What It Takes to Make the International Best Dressed List

The International Best-Dressed List - Will and Kate- Publicity - Split - H 2019
Courtesy of Rizzoli; Getty Images/Mark Large

“It’s a bit of alchemy, there’s not an exact formula and it’s always controversial,” says Amy Fine Collins, author of a new book on the subject.

In her 100 years of life, powerhouse publicist Eleanor Lambert shaped the contemporary fashion industry as we know it. Through establishing the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Met Gala, as well as being the first to launch a recurring, formalized New York Fashion Week, Lambert not only raised the profile of American fashion designers, but she also became the ultimate arbiter of style. Arguably, her most significant contribution to the latter was creating the International Best-Dressed List in 1940.

“Eleanor was this awe-inspiring, formidable, professional woman who was like the Statue of Liberty,” Amy Fine Collins, longtime Vanity Fair special correspondent and IBDL hall-of-famer, tells The Hollywood Reporter. The two first met when Lambert was nearly 90 years old. “She had been around forever, knew everything and everyone, and I gravitated to her because I wanted to absorb all that.”

The Oct. 22 publication of The International Best Dressed List: The Official Story (Rizzoli, $75) will mark the first in-depth chronicling of the list’s rich history. Authored by Collins, the book also ushers in a new era in which the list is published independently of the Condé Nast glossy and, rather, directly through four former Vanity Fair editors: Graydon Carter, Aimée Bell, Reinaldo Herrera and Collins, to whom Lambert bequeathed the list in 2002.

When the list exchanged hands, the editors made painstaking efforts to maintain Lambert’s methods in order to ensure that the IBDL would remain the foremost list amidst a sea of copycats. To bear a best-dressed title on the list was so covetable that Lambert was once offered $50,000 for a spot. Bribes also extended to voters, such as Mr. Kenneth [Battelle], the go-to hairdresser of Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Babe Paley and Lambert herself.

Collins — who says that she is buttered up by "auditioners" or people who attempt to cultivate a friendship with her in hopes of landing a spot — compares the voting process to the multi-layered American election system, where a popular vote and electoral college are in place to check and balance one another. Today, electing the honorees is more cutthroat than ever, says Collins: “There’s such a multiplicity of ways to dress, but often the cream rises to the top.”

While that “cream” includes society darlings, Hollywood stars, royalty, and a slew of savvy editors, many (upon reading the list in its entirety) may be surprised to see that world leaders, musicians and athletes make the cut. Among them are the Obamas, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, Rihanna, David Bowie, Kanye West and LeBron James.

“It’s like having the right dinner party mix,” explains Collins. The IBDL has evolved in both count and category over the years, but the foundational criteria has endured. Visibility, influence, originality and consistency are at its core. “The idea of visibility has changed with Instagram, but you don’t want someone who is just pushing products,” she says. “The honoree must have some influence on culture and the way people dress, but he or she should also have a distinctive style that is nonconformist.”

During her sartorial reign, Lambert had a passionate disapproval of professional stylists — something that Collins admits is inescapable in Hollywood today. “You don’t want someone who is playing just another role on the red carpet. For example, someone like Janelle Monáe really lives it. Her clothes are a true medium of expression for her on and off the red carpet and on- and off-stage.” Like fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa and Lady Gaga, Monáe is part of the Originals category on the IBDL, which distinguishes a more eccentric aesthetic.

In terms of the best dressed of all time, “you can hardly top Audrey Hepburn,” asserts Collins, who also praises Tilda Swinton, Renée Zellweger, Sofia Coppola, Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett. As for young Hollywood, Collins has her eye on Elle Fanning: “She’s clearly working with a stylist [Samantha McMillen], but she’s going places that most actresses are not. Whatever she’s doing, she’s showing some knowledge of fashion history.”

Representing the Fashion Professionals category is André Leon Talley, who was “simply overjoyed” to be added to the IBDL in 1981 and, later, its hall of fame. “It’s like a club. You feel you are validated for your individuality,” he tells THR. “I was a tall black man from the segregated South, educated in an Ivy League school, and first appeared on the scene at Andy Warhol's Interview [magazine] wearing khaki Bermuda shorts, knee socks and Belgian loafers.”

Talley remembers advocating for emerging African-American singer-songwriter Maxwell during the first meeting he attended at Lambert’s apartment. “Everyone thought I was recommending the heir to the coffee brand,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I wasn't just there for the usual names or reinforcing the stereotypes. I wanted a young black man, which reflected who I was.” Sure enough, Maxwell made the list.

Unsurprisingly, the list grew increasingly diverse, not just in terms of people of color, but also in its reflection of social rights and watershed moments. “The fascinating thing about the list is that it represents the time in which we live,” says Collins. “It gives a snapshot of culture, one year at a time, through the lens of fashion.” In 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, the list featured its first gay couples (Matt Bomer and Simon Halls, as well as Andrew Bolton and Thom Browne), which Collins says the committee realized after the fact.

But despite its inclusive aspirations, the list has stirred controversy, typically stemming from those dissatisfied with not having been chosen. In 2017, conservative news outlet Breitbart publicly stated its contempt regarding First Lady Melania Trump being snubbed of a spot on the list. Putting a positive spin on the situation, Collins states, “It showed that people cared, that the list mattered.” 

When working Hollywood stars arrived on the list (Rosalind Russell was the first), some of the social matrons were miffed, thinking actresses were beneath it. As further evidence of the list’s weight, Collins adds that, if people have ever been on the IBDL, it is almost always mentioned in their biographies and obituaries.

The 2019 honorees will be unveiled later this fall. Talley’s hopes and predictions: “I think the future will be completely inclusive; there will be fluid and non-binding genders, transgenders,” he says, adding that he’d love to see Laverne Cox and Billy Porter added. Porter “wears a bombastic black ball dress on the carpet with great elegance.”

“There are many elegant people, and there will always be an elite,” fashion designer Carolina Herrera, who wrote the book’s foreword, tells THR. “That is the future of the best dressed list.”