The Oscar Dress Race

As soon as the Academy’s nominees are named, another contest begins: taking home the coveted title of the evening’s Best Dressed.

They’re off and running. From the moment the best actress nominees were announced Jan. 25, the Oscar fashion sweepstakes broke into a brisk gallop. After all, winning the gold statuette is one contest, but landing Best Dressed is a close second: The rewards are magazine covers, blog space, air space and television pundits tallying the winners — and losers — of the race to the fashion finish line.

The first leg of the contest involves fighting over the best pieces from the spring 2011 couture collections in Paris, which debuted the day before the nominations were announced — convenient timing for stylists. Although, according to Blue Valentine nominee Michelle Williams’ publicist, Cari Ross at IDPR, this season they’re making arrangements with European designers via telephone and Internet images — the cost of a European trip can add a lot of zeroes to a wardrobe budget.

Leith Clark, a London-based stylist who has also worked with Keira Knightley, is dressing Williams for the Oscars and has been responsible for all of her great gamine looks this awards season. There was one unfortunate exception: her Golden Globes Valentino couture gown, covered with daisies. E!’s Fashion Police named it Worst Gown at the Globes. The question is, will this normally well-dressed woman redeem herself at the Oscars? Remember, she was a Best Dressed goddess in the marigold Vera Wang she donned at the 2006 Oscars for Brokeback Mountain.

Oscar co-host Anne Hathaway could have a minor hurdle because her stylist Rachel Zoe sat out the Paris couture shows for the first time in eons: Zoe’s doctors wouldn’t let her travel because her first child, a boy, is due in March. In search of Hathaway’s wardrobe — which needs to be the show’s fashion highlight, with multiple changes — we can imagine Zoe obsessing over and calling Karl Lagerfeld, “Take the sleeves off, add beading, but do it in ivory.”

Actually, a source inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tipped off The Hollywood Reporter that Zoe’s fee for dressing Hathaway is astronomical — hovering near the expenditures of what designer and longtime Nicole Kidman stylist L’Wren Scott spent on the show in 2000 as Oscar fashion coordinator. Scott had orchestra trumpeters wearing custom Donna Karan! Given Hathaway’s colossal couture budget and number of gowns she will be wearing, the actress certainly has a leg up on the competition.

The most speculation centers on front-runner and fashion darling Natalie Portman. She has a deal with Dior that could push the odds toward one of John Galliano’s Dior creations, though neither the Dior camp nor Portman’s will discuss details. Then again, she’s pals with the Rodarte gals, who designed her ballet costumes for Black Swan. So far, Portman has thrown style curveballs — Gianfranco Ferre at the Critics’ Choice Awards, Viktor & Rolf at the Globes — but she has often carried a satin Dior evening clutch for good measure. “I don’t like to do what’s expected,” she said of her dress at the Globes.

The actress’ attitude is a far cry from others who have had major fashion deals and had their look dictated to them. Just ask Charlize Theron, whose poorly placed lilac rosettes on her Dior gown at last year’s Oscars were highly scrutinized. Portman’s independence should work in her favor.

Portman’s Oscar rival Annette Bening donned Tom Ford for the Globes, exclusively debuting his yet-to-be-released women’s collection during the run-up to his Rodeo Drive boutique opening during Oscar week. Bening’s coup tipped the scales a touch since Ford is the rare hyphenate director-designer. As one Oscar fashion insider says, “Tom Ford’s store opening could have more stars than the Vanity Fair party.” Expected guests include Bening and the designer’s friends Colin Firth and Julianne Moore as well as a legion of talent from CAA, which reps Ford as a director.

Another label betting on the red carpet: Lanvin. The French fashion house opened its Rodeo Drive flagship store in late January. The store’s staff tells us it does include the requisite VIP private studio. The timing is no accident: After all, Portman has worn plenty of Lanvin, as has Moore.

Here’s our early dress-race breakdown: Hathaway (not an Oscar contender for Love and Other Drugs) snags the Best Dressed trophy, with Portman a close second and Williams or The Fighter’s Amy Adams — who favors Carolina Herrera and Marchesa — a distant third. But in the end, it’s all a matter of opinion, isn’t it?