Oscars: Why a Nominee's Gown Indicates If She Thinks She'll Win

Oscar Winners' Dress Colors - H 2015
AP Images/Invision; SIPA; Getty Images

Oscar Winners' Dress Colors - H 2015

Call it Gown Profiling 101: Turns out choice of frock during awards season indicates where the wearer believes she is positioned in the Oscarscape.

Can viewers tell who will win an Academy Award based on the dress that a nominee wears? Or, at least, who believes she's the frontrunner? Julia Roberts — in her stately vintage Valentino and high coiled formal chignon at the 2001 Oscars, where she won best actress for Erin Brockovich, is a great example. She never had dressed like that before, nor has she since. Roberts' post-best-actress style has wound down to granola girl.

Of course, the legacy potential of a winning dress is significant: Oscar gowns are looks for the history books, and the night quite possibly is the biggest fashion branding opportunity in the world. But every femme attending the Academy Awards, watched by a billion people, has her own agenda — the likely winners, the lower-key nominees, the willing arm-candy plus-ones, the deer-in-the-headlight spouses and the fashion-forward presenters (who sometimes can have a little too much of their forwards on display, and yes, this means you, Jennifer Lopez). Few want to admit that the Oscars are a fashion class system, yet the style hierarchy is plain to see — starting with the ladies at the top of the ladder, the presumptive winners.

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From Cate Blanchett in 2014 (regal blush Armani Prive to set off her Blue Jasmine statuette) to Jennifer Lawrence in 2013 (pale pink Dior with her Silver Linings Playbook gold), all the way back to Halle Berry in 2002 (strategically exposing wine-colored Elie Saab for her Monster's Ball win), frontrunners dress like expectant winners. If you look at the red-carpet choices of these ladies over the years (Blanchett in avant-garde Givenchys, for instance, in years when she wasn't the favorite), the difference is clear. Meryl Streep's gold Lanvin in 2012 (she won for The Iron Lady) looked like an Oscar itself.

"You always know who thinks they're going to win; you track it through awards season," says Melissa Rivers, Fashion Police exec producer and author of The Book of Joan (out in May). "That's the year they always choose to go elegant and classic. The picture of you holding your Oscar is the one they run in your obituary. If they're blondes, they're channeling Grace Kelly; brunettes, Audrey Hepburn."

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Bronwyn Cosgrave, fashion historian and author of Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards, points to Kate Winslet (one-shoulder YSL in 2009, when she won best actress for The Reader) and Helen Mirren (gold lace Christian Lacroix in 2007; best actress for The Queen): "Everything about their gowns — shoulder details, waistlines — worked perfectly with statuettes next to them. [Then-Valentino employee] Christina Viera took home the Julia Roberts vintage Valentino and walked around her house to make sure she could climb the podium in it. Mirren's Lacroix had an extra level of detail. It's not a dress. It's a kind of 'fashion costume.' It has to tick a lot of boxes: dignity, gratitude to the Academy, a certain conservatism." While Julianne Moore, who has been grabbing up awards for her performance in Still Alice, has been going shiny and sexy for her 2015 red-carpet looks, want to bet her Oscar gown will be toned down?

Beyond qualitative terms such as "traditional" and "stately," there are hard statistics that point toward certain colors and cuts as winning material over the past decade. Of course, by the time Oscar night rolls around, it's too late for a hemline to affect a nominee's chances, but the correlations are clear and undeniable. THR does the math on Oscar's winning looks and also gives some guidelines for those ladies who have got no chance at taking home a statuette but still hope to score fashion gold.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.