The Academy Awards represent more now than just the best of the year’s films. For all intents and purposes, it’s as much big business for the fashion industry as it is for the films, their creators and those who star in them. Since the entertainment icon Joan Rivers first asked the question ‘who are you wearing?’ 20 years ago, the red carpet became The Red Carpet, a multi-million dollar business coming only second in the revenue stakes to the films it played host to. Little did Rivers and daughter Melissa then know back in 1995 – the year they first covered the Oscars for the E! network – that asking the questions everybody wanted answered but didn’t dare ask would make them single-handedly responsible for attracting the millions in global audiences that tuned in year-on-year for the (fashion) event, as Melissa expresses: ‘We didn’t have a clue that [that] simple question would make the red carpet more important for designers than Fashion Week or the September issue of Vogue.’ In other words, they’d turned what was previously a low-key photo op for A-list actors into a voyeuristic spectacle that so happened to be worth more to a designer than ‘a million dollars in advertising.’ (And that’s per dress).
To this end, the inaugural top 10 list on the Beauty Laureate are my *favourite looks of the Oscars. And when I say Oscars, I mean the on-location red carpet, not the Vanity Fair after-party which has become something of a mini-Met Ball all in its own right, because, frankly, I’d keep you here all night year. This being said, I haven’t kept my choices limited to just actresses but have included some from the partners and wives of nominated artists, too.
(*I have chosen my selection of looks from the noughties onwards, their order of appearance on the list does not denote a ranking but is purely for organisational purposes).
1) Angelina Jolie, 2009
It would be no Academy Awards list without The Queen of Hollywood herself making an appearance – the first with Brad Pitt at her side, if memory serves me correctly…
While this black column Elie Saab may seem tame, nor as referenced as her 2004 Marc Bouwer effort, for me, the beauty lies in all of the small, seductive details. For a start, the whole look is one of balance – as all of the very best ones are.
The deep sweetheart neckline itself is very provocative, but as Ms Jolie is very modest of chest, she gets away with it. In a further move away from what in other hands could’ve been a full-on busty look (yuck), the stylist kept her décolletage and swan neck refreshingly clear of clutter. NB There truly is nothing worse than a clunky necklace to ruin the nuance of a strapless gown. What could be more statement than bare skin, anyway?
The elegant drape of the fabric makes the peekaboo thigh slit more of an illusion as it’s covered by sheer chiffon, whilst the waterfall back continues the demure theme of the dress with its regal and cascading train.
Yet, all things considered, what really ups the ante and marries the entire look together are those Lorraine Schwartz jewels which pose quite some carat stats – All 115 of them. The spectacular pigment of those Colombian emeralds draws your eye straight to all of Jolie’s best assets, as mentioned, and of course, to that face.
What also strikes me is the consideration that’s gone into the hair and makeup, ensuring neither was too much/little as these obviously have a major contribution to the overall image. Props to the beauty team for choosing a romantic half-up/down ‘do to frame the face alongside fresh glow makeup (as it lifts the black of the dress) with a clear gloss and cat eyeliner. What a transition; from gothic to demure, from Billy to Brad; a black column dress never looked so good.
2) Penelope Cruz, 2007
If Penelope Cruz was a chocolate, she’d be a Viennese truffle. The combination of her tawny Spanish complexion and the indulgent nude tones of this Versace couture gown add up to one of the best red carpet visions of all-time. Of all the chemicals at play here, the features of note are the palette, shape and texture. The banded bodice has more of an oyster colour than the rest of the dress thanks to its smooth satin appearance which positively glows under the flash of the press bulbs, whilst the mermaid skirt is full, lustrous and figure-optimising. That is, whilst Ms Cruz is completely covered, the movement of the feather-y fabric is at once both provocative and extravagant. Versace is a brand known for its sexiness and this dress undoubtedly lives up to this legacy through the power of suggestion.
Since there is so much happening with the dress, a simple updo is all that was needed to bring the look together, so the intricate bun (complete with wrap around plait) is perfection – glossier than a show pony in peak season. The hair up also accentuates those shoulders which make such beautiful lines, and being drawn back off her face like this, you can fully appreciate the exquisite diamond cluster earrings and flawless makeup. This smoky-eyed Bambi look is effortless on Cruz and it’s great that the stylist also kept accessories to a minimal here too, allowing her to wear the dress, not the other way around.
3) Charlize Theron, 2004
As Joan Rivers would have said (and probably did): ‘THIS is a MOVIESTAR!’ This has to be one of my all-time favourite (and I’m probably speaking for many other a clothes-horses when I say this) red carpet looks. The word ‘stunning’ is overused a lot on social media these days with little to no justification. For once, it’s justified here.
Bringing back old school Hollywood glamour, Charlize is simply sublime. The beaded Gucci gown has a simple silhouette but nonetheless the wow-factor as said beads stand out from the creamy underlay to sparkle in the light of all those cameras, complimenting her skin’s natural golden tone and blonde locks. The marriage of her honeyed skin, light blonde tresses and gold of the dress has been an enduring one, since more than a decade on, the dress hasn’t aged a bit.
