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Red Carpet Runway: Fashion’s Investment In The Oscars

  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • February 10, 2015 at 4:19 AM

Shimmering dresses, sharp suits, flashing cameras and, of course, a beautiful red carpet are as much a part of the Academy Awards as the presentations that follow. The talent (specifically actresses) spend hours getting ready so that they become the very vision of style, fashion and beauty. Make no mistake, this is big business for everyone involved.

While the Oscars are primarily an event for the film industry, over the years it has also become one of the biggest fashion events in the world. Designers spend millions of dollars courting stylists and stars to get their garments on that red carpet – and into our heads. For designers and fashion houses, it’s akin to a huge advertising campaign, with each star a walking, talking billboard for the clothes, makeup and accessories they wear.

It works for them too, with women all around the world buying magazines filled with pictures from the red carpet. Sometimes these pictures get cut out and taken to hairdressers, or used as inspiration for events such as engagements and weddings. At other times, they become fodder for water cooler conversations at work (for example: “did you see how Angelina Jolie was standing in that dress?!”).

In this day and age, regardless of whether or not you follow the Oscars, you will see and hear all about the fashion. In fact, it’s got to the point where people are as likely (if not more) to remember who wore what than who won what award.

History: How Fashion Became A Part Of The Oscars

When the Academy Awards were launched some 87 years ago now, it was more about the films than anything else. The very first event was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, with just 270 guests paying $5 per ticket to be there.

As The History Channel website explains, it was an event purely to recognise the winners and the industry, with the awards actually announced some three months prior to the night.

“Starting with the following year’s awards, the Academy began releasing the names of the winners to the press on the night of the awards ceremony to preserve some suspense,” it says.

“That practice ended in 1940, after the Los Angeles Times published the results in its evening edition, which meant they were revealed before the ceremony. The Academy then instituted a system of sealed envelopes, which remains in use today.”

With the addition of secrecy around the winners, and the growing prestige of the Academy Awards, more and more people started paying attention.

The red carpet came, bringing press with their cameras and flashbulbs, and stars started getting their photographs taken before the actual awards. Even still, the outfits worn were chosen by people involved in the nominated films or by the stars themselves.

Associate Professor and Deputy Head of Fashion and Textiles at RMIT University, Karen Webster, explains this dynamic in an article for Women’s Agenda:

“Historically the stars of a film would be most likely dressed by the wardrobe supervisor at the film studio such as the iconic Adrian at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) or the legendary and most popular costume designer in Hollywood during this time Edith Head, who started at Paramount Studios and then moved to Universal,” she says.

“The alternate option was to purchase a preferred gown from a local dressmaker or store.”

It wasn’t until the 80s that things started to change. Fashion houses had started taking note of the influence stars had on the general public, the studio system was disbanded (leaving no one to pay for the gowns), and the “night of nights” became fair game for fashion “sponsorship” and promotion. Or, as Barney’s fashion ambassador Simon Doonan puts it in an article for Slate:

“Fashion and celebrity began to flirt with each other. By the ’90s the two copulated … and the red-carpet designer devil-baby was born. The fashionification of Hollywood began in earnest.”

It started with just one or two designers – Armani and Versace are considered two of the first – and has grown into a massive fashion parade of designers since then. Now, there’s as much reporting on “who wears what” as there is on “who wins what”.

The Role of Stylists

During the 80s and 90s, when fashion and celebrities were in the “honeymoon” period of their relationship, it was fairly standard for either party to contact the other in regards to a red carpet outfit. But as fashion has become a more prominent part of the Academy Awards (and award shows in general), the relationship between stars and designers, has shifted.

For Doonan, what was once a “period of stylish provocation and haute-couture insouciance” fizzled out as the peanut gallery grew through online channels.

“Suddenly a trillion billion unsophisticated voices were opining about what the celebs wore, and how they wore it. Everyone became a fashion expert. The level of interest was astonishing, as was the level of vitriol,” he says.

“These torrents of alternating delirium and venom had, I explained, a very unfortunate effect: Suddenly the actresses—I still cannot bring myself to say actors—became very self-conscious and guarded.”

While he argues this change led to less daring outfits and fewer fashion controversies, it also sparked the fire for a new kind of professional: the stylist. Stars that were concerned with public perception and the bias that could come from a relationship with one designer – or those overwhelmed with choices – started seeking out advice from independent consultants within the fashion and film worlds.

As the love affair between fashion and stars has flourished, so too have the demands and range of events (read: opportunities) where fashion can take centre stage. As reporter Vanessa Grigoriadis explains in a 2014 Vanity Fair feature, this evolution has given stylists an opportunity to make their own businesses out of working with stars.

