued for almost 30 years, with a handful of actresses forging relationships with Paris couturiers - think Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, and stars such as Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor, who were loyal to Christian Dior.
The legendary Edith Head presided over the costumes at Paramount and later at Universal. She was the most prolific Oscar designer, winning eight awards and 35 nominations, as well as creating stunning Oscar outfits for Kelly, Bette Davis, Shirley MacLaine and others. Jewellery has always had a strong focus at the Oscars and originally it was loaned by the studio or owned by the stars. "Hepburn donned the earrings she wore during filming when she won her Oscar and several years earlier, in 1940, Vivienne Leigh wore a Van Cleef & Arpels pendant that Laurence Olivier had given her while shooting Gone With the Wind," reveals Cosgrave. "Elizabeth Taylor owned all those fabulous jewels and it is only since the 1990s that jewellery companies such as Harry Winston and Chopard started loaning gems."
Today the Oscars ceremony supports a veritable fashion engine of stylists, designer contracts, serious gifting and extravagant couture loans. But in the time between the studios supplying dresses and celebrity endorsements, American designers such as Arnold Scaasi, who dressed Barbra Streisand in that sheer pantsuit in 1969, and Halston, whose fluid jersey designs were favoured by the Studio 54 set in the 1970s, heralded a shift from formal evening wear. Liza Minnelli and Lauren Hutton were both fans and Minnelli accepted her 1973 award swathed in yellow cashmere Halston. (Weinstein and Mellon recently relaunched the brand and appointed Sarah Jessica Parker as creative director.)
Wearing vintage to the awards became popular following Roberts' Valentino moment in 2001 and the yellow 1950s Jean Dessès gown from Lily et Cie that Renée Zellweger wore the same year. According to Professor Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York: "In the fashion world, vintage is an important sub-scene, but I think also for this kind of occasion-specific dressing that a lot of actresses are hoping to find something which is going to be more unique than what they are going to get off that season's runway."
The pre-Oscar events really kicked off 10 years ago and saw designers, jewellers, beauticians and a host of sybaritic services take suites to court Hollywood royalty. While events have scaled down during the recession, the big players are still there: Valentino, Armani, Chopard, Harry Winston, Jimmy Choo and Judith Leiber are just a few of the designers synonymous with the Oscars, who pull out all the stops to develop that all-important relationship with actresses, their agents and stylists.
"If it's successful, it's the equivalent of a million-dollar ad campaign," says Cosgrave. "It really has to be the right star in the right dress, at the right time. The designers all look for the winner or they look at an ingénue who will really give them street cred, like Carey Mulligan." In 2007, Giorgio Armani staged a star-studded fashion show. "I decided to bring my new couture collection to LA to add to the celebrations," says the designer. "It seemed the right moment as many of my close friends are nominees and because it was a particularly theatrical collection." A host of nominees have worn Armani Privé since, including Cate Blanchett in 2007 and Anne Hathaway in 2009.
Kate Winslet turned to the British designer Ben de Lisi in 2002, whom she had trusted for many years, to design her Oscar dress. "All she knew was that she wanted a red dress. She left everything up to me," recalls de Lisi. "I certainly wasn't prepared for the amount of interest and press coverage." Alisa Moussaieff, owner of the jeweller Moussaieff, concurs: "We are always keen to participate in awards ceremonies. The result is tremendous editorial, press and television visibility."
Recent landmark designer collaborations include the embroidered John Galliano for Christian Dior Couture gown that Nicole Kidman wore in 1997; the Chanel Haute Couture dress that Cruz donned in 2008 and the white Jean Paul Gaultier Couture mermaid dress worn by Marion Cotillard the same year. According to a Gaultier spokesperson: "The policy of the house is to only dress the actresses that we have a relationship with. Marion discussed different options with Jean Paul and there were three fittings. The outcome was an Oscar."
Van Cleef & Arpels confirms the importance of a strong relationship with the stars. A spokesperson says: "When Julia Roberts won her Academy Award in 2001 she wore our iconic Snowflake bracelet. Earlier that evening, she'd realised her outfit was missing something and a call was made to our Beverly Hills boutique. The store director was able to bring her the bracelet as she was stepping into the limousine on her way to the awards."
The brands Judith Leiber and Lana Marks both produce luxury evening bags and regularly appear on the red carpet. "Our Cleopatra clutch has brought many nominees good luck," says Lana Marks, "And several, including Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren, have won Oscars holding the Cleopatra clutch." The shoe designer Stuart Weitzman has created covetable footwear for many Oscar ceremonies. His favourite moment was last year, when "Beyoncé performed a fabulous musical number with Hugh Jackman in a pair of our red satin ankle-wrap pumps, adorned with crystal heels".
So is this going to be a vintage year for Oscar fashion? The labels Proenza Schouler and Erdem are both strong contenders for this year's red carpet and Victoria Beckham let slip that she will be wearing her own flattering nude-coloured design. Several fashion-forward stars may opt to wear pieces by the late Alexander McQueen. "His clothes were light years beyond the very conventional stereotype goddess dresses which dominate the red carpet," says Steele.
The Academy Awards' current fashion consultant, Patty Fox, always advises that actresses should consider their style when choosing their attire. "Red carpet style is about dressing real people, rather than supermodels. Everyone has an innate style and I recommend they follow that lead." As Steele says: "Historically, people have seen actresses on the movie screen for our idea of glam. Now films aren't that glamorous and it's more about costuming for the part. The actresses are no longer dressing up in glamorous clothes for their 'real lives'. So you have this third venue of the red carpet, which is where, for a short period, the actresses dress up as glamorous Hollywood stars. Otherwise they'd be running around LA in flip-flops and sweat pants with their Starbucks cups."
So maybe that's why, for one night every year, the Oscars have such universal appeal. It allows us to dream, observe, escape and revel in an event that pays tribute to the major films but also showcases truly glamorous fashion. "I think it's wonderful seeing a star looking like a star," says Cosgrave.