I think it’s a fair comment to say that this gown is one of two halves. In the front, there’s a nod to lingerie given the triangle shape of the bust line and delicate straps snaking out of view over her shoulder. What in some pictures is not visible is the racy above-knee split that is actually positioned front and centre of the gown, drawing the eye down her leg to the substantial train. However, the back of this dress, with its thin crossover straps and horizontal one lower down is a nuanced level of structure that makes this gown a showstopper. The final structural flourish is the train which beautifully elongates the dress for every picture.
Moving on to the accessories, I love how the diamond lattice cuff gleams like an extension of the beads on the dress, and how the drop earrings provide nice movement in line with her dazzling eyes. It’s no coincidence that the earrings hit where they do because they subsequently flatter (and are in sync with) her 40s inspired waves – hair any longer would struggle to pull all of these embellishments together. To complete the look, Theron is a textbook bronzed beauty with contoured skin and a smoky brown eye. She G l o w s in all of these pictures so it’s little wonder that six months after this event, Theron was signed to be the face of Dior’s bestselling perfume, J’adore (and still is, 12 years on).
4) Nicole Kidman, 2007
For me, red is perhaps the only colour that makes it out of the ‘friend-zone’ as far as primary colours are concerned on a classic gown. With her recent departure from E! News Giuliana Rancic, aka the reigning Queen of the Red Carpet interview, proclaimed this as her ‘best moment’ reporting from the Oscars in all of her fourteen years at the network. And it’s not hard to see why. This dress is e v e r y thing.
As the O.P.I nail polish chart has taught us, one colour can come in a million shades, and this red has proven to be pretty major in both memory and recreations. (Emma Stone’s 2012 Oscar dress caused quite some copycat buzz). In what is a simple enough column shape, Kidman pulled off one of the most iconic fashion moments of all-time in this Balenciaga gown like a modern day Grace Kelly. Exuding even more star quality than normal, Kidman’s stunning blonde hair was long like Rapunzel’s, swept over one shoulder with the red bow tied at the other, giving very Cartier ‘gift box’ vibes.
Ultimately what made this appearance so memorable for me is the contrast of colours and era. Kidman’s alabaster skin and blood red gown provide the classic roots whilst her poker straight hair gives the modern touch to bring the look full circle. Another contemporary edge to the ensemble was her makeup. The strong, defined brows are something ahead of their time but the rhubarb red lip and swipe of black eyeliner keep her look feeling current, if nonetheless timeless.
5) Jennifer Lawrence, 2013
A Leading Actress gong and a couture Dior gown made for a memorable night in February 2013. Lawrence’s dress was all kinds of Cinderella and she provided many a Kodak Moment on her way up the carpet and (trip-up) on stage. At last, a real ball gown on the red carpet! The accessories were dainty – an unusual back necklace and drop circle earrings were all that was required to add some effortless flourishes to her gown. Needless to say, the skirt spreading out into full capacity and its two-tiered effect at the back was the main spectacle. Again, pulled back hair was the simple answer to an extravagant gown as the tousled bun contributed to the classic feel of the look. I could say a lot more about number five, but I think it does all the talking as it is.
6) Camila Alves, 2011
Although not a movie star, Camila was always a must for me when considering the dresses I would put on this list. Many a time Alves has turned up on the arm of her now Oscar-winning husband, Matthew McConaughey, only to steal the show and put actual nominees in the shade. A model since she was 19, Alves knows how to pose for the cameras as well which always makes a huge difference. In 2011, she arrived to the Oscars in a couture Kaufman Franco ball gown and shut.it.down.
As you may’ve realised, I love black. And I love Kaufman Franco. They’re a fashion house that handles the combination of sophistication and blatant sexiness so well, both being themes that shine through here. I also appreciate that black is not always considered romantic but the composition of her updo and diamond earrings give many a princess-y vibe here. The dress itself is a brilliant plunging ball gown complete with empire waistband and full balloon skirt. It is beguiling and dramatic but evokes a dreamy presence at the same time, proving that if you have the right tailoring in a dress, black is all the statement colour that you need.
Although the dress is the main clause, the thin straps allow for the drop-cluster of creamy pearls which make a tasteful contrast to the black of the dress. Finally, I couldn’t finish without mentioning the hair. The theme here is very Catholic, very Italian wedding, complete with the centre parting and big, generous chignon placed low at her neck. As for the makeup, you’re probably looking at the best on the entire list. Camila Alves, can you say Hollywood?
7) Jenna Dewan-Tatum, 2015
It’s a dress from this year, and probably not expected, but Mrs D-T killed it looking *incredible* in this gown which manages to avoid drawing parallels to a bridal look, despite its crisp white colour. With an almost wintery theme thanks to its crystal accents and silver embellishments, this Zuhair Murad couture is every shade of wow, and unlike any of the other looks on this list, it’s all about the accessories.
