Whoopi's garnet gown sets the tone for classy fashions at the Oscars THE ACADEMY AWARDS

Praise be for some fashion lights at last night's 66th annual Academy Awards. We were getting worried after last year's lack of luster.

In recent years, Oscar night gawking has disappointed -- too much black, too much simple. The spark kicked in when mistress of ceremonies Whoopi Goldberg made her entrance in an empire-waisted garnet velvet gown by Ray Aghyan. Go girl! And with a train yet.


Debbie Allen was wearing the same designer, same color. Ms. Allen's gown, however, was topped with a bronzy leather breastplate, a sort of Joan of Arc does Hollywood look. Uncomfortable, but definitely dramatic. The Oscars were off to a good fashion start.

Marisa Tomei, sporting short hair, presented the Supporting Actor statuette. She flowed on stage in a silvery slip. Also with train. We see a train trend happening.


Ms. Tomei's dress was by Vera Wang, who also dressed Holly Hunter in black and chiffon and Nancy Kerrigan in the Wang signature halter cut.

The dulling-down of star fashion seems to have coincided with actresses wanting to be called actors and actors wanting to be called thinkers.

That serious turn had actresses patronizing the serious designers, who are better known for tailoring than tulle trains: Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan, Richard Tyler, Calvin Klein.

Barbs flew about the Armanicizing of Hollywood, but that looks about to change.

Let's face it, good taste is not always memorable. Good tacky is. Anyone asked to name a memorable Oscar gala dress would be pressed to get past that peek at Barbra Streisand's buns through her sheer illusion by Scaasi. Ditto for Cher. Bob Mackie strung her in a beaded curtain that couldn't have kept a mosquito out.

Tacky never hurt. No one remembers the fashion mavens who snickered, but La Streisand and Cher have become lifetime achievement divas even though they have toned down considerably: Barbra's now being dressed by chum and diva designer Donna Karan, and Cher has learned to cover up.

Also covering up was Dolly Parton, who looked almost demure in a black satin, hip-bowed confection. No rhinestone cowgirl looks for Dolly, but then she did have to share the stage with two drooling Saint Bernards.

Up to her neck in marvelous was Glenn Close in a silvery beaded Armani tunic dress.


She presented a special Oscar to Deborah Kerr, wearing blue pailettes by Escada.

On the other end of the swathed spectrum was Geena Davis, looking very Hollywood in a silvery slip of a thing that slipped and slid and was cut down to there front and back. The dress was barely held together with glittery straps.

Richard Tyler, the Australian transplant in his ascendancy as designer to the stars, dressed Janet Jackson in pale jacket and trousers. He first drew his glitzy clients to his atelier with marvelously detailed unisex jackets that were snapped up by the Hollywood hip.

Now that Tyler has won over the fashion establishment with two memorable collections, his star is rising higher.

This year's pale palette outshone last year's darks: Daryl Hannah in pale beaded empire, Claudia Schiffer in banded Versace, Winona Ryder in pixie hair and a light slip.

One of the strongest fashion statements, and a surprise, was little Anna Paquin, who coolly collected her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work in "The Piano" wearing a blue and turquoise dress and overskirt that looked like an Elizabethan princess portrait by Holbein. A tilted cap completed the period look.


The male tux parade seemed to be divided between Armani, Nino Cerruti and Calvin Klein. The Cerruti contingent included Anthony Hopkins, who reprised the tux that he wore when he collected his Oscar for "Silence of the Lambs."

Liam Neeson was in black-on-black Armani. Most of the Armani devotees left their ties at home in favor of a band-collared shirt, looking for all the world like defrocked clerics who have succumbed to the lures of Hollywood Babylon. But they looked good.

All in all, it was a dandy formal affair. Whoopi changed into her Armani tux for the final presentations. It never pays to miff a designer.