In 1936, at the eighth Academy Awards, Bette Davis accepted the Oscar for actress wearing a dowdy suit with soaring white peak lapels and a pattern busier than a shoe sale at Saks.
Afterward, she was accosted by a magazine editor, who hissed, “How could you? You don’t look like a Hollywood star! Your photograph is going around the world. Don’t you realize?”
Thanks to Bronwyn Cosgrave, whose juicy book “Made for Each Other” details Davis’ audacity, the truth is out: The red carpet that unfurls for the Academy Awards has always been a competitive catwalk.
“The Oscars is the golden moment for fashion,” says Cosgrave, who unearthed savory details, from the number of rooster plumes in Cher’s notorious Bob Mackie feather headdress (800) to Diane Keaton’s leggings beneath casual layers in 1978. “And a stylist or costume designer has always worked with actresses.”
Indeed, modern-day sartorial Svengalis like Rachel Zoe date back to the days when Paramount costume designer Edith Head oversaw a staff of 50 and dressed the studio’s leading ladies. There was sniping and poaching back then, too. Cosgrave reports famed designer Hubert de Givenchy wooed Audrey Hepburn away from Head.
In addition to chronicling fascinating early Oscar highlights, Cosgrave also flings back the curtain on more recent attire antics. Her breathless recounting of nominee Hilary Swank’s “what to wear?” conundrum in 2000 reads like the final stretch of the Kentucky Derby, with couture designers neck-and-neck to the end.
“Zero hour arrived at the Hotel Bel-Air later that evening as Swank tossed aside like scraps of room-service toast innumerable gowns,” writes the author. (In the end, Swank went with a strapless Randolph Duke.)
Cosgrave, an astute historian, considers the years between 1955 and 1968 to be the acme of Oscar fashion. “The studio era was crumbling and there was a heady opulence that ruled Hollywood,” she says. “The actresses wore dresses that captured the spirit of their films.”
These days, she’s less impressed with the red carpet on Oscar night. “I would like to see another Cher moment or a bit more wit,” Cosgrave says.
She also laments how actresses flit from designer to designer instead of developing relationships, a la Grace Kelly and Head.
“I would prefer never to see another black dress on the red carpet,” she sniffs. “Boring.”