Crystals, Feathers, and Spanx: Secrets of the Oscar Red Carpet Stylists

There are beautiful dresses, outrageous dresses, and just plain awful dresses. The stylists dressing the stars reveal how to get it right, and the sartorial minefields to avoid.

Photo illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Last year, it was Alicia Vikander in a buttercup yellow Louis Vuitton dress that had everyone talking, with the Oscar winner crowned fashion’s breakout red carpet star.

This year, all eyes are on Best Actress nominee Emma Stone, who is one of the few A-list stars who isn’t affiliated with a single designer. And she didn’t signal any favorites on her La La Land promo tour, wearing looks by Rodarte, Valentino, Gucci, Prada, and Alexander McQueen, among others.

Will she play it safe with Elie Saab, after a chartreuse, sequin-covered gown by the designer landed Stone on a number of best-dressed lists at last year’s Academy Awards? (Julianne Moore’s Elie Saab dress was another favorite). Or will she go with a bigger name like Valentino or Chanel?

Everyone knows that the annual Academy Awards is a slog—a nearly four-hour long ceremony that requires sitting through acceptance speeches for technical categories you could care less about until the very end of the show, at which point you’re often too exhausted and annoyed to appreciate the teary tributes and political rallying cries that accompany the big awards.

The pre-show extravaganza, however, almost never disappoints. The actors occasionally seem dour during these two plus-hours of red carpet pageantry (it was more tolerable when Joan Rivers was around), but they all know it’s one of the most important publicity opportunities of the year. Surely the “who are you wearing?” question gets old--not too say sexist--but if the look is stunning or shocking, and leads to column inches, the answer often leads to a fruitful relationships between designers and actors.

Take Michelle Williams, who works exclusively with Louis Vuitton designer Nicolas Ghesquière for awards shows (she’s been a mainstay in Louis Vuitton ad campaigns since Ghesquière was appointed creative director of the brand).

Charlize Theron and Natalie Portman both have connections with Dior, though Portman--a Best Actress contender this year--got mixed reviews for the white Dior gown she wore to the Screen Actors Guild awards.

If this month’s New York fashion shows are any indication, sequins and feathers--as seen on gowns at Badgley Mischka, Naeem Khan, Giorgio Armani, and Valentino--will be among the red carpet trends on Sunday.

For the more daring looks, our bets are on Tilda Swinton and Nicole Kidman, who wore a divisive Gucci number--featuring a very literal parakeet theme--at the SAG awards.

Indeed, red carpet misses are often more memorable than the hits. At the 2001 Oscars, Björk’s infamous swan dress by Marjan Pejoski landed her on a number of “Worst Dressed” lists and was instant fodder for spectacularly bitchy commentary (from Joan Rivers: “This girl should be put into an asylum”).

But it made a lasting impression, and would later command respect when it was featured in a retrospective exhibit of the artist at MoMA.

Equally memorable are occasional wardrobe disasters--the nip-slips and flashes of genitalia--which stylists say are becoming easier to avoid.

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“There are times when I pray that a zipper or a corset holds, but there are so many tricks you can do with the materials that designers use these days,” said Tara Swennen, whose clients include Kristen Stewart Julie Bowen, Miley Cyrus and Emily Ratajkowski.

Double-sided tape is always on hand to keep cleavage in place, but electric tape can be equally useful when it comes to shapeshifting. “There’s a tape for everything these days,” said Swennen, who isn’t dressing anyone for the ceremony this year but has called in multiple outfits for clients like Kristen Stewart and Birth of a Nation’s Aja Naomi King to wear to various Oscars-related events all weekend.

For Swennen, the styling process begins a month ahead of an awards season, though she’s received plenty of last-minute calls to dress someone. And while clients usually come to her because they like her vision and aesthetic, there’s occasionally a kabuki dance when that vision doesn’t play out as well as everyone hoped.

“There’s always a push and a pull,” said Swennen, “and there are times when I’ll say, ‘Dear Lord, take it off!’ And occasionally a client will fight to keep it on!”

Bigger-name actresses are more likely to get their first pick of a dress, but even then nothing is guaranteed.

“The politics have gotten tricky these days because there are so many awards shows and so many people going that designers have to be very picky about who they decide to dress, and that can get tricky when there’s not enough samples to go around,” Swennen said.

Red carpet mistakes tend to occur when stylists push designers that simply aren’t the right fit for their clients.

“You want them to feel great about themselves and what they’re wearing, that way they can just go out there and kill it,” said Bruno Lima, who dressed Andie MacDowell at last year’s Oscars. “She’s so easy and fun to work with because she’s been going to awards shows for her whole life.”

Looks are chosen based on a client’s hair and skin color, measurements (height and body shape), and personal style. “As a stylist you can present clients with ideas and tell them what’s fashionable right now, but if they don’t feel comfortable with it then it’s never going to work.”

Lima, who is also Fashion Director for Haute Living magazine, also attested that celebrities frequently resort to crash diets and grueling workouts to look their best on Hollywood’s most glamorous night of the year. “It’s very rare that a client puts something on and it’s a perfect fit,” he said, adding that Spanx are everyone’s best friend. “Not everyone is a sample size."

It doesn’t help that stylists are often vying for the same dress, whether for the awards themselves or for a pre-party.

“When you send requests to designers and showrooms letting them know who you’re dressing, you have to take into account the event they’re attending and whether they’re nominated or just presenting,” said Lima, who usually has backup dresses on hand in case The One doesn’t work out at the last minute.

If last year’s red carpet darling was Alicia Vikander, Best Actress nominee Ruth Negga is expected to make waves this year. From the Valentino gowns she wore to Loving premieres in Los Angeles and Paris to the Louis Vuitton custom dress she wore to the Golden Globes, Negga has already had a standout red carpet season. Keep an eye out for her on Sunday.