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The Baltimore Sun

They walk on air

Times Staff Writers

It is no longer a secret that for big Hollywood nights like the Emmy Awards, designers provide free gowns and tuxedos to deserving stars (those likely to be on camera or in the path of photographers). Now that a number of the recipients of freebie duds have banded together to auction their gently worn finery on Ebay and donate the proceeds to charity, viewing an awards show celebrity fashion derby isn't just a spectator sport. The audience at home can assemble a shopping list while watching.

Of course fitting into an actress' Emmy gown might be a bigger challenge than posting a winning bid. "I diet every day of my life," Kim Cattrall said, explaining how to prepare to wear a dress as revealing as the Armani beaded gown she chose. Her gown was cut out at the midriff. Jennifer Garner's champagne satin column by Narciso Rodriguez featured ventilation in her rib region as well, and Kristen Davis' purple strapless Ralph Lauren gown had a triangle cutout in back, at her waist.

The point of baring skin was practical, a number of actresses in strapless, backless, slit and low-cut gowns explained. Marg Helgenberger picked a lavender ice gown with a plunging neckline by Donna Karan because, she said, "It was so hot last year that I wanted to be cool." Janel Moloney's sheer metallic chiffon by Valentino looked light as a breeze. Another weightless Valentino dress, Christina Applegate's pale blue chiffon, billowed as she floated on stage at the Shrine. With her bobbed blond hair softly curled, she brought to mind early movie stars like Marion Davies and Mary Pickford. There were other ways of trying to be cool and comfortable besides going as naked as possible. Alfre Woodard wore sandals that resembled jeweled flip-flops.

If the festivities weren't enough to make most women want to go for glamour, the dressed-down style of a lot of current series might. The only time Courtney Thorne-Smith, who plays a housewife in sweatpants and hoodies on ABC's "According to Jim," might wear a form-fitting, cleavage-baring gown like the Herve Leger number she chose for the awards, would be in a dream sequence. Poppy Montgomery is all business as an FBI agent on "Without a Trace." In a peacock green tulle tea-length dress Richard Tyler made for her, she looked like a lovely ballerina.

The heat seemed to influence hairstyles as well. Sarah Jessica Parker and Sarah Wynter were among those who swept their long hair into sleek, low buns. Stockard Channing and Jane Kaczmarek looked comfortable and pretty in newly tousled short haircuts.

Unfortunately and uncharitably, awards shows are often remembered for their disasters, red carpet goofs of the caliber of Lara Flynn Boyle's Golden Globes ballerina get-up or Jennifer Lopez's wide-open Versace dress. It would be tough to award a Doesn't She Own a Mirror? statuette this year. Wanda Sykes and Paula Abdul were the women most likely to be nominated as fashion victims. Sykes' one-sleeved ombre blue gown by Bradley Bayou for Halston fit poorly for starters. Abdul's black-and-white embroidered Miss Kitty number hardly needed a sparkling choker and tiara.

There was nary an unadorned earlobe in sight. It's one thing to walk down the red carpet with earrings the size of door knockers. But what separates the women from the girls is the ability to keep the oversized jewels on all evening. Photographs of the heartiest partyers in the wee hours will tell the tale. Perhaps the size of the earrings — many of them diamond — proves that when it comes to borrowed jewelry, it's hard to exercise restraint. The trend for wearing jewelry that can only stay the night reached the point of absurdity when Joan Rivers, covering red carpet arrivals for the E! channel, recognized the Fred Leighton diamond bracelet she'd worn to Buckingham Palace on Thorne-Smith. "I know that bracelet," she said. "Prince Charles loved it!"

Bonnie Hunt, who looked like she was wearing her own understated baubles, was one of the few women in black — a long-sleeved, V-neck gown designed by Nancy Martin, the costumer for Hunt's sitcom, "Life With Bonnie." Red was a popular choice (for Cynthia Nixon, Thora Birch, Catherine Dent), and white and pale pastel gowns (such as Alicia Silverstone's backless vintage dress from Lily et Cie, Parker's frothy strapless Chanel and Patricia Heaton's halter-cut satin) didn't look like escapees from a wedding.

Men came bow-tied, tieless and Windsor-knotted. Joe Pantoliano, in his trademark backward newsboy cap, jazzed up his tuxedo with a silver vest and matching tie. Dancing penguins frolicked across Peter Boyle's bow tie and cummerbund by Nicole Miller. But the Fab Five from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" were the most colorful tribe in the room.

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