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Oscar visions

Actress-designer collaborations have a dazzling back story -- before Kidman and Galliano, there was Dietrich and Dior.

February 28, 2010|Julie Neigher

Forget about the movies: At Oscar time, in homes across America, armchair fashion critics give thumbs up or thumbs down to the clothes worn on the red carpet or on stage as presenters and awardees glam it up.

But for everyone who looked at Bjork in 2001 and thought "taxidermist," someone else thought "avant-garde." For everyone who thought Edith Head dressed Grace Kelly like a princess in 1955's ice blue satin, someone else thought "ice queen."

Face it: No matter how many worst and best lists there are, we're never going to agree about who looked fab or drab. But we can agree to remain spellbound by the clothes, and the reasons why, since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1929, stars have looked ravishing -- or not. How did they make their choices? It's a process far more involved than just spinning around, pointing a finger at a gown, and crying " Voila!" Each choice has a reason -- and, often -- a fascinating story. Politics, trends, contracts, money, loyalty -- fashion is an exceedingly complicated business. And the Academy Awards ceremony, which started off as a rather humble affair, has put it under a microscope. The telecast has grown into an endorsement worth, according to some estimates, $1 million per gown or accessory in publicity for ateliers, with the potential to make fashion designers into stars in their own right.

Every dress tells a story

Many believe that the first designer/celebrity collaboration was the famous pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, which began with work on "Sabrina" in 1953 and continued throughout the star's life. But Marlene Dietrich and Christian Dior would disagree. The two, who had become close after being introduced by Jean Cocteau, formed a mutually beneficial relationship. In 1951, when she was asked to present the winner for foreign-language film, Dietrich had a problem. She was seen as an aging star who, at almost 50, was on the down slope of her career. But she had a superb sense of style and, with Dior, she hatched a plan to take the Oscar stage by storm. Having researched what the other actresses would be wearing through an insider source, Dietrich knew that the predominant motif was going to be fluffy pastels and beading. So she and Dior opted for dark and minimalist. In the Aug. 18, 1952, Life magazine article, "Dietrich and Her Magic Myth," written by Winthrop Sargeant, Dietrich further explains how she and Dior devised their plan for her walk across the stage: "Mamma is going to wear black so Mamma had better be slinky -- nice, black."

The two left no detail unattended. Dior asked whether Dietrich would be entering the stage from the right or from the left. Why? Because he needed to know where to slit her skirt to show off her gorgeous gams. The answer: stage left. As Dietrich came onstage to present the award, she received a standing ovation. What caused the rise from the seats? The sleeveless bolero, showing her decolletage, a nipped waist, a silk velvet bow swaying on her hip, and the figure-hugging ensemble that showed off her "stage-left" leg. It was Dietrich who made the headlines the next day, not the nominees. One observer said it was a shame there'd been no medal for glamour.

In 1936, Bette Davis received a lead actress nod for "Dangerous." She was the first Warner Bros. actress nominated -- and she was offended. The actress had made 16 films at Warners, but she considered her work embarrassing, the product of abysmal scripts. Moreover, she felt that a year earlier Warners had sabotaged her chances of winning for her role as Mildred Rogers in "Of Human Bondage." That film had been done for RKO, on loan, and Warners wasn't about to have its contract player win the Academy Award in a competing studio's film.

Davis wanted desperately to get out of her seven-year contract with Warners. When the nomination for "Dangerous" came, she planned to set sail for Hawaii with her mother. But Jack Warner got wind of her plans and forced her to attend the Oscars. The final blow came when studio lawyers informed the actress that she wouldn't be loaned out again to RKO for a role she coveted.

Bronwyn Cosgrave, in her book, "Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards," wrote that Davis felt "so in 'servitude' to Warner that she decided to dress like the hired help." She found a suitably dowdy dress she'd kept from the film "Housewife" (another pedestrian flick she'd been forced into). It was an Orry-Kelly number, featuring a strong white print on a navy background with glaring white lapels. To the actress' amazement, she won the statuette that evening, and when she went backstage, the editor of Photoplay shouted, "How could you? You don't look like a Hollywood star.... Your photograph is going around the world. Don't you realize? Aren't you aware?" Davis was, indeed, aware. Her plan had worked, and she had made her point. She would finally get the roles she wanted, thanks to her "anti-fashion" statement.

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