The Psychology of the Dress


Insiders reveal how film roles, agents and even an ex can alter a star’s gown selection.

If an average woman can spend hours ruminating over an outfit, imagine what a star goes through choosing a look for a red carpet like the one at the Golden Globes. Their gown choices are about as spontaneous as deciding who’s going to star in $100 million movies. Both convey image and perception, both can triumph or fail. The cost is high in both cases.This year’s big-ticket Globes nominees — Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry — are expected to turn out an impossible combination of Grace Kelly-meets-Audrey Hepburn-meets-Sophia Loren looks. That in itself is an image-juggling act: Stars use red carpets to shape-shift their public image, their status, their career trajectories and even their love lives.

It’s hard to believe, but before the late 1990s, stars came casually to the Globes. “They’d wear pantsuits and little glasses to read their speeches,” says Carlos Souza, global ambassador for the Valentino brand. “Mr. Valentino would watch, get so angry and say, ‘Where’s the glamour of Old Hollywood?’ ” The tables turned in 2000, when Berry, nominated for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, turned up in a sophisticated white Valentino stunner — to the collective reaction of “Wow!”

“That dress was the game-changer,” says Phillip Bloch, the stylist who dressed Berry in her early iconic looks. “It upped the ante for Globes style and was a career-making dress: the perfect storm of right woman, right dress, right moment. We were going for Natalie Wood, not Raquel Welch. Beautiful, not va-va-voom. Halle was already sexy; we wanted her to look like a real actress. That began the time when a dress could actually make a career.”

Now it’s reached maximum combustion. “Fashion and image has become a big part of my job,” says one Globe nominee’s high-powered manager. “You don’t want to alienate your audience by going over the top, but you can’t overlook that a young female audience is affected by what actresses wear.”

With all that weight resting on a choice, lots of cooks weigh in: stylists, plus managers, PR and relatives, to name a few. The only ones not voicing an opinion are actual awards campaigners. “I had a boyfriend want to change the color of a couture dress the night before because he liked blue better than pink!” Souza laughs. Notes stylist Elizabeth Stewart, who’s working with Winter’s Bone nominee Jennifer Lawrence: “It changes from star to star. Some know exactly what they want, some need a committee.”

Case in point: Julia Roberts favors stark, simple dresses, even when attending the Globes in 2001, where she won for Erin Brockovich. But niece Emma Roberts was present when she debated the regal, black-and-white vintage Valentino she wore to the Oscars weeks later. “Wear that one, Aunt Julia!” she said. “That’s really glamorous, and make sure to show the back!”

It’s no accident that when stars play unattractive on screen — Kate Winslet in The Reader, Kidman in The Hours, Charlize Theron in Monster — they crank up the femme fatale factor on the red carpet. “Hilary Swank didn’t show off her figure in Boys Don’t Cry,” says Tanya Gill, her stylist of three years. “But when she went to the Globes, it was in a sheer Versace couture dress. The year of Million Dollar Baby, you saw more of her body. She wasn’t going to hide how much she worked for those parts.”

Then there’s the “suddenly single” moment. Reese Witherspoon donned a succession of princess styles before her breakup with Ryan Phillippe. But when she emerged in 2007 in a short, tight, strapless yellow Nina Ricci, the message was: “He’s gone, but I’m still sexy! And available!” Perhaps the least-subtle revenge outfit was the pink David Cameron tutu Lara Flynn Boyle wore to the Globes in 2003. “She’d just broken up with Jack Nicholson,” a source close to Nicholson tells THR. “And she wanted all the attention she could get.” Too bad she broadcast “unbalanced ballerina.”

“Actresses have to walk a tightrope,” says Cameron Silver, owner of vintage boutique Decades, from where many Globes gowns hail. “Too avant-garde and you’re a ‘fashion girl.’ Too underdone and you’re on the worst-dressed list. You want that middle space occupied by Penelope Cruz or Jennifer Garner: serious actress who happens to be chic.” In the case of certain actresses — think Camilla Belle or Diane Kruger — they’re much better known for outfits than for acting. “It’s not so bad being famous for style, if you want to be famous,” Stewart says. “It’s not their fault they look good in clothes.”

So do Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, but they work constantly. “When an actress dresses authentic to who she is, she can go as far as she likes,” Stewart says. “That demands true talent.” Even Diane Keaton’s kooky getups don’t seem to hurt her acting career. Still, she’s always cast as kooky.

But when the scales tip and it’s all style over substance, one stylist admits, “you wind up with free clothes and no parts.” Says Gill, “Being best-dressed can only hurt an actress when it’s clear it’s not their style.” Adds the major talent manager of one fashionista: “If there’s too much emphasis on fashion, you do get taken less seriously as an actress. Courting the balance these days is almost harder than getting a great part — statuesque doesn’t always lead to a statue.”             

PICTURED AT TOP (Clockwise from top left) Natalie Portman picked Rodarte to promote Black Swan in 2010; Nicole Kidman chose Yves Saint Laurent for 2003’s Globes; Halle Berry upped the level of glamour at the Globes when she stepped out in Valentino in 2000; Angelina Jolie dazzled in Atelier Versace in 2009; Reese Witherspoon arrived newly single and sexier than ever in Nina Ricci at 2007’s Golden Globes. “The message is: Out with the old, in with the new,” Souza says; Julia Roberts chose simple and subdued Armani for 2001’s Golden Globes (inset), but the Erin Brockovich winner pulled out all the stops in vintage Valentino for her Oscars moment.