Frock stars: the Oscars' most iconic dresses

Recent controversies may have tarnished the Oscars’ reputation, but it remains the most prestigious night in Hollywood. And with that distinction comes a night filled with unforgettable style that can make a career.

Throughout its 90-year history, some of the world’s most beloved film stars have graced the red carpet of the Academy Awards and landed a place in fashion’s history books. Here, we chart eight of the most influential dresses of all time, which are only improving with age.

Michelle Williams (2006)

Michelle Williams’ canary yellow Vera Wang gown was the type of dress you knew instantly would become iconic. It perfectly complemented her porcelain skin, as did her Old Hollywood-inspired up do and bold red lip. It was also her last Oscars with late partner Heath Ledger. “The gown was painstakingly cut and fit to William’s body, using a mock-up fabric rather than a final cloth. At last, a skilful seamstress constructed the chiffon and tulle gown, which had a deep neckline and dramatic ruffles,” Katherine E. Krohn wrote in her book on Wang.

Angelina Jolie (2012)

In the early days of the internet meme, Angelina Jolie’s leg sent the internet into overdrive. The dress itself – a strapless black velvet Versace number – was pretty but, if not for that infamous right leg, would have been forgotten. Jolie herself never saw what the fuss was about, saying: “I honestly didn’t pay attention to it. It’s as simple as being a woman, picking a dress you like and having a night, and not really thinking about anything else.”

Halle Berry (2002)

It was the first Best Actress statue to be awarded to a black woman and Halle Berry was dressed for her moment in history in an exquisite Elie Saab gown. At the time, the Lebanese designer was still relatively new. His label was only four years old, but Berry’s knock-out look put him on the map. The semi-sheer floral embroidery and dramatic burgundy skirt made for a contrasting but complimentary combination.

Bjork (2001)

Could it be a definitive Oscars fashion list without a mention of Bjork’s dress from 18 years ago? The Icelandic singer chose to wear a white dress with a swan’s neck draped across her right shoulder, while the white tulle skirt and sheer diamante tights made up its body. “The whole dress was like a sculpture, done three-dimensionally in a mixture of so many different fabrics, from suede leather to woollen felt, goose feathers, swan feathers – lots of down,” said Marjan Pejoski, who designed the look. In 2015, it was exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Grace Kelly (1955)

Before she was Princess Grace of Monaco, she was Grace Kelly, film star. The year 1955 was pivotal for her: she won a Best Actress Oscar in what would be her last Hollywood appearance, and she was dressed for the occasion in an ice blue satin coat and column dress. Edith Head, legendary costume designer, put the look together and said it was the mark of a different type of red carpet dress of which Kelly would pioneer. “Some people need sequins, others don’t,” she said.

Jennifer Lawrence (2013)

It was a fall heard around the world when Jennifer Lawrence tripped on her Dior haute couture gown while hurrying to the stage to accept her Best Actress Oscar. She hadn’t tried on the gown before the morning of the ceremony, having shunned weeks of fittings which normally accompany the wearing of a custom piece for such a major event. Though it was breathtakingly beautiful, practical it was not. “Was that on purpose? Absolutely,” she joked. “What do you mean, ‘what happened?’ Look at this dress! I tried to walk up stairs in this dress – that’s what happened.”

Gwyneth Paltrow (1999)

In 1999, Gwyneth Paltrow accepted her Oscar with an emotional speech, but press coverage focused largely on her simple yet unusual pink Ralph Lauren gown. Such was her influence, she made baby pink cool again. “I just wanted to look very sweet,” she said of the dress, which she paired with Harry Winston jewels worth six figures. The dress even has its own Wikipedia page.

Faye Dunaway (1968)

Before stylists became the modern day power-brokers we know them to be, costume designers were the go-to resource for red carpet attire and Faye Dunaway’s Theadora Van Runkle-designed look was packed with drama. It was all-black – unusual for the time – with ruffle detail, a pair of sheer black nylons and a slicked back hairstyle showcasing her timeless beauty.

Audrey Hepburn (1954)

It is hard to pick just one look from one of the best dressed women in history, but few outfits hold such instant recognition as do the boat-neck white floral dress Audrey Hepburn wore when accepting her Best Actress win for Roman Holiday in 1954. It was the first time she wore a piece, publicly, by Hubert de Givenchy, a man who became her greatest style influence and one of her closest friends for decades to come. Time magazine crowned it the best Oscars dress of all time and it is hard to disagree.

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