Oscar Style, Then & Now

The role of designer shifts gears from contracted player to personal stylist

Oscar glamour does not materialize by magic. A gorgeous gown and a splash of diamonds are not enough to cast the spell. Creating the splendor seen on the red carpet takes hard work, long hours and the skill of a sartorial specialist.

These behind-the-scene savants have been relied upon since actors began accepting awards. It is their job to pull an ensemble together and make sure that the celeb sparkles with ease on awards night. Today they are called “stylists,” not so long ago they were called legends.

“Back then, actors had little control over their image. The studio did everything and look at the legacy they gave us,” says designer-stylist Penelope Francis, who recently held a gathering of industry professionals at her Fifi & Romeo boutique to discuss how an actor prepares for the Oscars. “It is a formidable challenge to rise to that level of sophistication and yet what a thrill to try. We’ll never get the exposure that Edith Head did but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing really great work.”

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Double duty

During Hollywood’s golden era it was the studio’s head costume designer (along with a vast team of assistants) who beckoned the gods of glamour, creating a name for themselves as well as unforgettable fashions for the stars. MGM’s Helen Rose designed costumes for the studio’s features and created the peignoir Joan Crawford wore in her sick bedwhen she accepted the 1945 actress Oscar for “Mildred Pierce.” At Paramount, it was Head who designed the costumes for 438 features as well as countless gowns worn to the Academy Awards. At Warner Bros. it was Orry-Kelly; Jean Louis was at Columbia.

“There was a time when we made 55 features a year,” recalls A.C. Lyles, a longtime producer at Paramount and a friend of Head. “We had hundreds of actors under contract. Creating an actor’s look, their image, was a primary function of the studio. (Head) was the one who sort of brought that vision to life. She was in charge, not just of costumes for the films but fashions for the advertising campaigns, dressing the girls for their film premieres and most importantly, for the Academy Awards.

“It was all about maintaining a consistent public persona. That was the system then. It worked to the studio’s advantage as well as the actor’s. Edie and her staff handled everything. All an actor had to do was show up, get dressed, and smile for the cameras.”

But stars are no longer under studio contract. There is no Svengali pulling the strings. Creating an image and maintaining a look is a celeb’s responsibility, and that’s why they turn to stylists.

“There is more to getting dressed than putting on a dress,” says stylist Tod Hallman. “Before these big awards shows I am running a million miles an hour in a million different directions. People, even people in the business, simply have no idea of the effort that goes in to making these stars look like movie stars.”

The complications are guaranteed. Gowns flown in from Paris or Milan can be held up in customs. Custom-tailored shirts don’t always fit as they should. Shoes dyed to match a gown often don’t. And, for all the choices available to them, actors can not always decide on what to wear. It is the stylist who must solve these problems before they become a crisis.

Too many cooks?

When things are going smoothly a stylist’s job sounds like great fun. Working with top-name designers, they help an actor select a gown or tuxedo. They schedule fittings with the tailor, meetings with a jeweler to find the perfect accessories, consult with hair and makeup artists, and discuss strategy with managers and publicists. Less thrilling but equally important details include making sure the soles of shoes are properly rubberized, dying shoes and handbags, and selecting the right color hosiery.

A good stylist, aside from a forte for fashion, is also possessed of excellent people skills. Edith Head was Edith Head and actors accepted her design decisions. Today’s fashion avatars must please a committee of people. Though it is the celeb who makes the final decision, managers, publicists, photographers and magazine editors must each be considered.

“Everyone has an opinion on wardrobe but it is not style by committee,” says manager Ric Beddingfield. “Even if every one of these voices was telling the artist that their outfit was crazy do you think they would listen? If they really loved what they were wearing they’d wear it no matter what any of their advisers had to say.”

“It is all about marketing,” adds Yana, a costume designer and stylist. “When you talk about film you are talking about character. An actor, when they are on that red carpet, is a character. It is my job as a stylist to create a persona. It is my job to create a look the public is going to love.”