The Merching of Venice

2012-30 STY Venice Keira Knightley P IPAD

Knightley's fall 2011 Katrantzou dress (also featured on THR's Sept. 16, 2011, cover) made such a statement that even the designer says, "It definitely helped build Hollywood awareness around my work."

Patterned dresses, color and rubber-soled shoes (so you don't slip in front of paparazzi!): The new rules for dressing at the Venice Film Fest.

What a difference a day makes. Last September, when Keira Knightley wore a digitally patterned print dress by British design sensation Mary Katrantzou to promote A Dangerous Method during an afternoon press conference in Venice, suddenly the rules of summer film-festival fashion were capsized. At Cannes and Venice, daytime dressing gets almost as much attention as nighttime, and lately there's been an appearance of new-style busy prints. While such prints are often difficult to get right in photos, Knightley has never shied from hard-to-wear clothes; with her slim silhouette and simple bobbed hair, solid-color dresses were seeming a bit old hat. "Keira and her stylist Leith Clark chose it together," Katrantzou tells THR. "It was a happy surprise for me. The prints are always engineered around the body to be flattering to a woman's silhouette, and Keira made it look so chic and effortless that I think it really opened up print to be worn on the red carpet. It was an unexpected choice."

That night, Knightley's gown, a gold lace long-sleeved Valentino with a full skirt, was certainly dramatic -- but it was the exotic Katrantzou that stamped itself onto fashionable retinas. While there's no shortage in Venice of lovely daytime designer dresses, Knightley upped the ante from pretty to pull-out-the-stops eye-popping. As a result, we'll likely see more print and color at this year's festival -- which runs Aug. 29 to Sept. 8 -- with stars like Amy Adams, Rachel Weisz, Diane Kruger and Kate Hudson expected to attend.

Photographer Jeff Vespa, a partner in WireImage who has shot more than a decade's worth of Venice and Cannes pics, explains why. "As photographers," he explains, "we love colored dresses, which get much better placement than black or white clothes. It's totally boring if someone shows up in black. And daytime photos in Venice or Cannes sometimes run more than red carpet ones because of the scenery and amazing light at these festivals. If you look at the premieres that start earlier and it's lighter out, the images look much better. Look at Nicole Kidman at this year's Cannes -- she looked amazing wearing red against the bright blue sky and white buildings."

Stylist Kate Young, who put Natalie Portman in a rich purple Jason Wu short dress to promote Black Swan in Venice in 2010, is of the same mind-set. "Black and neutral clothes lose a lot of detail when shot in sunlight," says Young. "So even though something looks great in person, it might not have the same impact." And isn't impact what it's all about?

But this emphasis on colorful designer daywear is a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, actresses such as Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron and Kidman did daytime press ops in black pantsuits. "I dressed Tom [Cruise] and Nicole when they went to Venice for Eyes Wide Shut" in 1999, recalls stylist Anna Bingemann. "Daytime dressing was much more businesslike -- black, white and navy. Then I went to Venice with Naomi Watts in 2003, when both Le Divorce and 21 Grams debuted. At this point, the look suddenly progressed to feminine and chic but pretty. But when you're doing strong color, the shape must be clean."

Then there's what not to wear at the festival for daytime. Boats and bodacious heat dictate what actresses wear for photo ops, press conferences, studio lunches and interviews. "No matter how cool a chick, you could be dripping sweat in seconds," says Elizabeth Saltzman, friend and stylist to red-carpet maven Gwyneth Paltrow, effortlessly chic by day or night. When she arrived by boat for 2011's Contagion photo ops with Matt Damon in 100-plus-degree heat and high humidity, Paltrow couldn't have looked more day-perfect. Distinct from her Old Hollywood look on the Lido's red carpet the evening before (a regal pale Prada backless halter gown, hair brushed neatly to the side and Bulgari diamond danglers), daytime Gwyneth looked younger and more free-spirited than her nighttime ice-princess self. Looser hair, sans jewelry and eye makeup, in a bright-orange Prada short dress with black belt, she was flirty and girlish. Her white and black shoes even had low heels -- a rarity for Paltrow.

"Getting in and out of boats is the biggest factor you consider when dressing an actress for Venice," explains Saltzman. "You've got to be covered but not too covered. You can't have teetering shoes." Stylists always send flats off to Venice with their clients, plus lower-heeled day shoes -- all with rubber tracking on the soles to prevent slippage overboard. That's a photo op nobody wants.

Stylists also take care to select from mostly Italian designers for their clients, who must maintain respectful relationships -- note Paltrow's double Pradas. Prada, along with Valentino, Armani, Versace, Gucci and Alberta Ferretti are smart choices for posing in front of the world's original paparazzi. Italian brands are also on hand at the fest and host major events as well as fashion suites. In contrast, the French luxury brands are much more Cannes-friendly.

Ultimately, actresses shouldn't look "styled" for daytime. They don't want to look like they tried too hard -- more like they fell out of bed into their midday best. "It should look less designer or stylist," insists Bingemann, "and more about them. It's one of the few chances for the public to see stars looking like who they are and not what the red carpet needs them to be." And that can make the difference between day and night.