Frances McDormand, Fashion Genius!

The jean jacket Frances McDormand wore to the Tony Awards on Sunday night upended the carefully curated world of celebrity dressing—and even spawned its own Twitter account. Isabel Wilkinson on why the actress is an unexpected style star.

06.14.11 2:41 AM ET

At the Tony Awards on Sunday night, Christie Brinkley was a dead ringer for Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean. Brooke Shields was appropriately turned out in a borrowed but beautiful J. Mendel dress, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a glittering mermaid gown, effectively presented two awards without moving her eyebrows.

But when the winner for Best Actress in a Play was called to the stage, the audience got something very different: There was Frances McDormand with no makeup and a stringy bedhead, wearing a striped cotton dress, wire-rimmed glasses, and a Levi’s jean jacket. She looked like a camp counselor dolled up for the big intramural Fourth of July picnic—or a graduate student about to argue her dissertation. “I love my job, I love my job!!!” she screamed, shaking her trophy for Good People.

You could almost hear the fashion crowd let out a muffled scream. “You’re at the Tony’s, not the Farmer’s Market,” one viewer tweeted. “Sheesh make an effort, woman,” said another. One blog suggested it was only a matter of time till McDormand faces criticism “in the back pages of US Weekly.” But overnight, McDormand’s jean jacket had grown into a character of its own, attracting fans, making headlines, and even spawning a Twitter account, @MsDsJeanJacket, with tweets like comments like: “I hope I don’t fade tonight…or fray for that matter.” And: “You guys, I think I am drunk!!!”

It may have been the biggest slap in the face for celebrity dressers everywhere, but in an age of “Who Wore It Best,” Kardashians for QVC, and even Lady Gaga (so envelope-pushing there’s nothing left to push) McDormand’s train-wreck style was daringly fresh. She borrowed a page from the playbook of Helena Bonham Carter—the actress who has created a cult-following around her I-don’t-give-a-shit red carpet style—and was, as Bret Easton Ellis would say, decidedly “Post-Empire.”

McDormand has long been an underappreciated sartorial genius. She wore scarcely any makeup when she won her Academy Award in 1997, a T-shirt printed with the words “El Diablo’s Seven Sins Lounge” that she flashed under her blazer at the Oscar nominees’ luncheon in 2001, and Birkenstocks to a New York premiere in 2002. Even in her acceptance speech on Sunday night, she acknowledged her own eccentricity: “I thank my dear family, who has watched me come and go for 30 years with funny wigs and dialect,” she said.

The daughter of a minister, McDormand was constantly uprooted as a child as her family moved around the country. Her mother made all of her clothes. “I’m a New Yorker now, but I feel like I’m from small-town America,” she has said. McDormand began her career more than 25 years ago, taking indie roles—Lone Star, Laurel Canyon—until she struck comedic gold with her portrayal of Marge, the pregnant police officer in Fargo, for which she won the Oscar in 1997. But recently, she’s transitioned into more commercial film and will appear in her first franchise this summer, the mega-budget Transformers: Dark of the Moon. She’s lent her voice to the animated Madagascar 3 and will soon appear alongside Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place and in the 2012 adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

But this commercial turn has had no effect on her independent sense of style. These days on the red carpet of the Academy Awards, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single article of clothing or accessory that stars own, as everything—even shoes—gets returned to designers in garment bags the day after the show. It is, as one Hollywood stylist put it, “purely about the creation of fantasy.”

But with McDormand, everything is her own. And not only that: Her dress on Sunday was recycled—she wore it for the first time to the opening of the Venice Film Festival in August 2008. As she put it in a recent interview, acting “requires a constant willingness to hang over the edge of a cliff.” After all, she says, “I’ve never been involved in anything that was the same twice.”