“Today, with some of the media transforming itself into little more than a scrapbook for images, the sheer number of events (award ceremonies, red-carpet walks, advertising shoots, breakfast salon parties) at which stars must appear in order to be photographed, resulting in pictures that are disseminated in nearly real time across the Web, has exploded,” she explains.

“Therefore, a stylist’s doorbell never stops ringing for long, though it rings a bit more around awards season as she prepares her pièce de résistance: the Oscar gown.”

As the mediator between celebrities and designers, stylists now wield a lot of power and earn a lot of money. The top tier stylists, such as Rachel Zoe – who has worked with stars including Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Lawrence, Eva Mendes, and Anne Hathaway – and Leslie Fremar (Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson) are estimated to have net worth values of over US$2 million and can charge US$10,000 per job.


A photo posted by Lesliefremar (@lesliefremar) on

They also have some level of control over what fashion houses are associated with what stars. “Stylists are so frustrating—they’ve gone from being the person who organized the wardrobe to a person who is more powerful than the star wearing the clothes,” an executive at a jewellery company tells Grigoriadis in her VF feature.

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve run into actresses I know really well and tried to talk to them about wearing something, and they say, ‘Oh, great, fantastic.’ And then, somehow, you end up working with a stylist, and it never happens.”    

Then again, fashion houses have the power to choose what designs they put forward, and what conditions come with wearing a certain dress or outfit. So the control or “influence” is split between designers, stylists and stars to varying degrees.

The Star Power Play: Reasons They Say Yes

While there is no doubt some people involved in this fashion-film dynamic see stylists as the power players, ultimately it comes down to the stars themselves. They are, after all, the ones in the public eye.

But as many commentators have recently noted, they stand to make a lot from what they wear.

“There’s a reason Julia Roberts was wearing a Givenchy suit to the SAGs – she’s the face of the brand’s latest campaign,” Mamamia writer Alyx Gorman contends in one article about the relationship between stars and fashion.

“Naomi Watts wears a lot of Bulgari jewellery because she’s a brand ambassador.  And when Lupita Nyong’o puts her hands in that Mani Cam? It’s a pretty safe bet her nail polish is from Lancome’s Le Vernis range.”

Stars can make as much as US$200,000 from one public appearance, and even more from ongoing contracts. Julia Roberts, for example, was reportedly paid US$1 million for the Givenchy campaign (“not a lot”, one source says), while Jennifer Lawrence made US$15 million for a three-year deal with Dior.

But even though the numbers support Gorman’s argument that stars have all the power when it comes to what they wear, say and do on the red carpet, that is not the whole truth. Because as well as making money from red carpet fashion, actors and actresses can make (or break) their reputations.

In the Vanity Fair feature cited above, Grigoriadis highlights the importance of visibility for an artist. Through fashion, actors and actresses can get onto the covers of popular magazines – and into the sights of casting executives who may not have given them a second glance before.

The same can be said for wearing the “wrong” dress or label – ridicule for fashion choices can taint perception of a star and make it hard for them to book certain jobs. So as well as saying “yes” for the money, celebrities often choose a particular designer’s outfit based on how it could affect their overall career – which means the stakes are pretty high for them too.

Red Carpet Results

Academy Award-winning films stand to make millions at the box office after the ceremony, but stars, stylists and fashion houses can make just as much off this one night of the year. A number of studies have actually found that the 18-35 year old demographic is highly influenced by red carpet choices, choosing clothing, accessories and perfume based on what their favourite stars wear.

For many fashion labels, this makes the millions of dollars often spent leading up to events like the Oscars a worthwhile investment. It is advertising, without the blatant commercialism of a billboard or video.

So even though the Oscars are supposed to be all about the films and the creatives involved in that process, fashion’s creative people have just as big a stake in this event. And that’s definitely something else to think about when the topic of who wore what comes up around the water cooler after this year’s Academy Awards.

Images (L-R from top): Julia Roberts at the 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage; Angelina Jolie at the 84th Annual Academy Awards, credit: Oscars/YouTube; Rachel Zoe, credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz; Jennifer Lawrence at the 58th BFI London Film Festival, credit: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI; Julianne Moore at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards, credit:  Kevin Mazur/WireImage; Reese Witherspoon at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, via: Wikimedia Commons; The 2009 Oscars red carpet, credit: Greg Hernandez

Comments (1)
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    February 24, 2015 at 12:13 AM

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