The fashion show before the Oscars


Tonight is Oscar night, and a few pressing questions will finally be answered: Who will be named Best Actress? Will "Saving Private Ryan" beat "Shakespeare in Love" for best picture? What will Whoopi wear?

Winning an Academy Award is great, but Hollywood's biggest night is really an excuse for the average American to repeatedly scream at the television: "What the heck does she have on?!"

Fashion has become so much a part of the Oscars and other award shows that it has spawned a new sartorial necessity: the celebrity stylist. And now that movie stars have stolen the fashionable thunder from supermodels, media coverage of award shows has become increasingly intense and competitive.

For hard-core fashionistas, the only thing that beats the actual Oscar ceremony is the live pre-show on the E! Entertainment channel with comedian Joan Rivers and her daughter, Melissa Rivers, as hosts.

The E! Channel has been airing shows like those that precede the Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globe awards since 1988 and today plans to devote 11 hours to Academy Award coverage outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (The E! channel's coverage runs from noon until 8 p.m., then resumes after the Oscar broadcast.)

That's 11 hours of to-die-for haute couture gowns, sublime hairdos and perfect makeup -- enough to satiate the appetite of the most die-hard fashion fan.

John Rieder, vice president of programming for the E! Channel, says shows like tonight's "pre-Oscar" broadcast "really speak to the fascination people have for celebrities and fashion. They want to see how stars get dressed, how they get ready and decide what to wear. It's a fashion review that everyone can get in on."

Melissa Rivers, who will wear a Vera Wang gown for tonight's festivities, says: "The thing about our pre-award coverage is that it's fun. One of the things I keep coming back to is that fashion should be fun. People tune in to see me or my mom talk to celebrities about what they're wearing. People tell me all the time that they love watching the pre-show almost as much as the actual award show."

Perhaps as proof of the format's popularity, Academy Award producers plan to air their own show on ABC at 8 o'clock tonight, a half-hour before the main event. Geena Davis -- who's lived through her share of Oscar fashion mistakes -- will emcee. (Whoopi Goldberg is the host of the Oscar ceremony.)

The Academy has declared that no other networks can broadcast from the fabled red carpet during that time, leaving Joan Rivers, who owned that piece of air time, reportedly irked.

For designers, the Oscars are the Super Bowl of fashion events. Almost as soon as the nominations were announced in February, designers began courting nominees and attendees to wear their creations.

With more than a billion viewers worldwide, Oscar night can make a designer's reputation. Flattering photos of stars at the Oscars can circulate for weeks after the awards, whipping up the kind of buzz a designer can't buy.

Picture Uma Thurman in an ethereal lavender creation from Prada and Jada Pinkett Smith's two-piece tummy-baring Versace number. Minnie Driver's slinky red gown and fox stole designed by Randolph Duke for Halston was widely praised as one of last year's best dresses.

Some stars remain loyal to one big-name designer, wearing their creations almost exclusively. Michelle Pfeiffer, Jodie Foster and Mira Sorvino are devotees of Italian maestro Giorgio Armani. Gwyneth Paltrow loves the minimalism of Calvin Klein, and Nicole Kidman favors John Galliano for Christian Dior.

"Designers are desperate for these people to wear their clothes," says Leon Hall, co-host of the E! Channel's popular "Fashion Emergency" and a fashion stylist for almost 30 years. "It's worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in free publicity. The stars show up, have their picture taken and the picture is sent out around the world. It's an international PR event."

This year's most sought-after actresses are young nominees Cate Blanchett, Emily Watson and Paltrow. Designers also court such A-list stars as Sharon Stone, Ashley Judd and Cameron Diaz.

"If you're a nominee, every major designer sends you boxes and boxes of things to wear. You have a team of people dying to do you, work with you and make you gorgeous," Rivers says. "You simply have to make a decision."

In the weeks before the awards, designers armed stylists with goody bags filled with congratulatory notes, press kits and Godiva candies for nominees.

Many stars were offered freebie gowns, shoes, handbags, sunglasses and even jewelry. Some had as many as 25 gowns to choose from, and rely on stylists -- some of whom earn as much as $1,000 a day -- to create a memorable look.

Stylist to the stars Phillip Bloch has become a star in his own right. Bloch's clients include Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Fran Drescher and Salma Hayek. He regularly appears on E! and recently wrote a book called "Elements of Style: From the Portfolio of Hollywood's Premier Stylist" (Warner Books, 1998, $22).

But even stylists feel pressure to create the perfect Oscar ensemble, particularly because everyone seems to remember the Oscar fashion disasters. Although Kim Basinger's full-skirted pale green Escada ball gown was a standout at last year's awards, she is still remembered for her one-sleeved asymmetrical gown from 1990. Ditto Demi Moore's disastrous biker shorts and bustier from 1989.

Hall says, "Sometimes I see people as they're on the red carpet and I think, 'Did the stylist slip? Did they have one margarita too many at lunch?' But that's one of the things that makes live pre-shows so much fun -- the shock of it all."

Rivers rankles at the criticism that she and the rest of E!'s crew are overly critical.

"Listen, I don't think we're mean," she says. "Most of these women are paid to look really, really good, to stay in shape and just look amazing. This is their job.

"Besides," she says, since everyone says the same things in their homes, "why shouldn't we say it, too?"

Pub Date: 03/21/99

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