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By the time the stars walk the red carpet at Sunday night’s Oscars, the votes will already have been cast. The winning names will be sitting in the envelopes, waiting backstage at the Dolby Theatre until they are brought onstage and opened. But could what the stars — in particular, the nominated actresses — choose to wear signal who’s likely to end the night a winner? Obvious, there is no causal relationship between who’s wearing what and who will ultimately win. But still, the nominees — at least, the most superstitious ones — may want to know which colors, designers and dress styles have been favored by winners in the past.
PHOTOS 100 Oscars Gowns
So, for the sake of some fashion fun, here is a mathematical look at what (and “who”) the stars choose to wear. Since there is far greater variation in women’s red-carpet fashion and far more focus placed on it, we will examine what the 98 Academy Award best actress and best supporting actress nominees over the past decade wore to the Oscars ceremony (Judi Dench was absent for two of her nominations, explaining why the total is fewer than 100).
COLORS OF THE NOMINEES DRESSES
To start, we see that nominees prefer blue above all other colors: 20 of the 98 chose that color. Certainly, there is no exact science to grouping colors, and there are of course multiple shades within each color. That said, the five dominant colors — blue, white, black, red and silver — represent 66 of the dresses, slightly more than two-thirds.
Below we can see the distribution of colors over time. The first column shows the 10 colors worn by the 10 nominees (five lead, five supporting) in 2005, and so on.
The biggest trend has been the displacement of once-popular black with red and pink. The only major color that has been completely absent is orange. A few notable stars have donned that apparently daring hue, such as presenter Gwyneth Paltrow in 2007, but no nominee over the past decade has taken her lead. Orange’s cousin yellow is similarly unpopular, with Michelle Williams’ sleeveless Vera Wang dress in 2005 (the year she was nominated for Brokeback Mountain) the only contender. Granted, yellow is quite close along the color spectrum to beige, gold and even an occasional shade of brown, and those three colors represent 13 dresses on the chart above.
DOES GOLD BRING HOME THE GOLD?
But what the nominees — at least those more superstitious ones — may truly want to know is which colors lead to victory. My answer is perhaps an unsatisfying one: none of them. From a statistical standpoint, even if certain colors do happen to correspond more closely to victory, this is a very clear mix-up of correlation and causation. By the time the stars hit the red carpet, the performances are complete and the votes are in. And besides, with some colors being worn so infrequently, the sample sizes are way too small to come to any meaningful conclusion.
But let’s take a moment to go down that road anyway:
By sheer number, the good-luck charm color is white, with five winners, exactly a quarter over the past decade. But that’s not the whole story, since more nominees who didn’t win were also wearing white dresses. Percentage-wise, gold is the winner: A whopping 50 percent of nominees wearing gold took home the gold later that night, quite impressive when you consider that only 20 percent of acting nominees win an Oscar. White still comes in a strong second at 36 percent.
Nowhere to be found in the winners’ circle are yellow, green, multicolor and red. The last of those is particularly remarkable: 10 nominees have chosen to wear red on the carpet of that color, yet not a single one has walked away with a prize.
In some years, the competitors all stay away from each other’s colors: The 2007 lead actress contest, as well as the 2005, 2011 and 2012 supporting actress bouts, featured entirely distinct colors. On the flip side is the 2005 lead actress competition, the only time when three of the five leading ladies selected a single color — blue (one of those three, Hilary Swank, went on to capture the Oscar for Million Dollar Baby). 2013 was the only year in which both winners (Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook and Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables) took to the stage in the same color, in this case pink.
MOST POPULAR RED-CARPET DESIGNERS
For many in the fashion industry, it’s less about what the stars are wearing than “who” they’re wearing.
In the graph above, the blue bar represents the number of nominees selecting a certain designer, while the red bar shows how many of them were winners.
In addition to the 11 marquee names above, who collectively account for 43 percent of all female nominees, an additional nine designers have each dressed two female acting nominees over the past decade.
Christian Dior, Lanvin, Prada and Tadashi Shoji are the only four to have dressed two of the winners each — no doubt a big moment for the designer when the actress wearing his/her dress delivers a speech in front of millions of rapt viewers. Prada in particular is on quite a roll, outfitting Oscar winners each of the past two years (Hathaway for Les Miserables in 2013 and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave in 2014), the only designer to garner victories in back-to-back years. Tadashi Shoji, with wins for Mo’Nique (Precious, 2010) and Octavia Spencer (The Help, 2012), holds a 67 percent success rate, the highest among designers with multiple nominees to their name.
Dressmakers will be pleased to learn that no designer brings truly awful luck. All six of the designers with at least four nominees have clothed one winner. Among the three-time nominees, though, Badgley Mischka, Dries Van Noten, Elie Saab and Versace are all still looking for their first win in a decade.
The following eight designers all have perfect winning records over the last 10 years: Balmain, Christian Lacroix, Guy Laroche, Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Bouwer, Narcisco Rodriguez, Rodarte and Yves Saint Laurent. But don’t go believing in any omens just yet — all eight of those are only one-for-one. Every designer who has dressed multiple nominees has designed at least one outfit worn by a star who failed to take home an Oscar that night
MOST COMMON DRESS STYLES
In addition to color and designer, the other major consideration for red-carpet walkers is the dress style.
As before, the blue bar represents the number of nominees selecting a certain style, while the red bar shows how many of the 20 winners opted for a given look. Strapless seems to be the kiss of death, with only 8 percent of those nominees going on to victory (again, 20 percent would be the expected value). And yet, the not-entirely-unrelated style of sleeveless comes out with a 30 percent probability, the best of the pack.
So does this mean all of this year’s red-carpet hopefuls should be rushing to Tadashi Shoji begging for a gold, sleeveless dress? Of course not. There are many more considerations on what to wear during Oscar season besides winning an Oscar, especially when there is probably no causation between what you wear and what you win.
And besides, how can Meryl Streep on the 2007 red carpet, nominated for The Devil Wears Prada, not opt for the black Prada dress?
Click through to the gallery for more on Oscar winners by hue.
Ben Zauzmer is an applied math major at Harvard. Follow him on Twitter: @BensOscarMath.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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