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Why the Oscars' best and worst dressed list matters

Jennifer Lawrence at the 2014 Academy Awards
Jennifer Lawrence at the 2014 Academy Awards
Christopher Polk/Getty

Nothing screams Oscars like the hour before the awards actually start and the most famous names in Hollywood step onto the red carpet to be judged harshly for who they're wearing and how well their dresses fit. For some, red carpet fashion is vapid and excessive, for others it's their favorite part of one of Hollywood's biggest nights. And it's a huge night for the designers whose work will be showcased on a national stage.

Best and worst dressed lists may seem silly, but they really define the way celebrities are seen and the fate of their dress designers:

Why does fashion matter at the Oscars?

"It’s the culmination of the entire award season. We’ve gone from the campaigning to the Golden Globes to the SAGs and the BAFTAs, and the Oscars is the ‘big wow,'" Karla Welch, a celebrity stylist, told CBC news. "I feel the pressure. I don’t really care about the ‘hottest’ lists, I just feel the pressure of making sure my client feels amazing and that everything’s perfect."

There are two ways to get noticed at the Oscars, for women at least. You can be nominated for a major award in a big movie and win. (See Jennifer Lawrence in 2013 for her role in Silver Linings Playbook) Or you can wear a memorable beloved dress. (See Hillary Swank every year.) Or, if you're really lucky and talented, you can do both like Lupita Nyong'o did last year.

Fashion matters at the Oscars because the entire first hour of the event is devoted to what people are wearing, or—more likely—who they are wearing.

Lupita

Lupita Nyong'o at the 2014 Academy Awards (FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty)

Who decides what a celebrity wears?

Some celebrities pick out their own dresses, but for many the process is much more complicated. I spoke with Jennifer Wright, the author of upcoming book, It Ended Badly: The 13 Worst Break-Ups in History, about how the Oscars really work.

Wright explained that designers often approach celebrities to see if they would be willing to wear their work on the red carpet. The celebrity, and often their stylist, then entertain offers, make color and cut suggestions, and pick the dress that they think will not only fit the celebrity's style, but also appease millions of Americans watching the show at home.

"There’s so much pressure now, especially with the internet," stylist Anita Patrickson, whose clients include Julianne Hough, Julie Delpy, Emma Watson, and Chanel Iman, told The Daily Beast last year. "Everybody thinks they’re a stylist, so everybody’s got an opinion. There are hundreds of people who are critiquing your work who think they know how [styling] works, or thinking how easy it must be to just choose a dress and put it on somebody. But it definitely doesn’t work that way."

cate blanchette

Cate Blanchett on the red carpet at the 2014 Academy Awards (Christopher Polk/Getty)

Do celebrities buy their dresses?

They don't! Very few celebrities actually purchase the gowns they wear. Wright told me that a celebrity might buy a dress if they truly loved it, but usually the dress is borrowed from a designer in a win-win situation: the actress gets a great dress, and the designer gets some publicity.

Why is having a red carpet dress good for a designer?

"This is the first time for people in middle America see those names. All of a sudden, a designer's name isn't just in Vogue, it's in People and women are reading that name at the supermarket," Wright told me. "It might be aspirational for people in middle America, it raises the name of the label. Every woman in Middle America knows who Ralph Lauren is and that 1999 Gwyneth Paltrow dress certainly helped that."

By having a gown on a prominent celebrity, a designer famous in New York fashion cliques can become mainstream and extend their brand recognition from the circles of the rich and famous to the Oscar viewers, which reaches over 43 million people every year.

jennifer lawrence Oscars

Jennifer Lawrence at the Academy Awards in 2013 wearing Dior

But why does brand recognition matter?

National name recognition is how designers make a good portion of their money. Those middle Americans who learned a new designer's name at the Oscars due to Jennifer Lawrence's dress (or whoever) are going to have a cultural impact that can end up making designers a lot of money in the long haul.

Now that doesn't mean that girls in Wisconsin are going to purchase Zac Posen gowns for their prom.

"I might never be able to afford a Tom Ford gown," Wright explained. "But lets say I'm on a trip to New York. Because I know his name, maybe I want to go into the Tom Ford boutique, and while I'm there I buy a $30 lipstick." Wright said. "All designers have fragrances. Everybody in the country can’t afford to buy your dresses, but they can afford your sunglasses, and those purchases add up for a designer over time."

kate winslet

Kate Winslet in 1996 wearing a notoriously hated dress (James Aylott/Getty)

Why do best and worst dressed lists matter?

Best and worst dressed lists matter both to the celebrity and to the designer. Making a worst dressed list could stunt a new designers career and potentially hurt the celebrity wearing the dress. A terrible dress could haunt a celebrity for years in Oscar recaps.

"I think there are some people who just do not give a fuck. Helena Bonham Carter is deliberately doing things wrong. It seems kind of charming," Wright told me. "People like Cher, maybe, have the most memorable outfits of the Oscars. That’s not a dress that’s going to be duplicated for thousands of girls to wear to their prom, but it's also not a dress you forget."

Who are the up and coming designers I should know?

The Oscars are always full of a few American staples: big names like Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford, Dior, and Versace. But for the past week, New York City has been flooded with a slew of new designers showing their collections at New York Fashion Week. Their collections could be a hint to who the next Zac Posen may be.

Wright gave us three big names to keep an eye on :

  1. August Getty: Getty's show featured twists on classic dresses: little black dresses with asymmetrical hems and necklines, some with one sleeve, some with open midriffs. His work could definitely appear on a younger, spunkier star.
  2. Rosie Assoulin: "I think she’s going to be huge," Wright said. Assoulin already dressed Jemima Kirke for the Golden Globes this year, and she might be a name to listen for at this year's Academy Awards. Her collection has definitive silhouettes and almost geometric structural lines.
  3. Georgine Ratelband: "She was one of my absolute favorite designers at fashion week this year," Wright said. Ratelband's collection upscales street style into something special. She could be a big Oscar name in the next few years.

portia

Portia de Rossi at the 2014 Academy Awards (Christopher Polk/Getty)

What should I be looking for at this year's Oscars?

Wright tells me that there are a few tell-tale signs that an actress is headed for the best-dressed list. If you want to make bets on who will be this years cover star, you should really be looking at three things:

  1. Fit: An Oscar dress should fit an actress perfectly. Because many of these dresses are custom-made for the wearer, there's no reason that a dress should look like it's too tight or too loose or anything less than absolutely perfect.
  2. Silhouette: The more classic a dress is, the less room there is for error.
  3. Old Hollywood: "Look for anyone who seems to be wearing a dress that seems like a throwback to the 1950s," Wright told me. "That look, especially if it has those long gentle waves, is going to get well-reviewed the next day on television."

That said, a big risk dress can pay off big time if worn well. Take Halle Berry's 2002 Oscar dress:

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Halle Berry accepts the Best Actress Oscar in 2002. (Getty)

This dress doesn't hit the last two points at all. It's a different silhouette with a larger ball gown bottom and a completely mesh top with the exception of a few strategically placed flower embroideries, but it worked. Halle Berry was never trying to be America's sweetheart, and this dress hit all of the right notes. It also helps that it fit her perfectly.

Do the guys matter at all?

Nope. "They wear tuxedos. I’m sure they’re all wearing Tom Ford tuxedos but they're just tuxedos," Wright told me. "The women are the ones who matter."