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[THE OSCARS] | FASHION

Wear it while you can

The clothing combinations on the red carpet are well suited to many of the wearers. But for others, a little tip: Dress your age.

February 26, 2007|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

NO matter how famous you are, there's no escaping age. Forget the astronomically expensive gown, the 50 carats on loan, the dermatologist on speed dial, the stylist who never sleeps. When you're on the red carpet, in front of millions of critics, the question is not just what's gorgeous, it's what combination of gown, jewels, hair and makeup is gorgeous on you right now.

And we're not just talking about stars of a certain age. This year's Oscar nominees ranged from 10 to over 70 -- and in a time when no one is shocked by the sight of moppets dressed like streetwalkers or grandmothers who think Forever 21 is a promise, not a store for teenagers, the mind reeled at the possibilities.

It takes a certain amount of presence -- and yes, maturity -- to carry off a big-deal dress. Twentysomethings have to grow up some before they can manage seriously sophisticated fashion -- even a gown as simple as the Oscar de la Renta halter that got the better of Jessica Biel. But with a little seasoning, it's possible to enjoy that sweet spot -- those magic years when a woman is old enough to project a little gravitas yet young enough to still be as fabulous as she'll ever be.

Cate Blanchett is there, and she has some company in Penelope Cruz, Naomi Watts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyonce Knowles and Kate Winslet. All wore gowns that would have overwhelmed a kid and sunk a lady.

The cool thing was that the older women looked as good as anybody. The 60-plus Helen Mirren and 57-year-old Meryl Streep avoided the mature woman's worst nightmare -- being tagged as mutton dressed as lamb. Dame Helen, her platinum hair in a soft, pretty pageboy, knows how to play up her assets. Her Christian Lacroix gown featured a flattering, sexy neckline that wasn't too risque and snug elbow-length sleeves. It hugged her small waist and flowed gracefully over her hips. Perfection.

Streep, in a Prada coat and long, full skirt and ethnic jewelry, seemed to be channeling Millicent Rogers. Streep looked like an artist, or like an actress playing an artist. It would have been hard for her to outglam the younger women on the stage, so her decision to go in another direction was bold.

You would think Peter O'Toole, in a scary purple brocade dinner jacket, would be old enough to know better. Clint Eastwood, who wore a geeky tie to the Golden Globes, traded it for a traditional bow tie and looked like a winner.

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Youth is no guarantee

THE most vexing challenge is not necessarily what to wear once the bloom is off the rose, so to speak. Young women can goof too, by dressing like their mothers. Kirsten Dunst is only 24, which makes her choice of a prim ivory and silver Chanel gown hard to fathom. It could have been salvaged from the trunk of an ancient chorine. This is her time to look zippy or sweet, not buttoned-up in an overwrought dress.

Reese Witherspoon has worn her share of matronly dresses too, but she smartened up. In a deep purple, form-fitting, strapless gown by Nina Ricci, with stick-straight hair and schoolgirlish bangs, she looked like what she is -- a sexy, stylish 30-year-old.

It's ironic that youth is so undervalued by those who have it. Nora Ephron warns young women that "anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of 35 you will be nostalgic for at the age of 45." Portia de Rossi, at 34, seems to have gotten the message. She picked a stunning halter gown with only ribbons of fabric decorating her mostly naked back. Years from now she probably won't want to reveal so much flesh. Smart cookies go bare when they can.

And what's a kid to wear? Something fancy and fun. The youngest stars -- Abigail Breslin and Jaden Smith -- seemed to be dressier versions of themselves. Jaden wore a traditional tuxedo with his goofy-hip mop of hair. Abigail's miniature prom dress avoided any beauty pageant horrors but could've had a little more of a Hollywood vibe. At least she avoided the clunky cardigan someone put on her for the Golden Globes.

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mimi.avins@latimes.com

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