Regardless of which award show is your favourite – The Golden Globes, The People’s Choice Awards or The Oscars -they all provide the opportunity to critique red carpet fashions. There are always hits and misses but, more importantly from a costume perspective these are the events at which our modern nobility wear the fashions of the moment. And sometimes, these fashions are reminiscent of an earlier era or are perhaps, vintage fashions from a designer – remember Julia Roberts in vintage Valentino at the 2001 Academy Awards?
The opportunity to wear such glamorous dresses with fabulous jewelry, shoes, hair and makeup are few and far between for most of us. In centuries past, even decades past, there were certainly more reasons to be dressed to the nines. (And what does that fashion phrase mean? There are a number of suggested explanations for being considered “dressed to the nines” — one is the nine yards of fabric that it would take to make a really nice suit, another attributes the phrase to the 99th British Regiment of the Foot who were always immaculately dressed and still another suggest the French “neuf” which means both nine and new meant someone was dressed to the “nines” in their new clothing.)
In earlier years, pre-Awards, men and women used their fashionable attire to demonstrate their social standing in society. “Looking the part” meant making it clear what your role in society was. If you were a young lady in British society you would be entering the marriage mart and had to dress to draw the attention of a suitable husband. (For suitable, read wealthy and acceptable to mama and papa.) If you were of a particular social status you would be presented to the monarchy (the original fashion trendsetters) and this would call for very specific clothing that would appease the Crown and again demonstrate for all, your place in society. Attending balls, the theatre and racing or sporting events like Ascot also required appropriate attire.
Debutante balls provided an opportunity for both British and North American women to be presented to society and then, on a more equitable level, the high school prom (another opportunity to dress to the nines) marked the transition for young girls/teens of different classes to be seen as fashionable women.
By the time the Academy Awards were first presented, film stars had supplanted members of the nobility as the fashion trendsetters. (One could argue that Grace Kelly/Princess Grace of Monaco was able to be both celebrity and nobility. She was an award winner in 1954, and then a princess in 1956).
The first Academy Awards were presented live in 1929 but it wasn’t until 1953 that the first televised Academy Awards was aired, hosted by Bob Hope. The winner of the Best Actress Award, Shirley Booth, wore clothing reflecting the times. She wore little white gloves and a gown from an unknown designer.
The Academy Awards are but a few weeks away yet we have already seen some red carpet fashion moments. Amy Adams seemed to me to be Grace “Kellyesque” in her elegantly ruched dress choice while Anna Kendrick’s ball gown reminded me of Shirley Booth’s in terms of the decoration and the fullness of the skirt.
The original Blonde bombshell, Veronica Lake seemed to be channeled by Reese Witherspoon this year.
There are often fashion faux pas (would this be dressed to the threes?) everywhere from the red carpet to prom night, and we certainly don’t want some of these looks repeated. This is one reason why it is important to study these as well as the classic fashions of eras gone by — all of which are available as part of our unique Fashion Resource Centre.
Philadelphia cotillion circa 1950s photographed by John W. Mosley