Oscar Undressed

The Starmaking Machinery Behind the Popular Gown

Marc Bouwer, like most designers, has had his run-ins with the give-away ethic. "Everyone wants clothes for free. We've had the experience of someone very high profile—I can't even give you one clue—who went through fittings, everything, and never wore the dress. She kept it, and the next week she asked for more clothes. We gave them to her, too. It's not always a pleasure, but it's the only way of getting noticed." And even the guy who lost the $1400 boots was able to see some good in the experience: "We always include the actress in the list of celebrities we've dressed."

The building of that list, the prospect of pictures of your dress turning up in InStyle, in People, in Us Magazine, on shows like Entertainment Tonight and Extra, is intoxicating even to designers who profess to take the long view. Though Bouwer insists, "I'm not really an Oscar hound," he certainly has his hopes up. "We do have a few people we think are right for our clothes and we've sent dresses out to them, but they don't decide until 20 minutes before, anyway. Joan Allen requested swatches and sketches, so we have a shot there. The disappointment when someone doesn't choose your dress can be heartbreaking."

It wasn't always thus. In the early days of Hollywood, there weren't any stylists in the picture, let alone fashion designers. "Helen Rose or Edith Head made Elizabeth Taylor's Oscar dresses," sighs Patrick McDonald. "When Edith Head told you, 'You're thick around the middle, you need an empire waist,' you listened." (Or not—in this month's Vanity Fair, William Frye recollects taking Bette Davis to the 1963 Academy Awards, for which she chose to wear an old black dress with an orange panel, backwards.)

Illustrations: Jorge Colombo

With all the attention being paid to every facet of their outfits, you would think these actresses were fluttering around like butterflies, holding free dresses up to their bosoms, and whistling "I Feel Pretty," but that is far from the case. "Stars are insecure, just like anyone," says Steinhart. "They always have people around them saying, 'Oh, no, you can't wear that!' " Not only that, but once a celebrity—or her factotum—has made the final decision, she has to walk the plank and face Joan Rivers, a prospect some people find less than tantalizing. Patrick McDonald says that even dressed to the nines, more than one star has been known to balk at the last minute. "A lot of actresses go in the back door—they don't want the ridicule."

If anyone is presiding over the free-for-all that is modern Hollywood it's the stylist, cruising the hotel suites and bringing the gowns to the gals. Phillip Bloch, one of the best known, and a guy who dates events with phrases like "the year I put the tiara on Salma," says of the period leading up to the Oscars, "This week everyone calls me Mr. Bloch! There are autograph people outside the hotels! Everybody thinks this goes on for months, but no one moves on it until 10 days before—it really all happens in the last week." Asked what styles will be big this year, he replies that he's got a good feeling about corsets: "The whole corset thing will take off—plus, a lot of the other classics." And he isn't hesitant about letting actresses know what he thinks of some of their previous choices; it's not for nothing that he has sat next to Joan Rivers at her Oscar postmortems. "Hopefully Julia will do something besides a black T-shirt this year, and really take the plunge! Really go for glamour!"

"Stars are insecure, just like anyone. They always have people around them saying, 'Oh, no, you can’t wear that!' "

Of course, an ineluctable part of that glamour is the karat-heavy jewelry, but bijouteries, unlike fashion designers, aren't about to give stuff away. This year, Van Cleef & Arpels is sharing the Governor's Suite at L'Ermitage with Diane Von Furstenberg and Helena Rubinstein, among others. "Some companies pay the actresses in money to wear their jewelry, but we don't," says Lisa Kaplan, a Van Cleef spokesperson, adding that serious measures, including bodyguards in black tie, are always taken to insure the gems' safety. "If they have a safe in their house, the celebrity can keep the jewelry overnight, but sometimes they just have a stylist or someone else who runs around and returns everything that night." One stylist said that jewelry companies don't even bother with deploying a bodyguard unless a piece is worth more than $700,000, but that, in any case, Oscar night is crawling with guards in evening clothes, lurking outside the ladies' room and otherwise shadowing their charges.

Rebecca at Fred Leighton, an antique jewelry shop with headquarters on Madison Avenue, was glad to relay previous tales of triumph: "Vera Wang came in and chose those diamond clips that Charlize wore; did you see Jennifer wearing our huge 1950s brooch?" But she clammed up when asked specifics about security issues. "Let's just say, the jewelry is very secure. The jewelry is certainly being watched. No, we've never, never lost a piece." For Fred Leighton and the other jewelers, there can be immediate financial rewards to getting something around a star's neck, arm, or finger: Folks with plenty of money who live far from fancy stores call the shop right after the broadcast and say, "I want that piece!"

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