The shape itself is a figure accentuating sleeveless plunge, so luckily her stylist hit a homerun with Jenna’s dancer physique which is streamlined into this daringly low-cut dress, erring on the side of classy as opposed to brassy. The silver and crystal embellishments that line the seams of the bottom half really up the glamour ante. Another defining flourish is the (assumedly) diamond encrusted belt that doesn’t quite meet in the middle like a broken-apart iceberg. I love the Lorraine Schwartz earrings (who else) because don’t they look like crystal leaves? To complete the look, she accessorised with a Stuart Weitzman sandal and for the makeup, a muted red lip with fluttery long lashes. All of the ice-princess vibes.
The nonchalant ponytail completes the look as anything more would’ve been too much, especially since the understated elegance of this muted hairstyle keeps Dewan-Tatum looking modern and fresh.
8) Jessica Chastain, 2013
Maybe it’s her dazzling smile, but after shortlisting this look it was impossible to leave out of my final top 10. As the lead actress in a male-dominated film, Jessica Chastain furthers her #girlpower reign as every inch the leading lady in this beaded Armani Privé, which is some kind of spectacular. A simple enough hourglass shape, sure, but I love the simultaneous juxtaposition and unison of colours at work here. Stylist Elizabeth Stewart cited her choice to put Chastain in this dress as largely down to the fact that the copper underlay picked up the colour of Chastain’s sensational flame-red hair – the unison part, whilst her creamy alabaster skin is set off against the bright crimson lip – the juxtaposition part.
Having her hair in 40s inspired loose waves smacks of very Old Hollywood Glamour but the style is updated with just a touch of the modern given its audacious length. Having a red lip on a redhead in a copper-tone dress is a bold choice, but it paid off, and with her flawless skin and cool eyeliner, Chastain looks a real beauty muse.
What is also significant about this dress is that whether you’re viewing it from afar or up-close, it looks a dream. Like a beautiful shell or the inside of an oyster, it’s that galaxy of iridescent beading that does the trick, did someone say stargazing? With the classic sweetheart neckline Jessica looks more Rabbit than Chastain, but she slays the tricky metallic trend where others have failed, and looks so feminine and effortless doing it.
9) Mila Kunis, 2011
The 83rd Academy Awards saw Miss Kunis nominated for a Supporting actress gong for her role in ballet drama Black Swan. Catapulted into Hollywood’s A-list, she certainly didn’t disappoint in this one-of-a-kind Elie Saab creation on that night in 2011. Constructed out of fine lace and silk chiffon, the dress is likely the most feminine/delicate/romantic on the list, if not the carpet for quite some years. The pale lavender hue is rarely seen in couture dress-making but went perfectly with her colouring and the gravitas of the event since she stepped out in a colour no one else would be wearing. This also afforded a stronger makeup look so as not to appear washed out by the pale shade of the dress, hence the dramatic smoky eye and thick lashes which look really intense on camera, taking the entire look to the next level.
In many a press junket interview Kunis told of how she trained for seven months in the run up to production to achieve an authentic dancer’s physique. While it’s not a figure-hugging gown, the dress makes the most of her lean arms and dainty waist with a low cut neckline and a similar V-cut back (offering a peek of skin either side). I love the way her looser hair look continues the romantic theme with a thoroughly 20’s vibe. Ultimately, this unexpected dress choice is one for the girly-girl in us all and proves that pastel can be at home on the red carpet.
10) Hilary Swank, 2005
Voted the 16th ‘Greatest red carpet gown of all time’ by a Daily Telegraph poll, this navy Guy Laroche gem received almost as much media attention as Ms. Swank herself – and she won the Oscar. After all, who could forget Whitney Port’s modelling of this dress (and subsequent fall) in a 2007 episode of The Hills, season two? But even that incident pales in comparison to the volume of praise afforded to Ms Swank and her team for taking a fashion a risk with what seemed such a conservative, safe choice – that is – until she turned around. By all means, Swank could have walked the entire carpet with her back to the cameras because the effect of it induced gasps of awe (and envy I’m sure). With swathes of material making up the fitted bodice section, the drama of the dress is reserved for the deep cut-out back of the gown.
Personally speaking, I have an unabashed love for turtleneck style, check out Claire Underwood’s relevant looks in Netflix’s House of Cards, and you’ll see why. Yet I’m also partial to a structured cut-out which so happen to be the touches that makes this dress a masterpiece. Although not officially a turtleneck, the extremely high cut neckline appears all the same to be very Stepford Wife. In truth, this is something of a stylistic peace-offering for the unapologetically sexy vision to come when Swank turns around. That is, a back laid bare to the world’s media, finishing in a seductive V-shape just short of her derriere which is similarly made the most of, the dress lying against every dip and curve, showing that here is a designer who is all about shape and engineering the most graceful, womanly silhouette. It’s another simple updo for the list, but the look celebrates her boxing-ready body and with her long hair down, the effect of the back wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful with as much aplomb.
Subtle makeup accentuates the sophistication of the dress with only a brown wash over her lid and nude shade on her lips. A lack of accessories actually concludes the look nicely because the dress needs no help; this fuss-free appearance is testament to the fact that being covered doesn’t translate into frumpy, and that less really is more.