February 25, 2017

With the Academy Awards on Sunday—and our new book coming out soon after—we wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times. The Gray Lady shrugged her shoulders, so we're posting it here.

It’s hard to guess whether President Donald J. Trump will tune in to the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday evening. On the one hand, Meryl Streep is nominated, and we know how he feels about her. On the other, as an Axios article noted earlier this month, “in ways small and sweeping, (Trump) sees himself as The Producer, conducting the Trump show, on and off stage.” Can any figure who fancies himself a digital age David O. Selznick resist the siren song of what’s forever called “Hollywood’s biggest night”?

That same Axios piece yielded the now-infamous nugget that Trump allegedly prefers the women in his employ “to dress like women.” It might be instructive for the current President and former beauty pageant impresario to watch an evening of sartorial spectacle that is also unquestionably work for the women involved—and where enforcing norms is a Sisyphean task.

For the first decades of the Academy Awards’ existence, the studio costume designers who created the dresses that dazzled on the silver screen performed similar duty on the big night. No designer benefited more from the Academy Awards than Edith Head, and not simply because she took home eight statuettes for her handiwork, the most for any woman. Head, dubbed “Hollywood’s uncontested style leader” by writer Bronwyn Cosgrave, served as the Academy’s fashion consultant from 1951 into the 1970s. It was an ideal role for Head, who exploited the impact wardrobe could have in her own rise from Paramount Pictures sketch artist to the pinnacle of her profession. She adopted what she called “a simple unobtrusive uniform—tailor-made suits for the most part, in monotone colors” that would not draw attention from the luminaries in her studio salon while defining her own identity. Her insistence on costuming the performance and not the star—“The story is your Bible,” she wrote in her 1959 memoir The Dress Doctor, stressing that the primary question must always be “what kind of character are we dressing?”—might resonate with a chief of state who, according to the Axios article, was obsessed with whether prospective cabinet candidates “looked the part.”

Head’s duties as Academy fashion consultant included designing gowns for some participants, always with an eye toward how the dresses would appear on camera. “I did a lot with back panels, so that a grand exit could be made,” she said. She assessed ensembles in advance of the first televised Academy Awards ceremony in 1953, nixing starlet Terry Moore’s “sexy black” selection by saying it wouldn’t photograph well. (Moore wound up in a pale pink satin gown featuring a pocket full of poppies, designed by ... Edith Head.) During that inaugural broadcast Head was positioned backstage at the Pantages Theater, deciding if necklines plunged too precipitously and if so, offering a choice of remedies: either a rose to be strategically placed in the décolletage or a last-minute layer of tulle. Head even beat Joan Rivers at her game, analyzing attire she’d approved on a 1960 pre-show called Oscar Night in Hollywood.

Marlene Dietrich in Christian Dior, 1951

As both the film and fashion industries evolved and studios designers lost sway over the proceedings, Head’s principal consulting duty became imposing a sense of order. The Academy Awards had a dress code during World War II, with members advised before the 1942 ceremony to don dark, semi-formal attire. Later edicts focused on keeping idiosyncrasy in check. So many presenters dressed in similar shades during the April 1966 show in the hope of appearing tan that Head groused, “I looked at all those white dresses and I thought we were doing a reprise of White Christmas.” Head sent a letter to participants in 1968 to ward off slacks and miniskirts, encouraging pastel colors and writing, “As you know, long dresses (no Mini or day length) are more graceful on stage and on camera ... The Academy feels that the dignity of this traditional affair on our 40th Anniversary deserves formal dress.” Men weren’t excluded from this treatment; 1968’s instructions openly disapproved of beards, beads and turtleneck sweaters. “The Academy does not tell a star what she can or cannot wear,” Head said in a promotional interview for the 1970 program, adding “we feel sure that the stars aren't going to wear any of the freaky, far-out, unusual fashions.”

But the costume designer surely understood the potency of clothing as a means of personal expression, particularly when coupled with the significance of the Oscar opportunity. Cosgrave’s engaging Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards (2008) recounts multiple examples of actresses seizing the moment through their attire. In 1936, Bette Davis took her quarrel with studio chieftain Jack Warner to the podium, accepting her Best Actress trophy for Dangerous in a relatively dowdy navy-and-white coat and dress combination she’d bought from the Warner Brothers costume department after wearing it in 1934’s Housewife, one of several films she’d been forced to make against her will. Marlene Dietrich resurrected her career after her wartime service not only with a turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright but with a stunning black satin Christian Dior dress—described as her ‘battle gown’ on the 1951 Academy Awards radio broadcast—that marked haute couture’s red carpet ascendance. Dietrich’s “intelligence unit” provided information on the other dresses planned for the ceremony while she collaborated with Dior, who didn’t place the slit in the gown’s skintight skirt until Dietrich knew from which side she’d be entering the stage, the better to showcase her famous legs. (Here’s her entrance—and the reaction.) Jane Fonda acknowledged both the occasion and her counterculture bona fides by claiming her 1972 award for Klute in a four-year-old Yves Saint Laurent trouser suit from his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line.

Costume designer Nolan Miller, who had attended Edith Head’s lectures at the Chouinard Art Institute in the 1950s and worked under her at Paramount a decade later, fulfilled a longtime dream by assuming her duties as the Academy Awards’ fashion consultant in the 1980s. He, too, sent a dress code missive to participants. Cher showed exactly what she thought of “that ridiculous letter” when she presented the Best Supporting Actor award in 1986 garbed in a one-of-a-kind Bob Mackie original, a dazzling combination of feathers, cashmere, Lycra, and willpower topped with a spiked headdress. “As you can see,” she announced to laughter, “I did receive my Academy booklet on how to dress like a serious actress.” Thirty years later her ensemble remains one of the wildest worn to the Academy Awards, the impression it made contributing to Cher’s Best Actress accolade for her dressed-down turn in Moonstruck two years later.

“You can lead actresses to water and drink,” Edith Head said in response to the uproar following a 1972 request for them to appear on the Academy Awards clad in only black, white or silver, “but you can’t make them wear what they don’t want to.” That advice doesn’t only apply to performers, and in an age of #dresslikeawoman memes President Trump would do well to remember it. A woman must dress for the job at hand. Sometimes that means a lab coat, sometimes a flight suit. And sometimes a devastating cocktail gown, its slit positioned for maximum effect.


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