War is the new black

The conflict in Iraq might be the best thing that ever happened to Oscar fashion.

Published March 24, 2003 4:55PM (EST)

It's true: Joan and Melissa Rivers, the gold lamé and jersey-draped mother-daughter duo best known for swooping down on stressed-out movie stars like a pair of harpies from the night, were banned from the red carpet at the 75th Academy Awards last night. Like the rest of the press, the E! Channel-designated Oscar fashion arbiters were in a TV studio, forced to watch the arrivals on a square screen like the rest of us.

Our four-day-old war with Iraq may have stopped Joan and Melissa, and may have ended the reign of the red carpet and bleachers of screaming fans, but it did not stop fashion.

"Oh, thank God!" croaked Joan, as first one and then another Hollywood actress stepped out of a limo revealing a bit of leg, some shimmering chiffon, a rustle of taffeta. "Thank God!" Joan was almost beside herself. "We didn't know if it was going to be glamorous or not! But here it is, people are looking good! Oh, thank God!"

The controversy over what to wear to this year's Oscars has loomed over Hollywood like its usual haze of smog since the moment President Bush stared into the camera last Monday and told the American people he was giving Saddam Hussein 48 hours to give up power or face war.

The town swirled with dilemmas moral and practical: Would it be unseemly to cavort about on a red carpet, bejeweled and bedecked, as our military dropped bombs on another country?

After the World Trade Center collapsed in September 2001, the Emmys were postponed twice and actresses and actors were urged to dress in business attire rather than in cleavage-bearing gowns.

In 1942, at the first Oscars after the United States entered World War II, the academy actually put a ban on evening gowns -- a ban gossip columnist Hedda Hopper urged actresses to break -- and asked women to give the money they would have spent on orchids, the diamonds of the 1940s, to the Red Cross.

In March 2003, however, the academy, the stylists, and the fashionistas of Hollywood said no to any such measure. They decried the very notion that outside events -- even a war -- should affect how one chooses to dress. It was a mess of last-minute adjustments, indecision, orders for jewels, cancellations of orders of jewels, and controversy over things like whether it was too controversial to wear a pin that was a gold abstract representation of a dove.

Somehow, like a group of squirming molecules that suddenly became a single cell, Hollywood showed a remarkably unified fashion front last night. The look: subdued glamour.

The war in Iraq just might be the best thing to happen to Oscar fashion since television.

Coco Chanel once said a woman should always take one item off before leaving the house. She would have been pleased last night. Gone were the ropes of Harry Winston diamonds -- except in the case of Queen Latifah, who borrowed $4 million worth -- heavy makeup, and miles of bright, thick, satin trains that had come to typify the Oscars of the '90s. The night was (almost) faux pas free.

In were draped sheaths, Victorianesque silhouettes, neutral colors, basic black, soft chignons and lipstick as an accessory.

The standout of the evening was Julianne Moore, in a deep-green, strapless gown, drawn together in the front and back with cascading ruffles. Her pale red hair was pulled back into a low, loose chignon slightly off to the side of her neck. And, except for a pair of drooping green chandelier earrings, there was no other adornment marring the expanse of white skin from the top of her breast to the tip of her forehead, which stood out as her finest accessory.

Many other actresses wore black. Nicole Kidman, who has dazzled in the past in chartreuse-embroidered John Galliano and frilly pink Chanel, accepted her Oscar for best actress in floor-length black chiffon with off-the-shoulder ropes of fabric instead of sleeves and an asymmetrical, low-hanging back. Like many of the dresses seen last night, there was a distinctly Grecian feel to its soft folds, twists and turns of fabric, and draping.

Other actresses who wore black included Jennifer Connelly, Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Angelica Huston, Barbra Streisand and Susan Sarandon.

Connelly in particular looked stunning with a simple low ponytail and red lipstick as her only adornment.

Even when there was bright color, it had a certain restrained quality to it. Renée Zellweger wore a raspberry-colored dress from Caroline Herrera with spaghetti straps and an intricate lace and beadwork torso. But the appliqué was the same color as the rest of the dress, which created a sort of simplicity that belied the intricacy of the design. The toned-down effect was also accentuated by her simple chin-length bob and lack of jewelry.

In fact, the motif of same-color appliqués and fancy beadworks was replayed all through the night, whether on the black bustier peaking out from beneath Barbra Streisand's fitted jacket, or the silver corset-style top of Queen Latifah's Halston gown, or the champagne-colored beading on Halle Berry's Elie Saab dress. It was a way to be formal and festive yet (for Hollywood, at least) restrained.

Of course, there were those about whom you couldn't help but wonder: With an army of stylists and personal shoppers and hair and makeup people, this is what you came up with?

Marcia Gay Hayden, who drew rave reviews for her siren red old-Hollywood satin dress two years ago when she won best supporting actress for her role in "Pollock," looked like an overgrown bridesmaid this year in a one-shouldered Eric Gaskins gown of aqua chiffon. Hilary Swank wore a bright pink dress with an ombré effect (when the color subtly shifts into a deeper shade) and a jewel in the center of her abdomen with the overlay of tulle emanating out from it. Normally sophisticated, Swank looked like an aberrant member of the ballet corps.

And, while Jennifer Lopez's sea foam green Valentino gown added nicely to the Grecian theme so prevalent last night, it was noticeably ill-suited to her, reminding one of Mrs. Roper of "Three's Company" running amok in a billowing muumuu.

As for the men, only Sean Connery really made a fool of himself, in a ruffled white shirt front that, sadly, looked more like a bib than a proud old Scottish tradition. Perhaps if he'd gone all the way and worn a kilt he could have gotten away with it, but as it was, he only induced host Steve Martin to quip that he'd come to the ceremonies all the way from Red Lobster.

Daniel Day-Lewis looked sharp in a gray iridescent suit and a shaved head, but Adrien Brody stole more than the best actor statuette from him. Even before winning, Brody was looking good in a narrow charcoal-gray suit and same-color patterned tie, his hair dark and lank, and looking (fashionably) as if he'd cut it himself.

So the red carpet was truncated, the press were kept in front of their TVs instead of bum-rushing the stars, and Peter Jennings broke in once to say that 15 American Marines were dead. But the Hollywood women and men still managed to have their night of celebration. Fashion watchers everywhere now have only to hope that it won't always take a war, and the subsequent fear of appearing frivolous, to kindle the kind of subdued elegance on display last night.

By Heather Chaplin

Heather Chaplin is currently working on a book about video-game culture for Algonquin.

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