Gazing at the gowns that grace the Academy Awards red carpet on television is a different exercise than watching them glide by right in front of you. For starters, when you're in the frenzied chaos that is Hollywood’s biggest fashion runway, it’s impossible to see every coiffed and coutured movie star who shows up.

View Photo Gallery: Stars float down the red carpet in Los Angeles.

Angelina Jolie and her famous leg? Didn’t see it until it showed up during the telecast.

I also didn’t catch, um, any part of Jennifer Lopez.

But I did get a nice, long look at quite a few Oscar ensembles. While the fashion assessers who determine bests and worsts after dissecting photos may see certain very valid flaws — flaws that ultimately matter since those photos qualify as the historicial documents of Oscar fashion hits and misses — there’s an immediate, instinctive response one has upon seeing it a stunning gown in person. I’ll call it the “wow” factor. These were the seven dresses that wowed me on the Oscar red carpet.

Jessica Chastain

While some may disagree, I thought her Alexander McQueen gown was absolutely gorgeous, a dress that prompts an immedate need to take an Instagram photo. Which I did.

You can see the back of the dress in the photo above, and the front in the picture below, which I have included because the juxtaposition of Chastain’s glamour against Sacha Baron Cohen’s Dictator provides endless hours of amusement.

(Amy Sancetta/AP)

Gwyneth Paltrow


Normally the notion that Gwyneth Paltrow would walk a red carpet while wearing a cape would serve as fair warning that the Internet might boil over in a froth of blog commentary bile. But when she looks this good doing it, you can’t make fun of her. Well, you could. But you would be wrong.

Natalie Portman


A polka-dotted strapless dress almost as crimson as the carpet on which Portman was standing, this gown fit her perfectly and definitely said “movie star.”

Michelle Williams

(Ethan Miller/GETTY IMAGES)

Pictures may not quite capture just how pretty this coral gown looked on the “My Week With Marilyn” star. Plus, all the rouching and swirls made it seem like her dress wasn’t so much put on as applied delicately, using a pastry decorating kit.

Arianne Phillips

(Ethan Miller/GETTY IMAGES)

The nominated costume designer for “W.E.,” a woman who frequently dresses Madonna, clearly had some fun with her black and pink dress — which she told reporters on the red carpet was the brightest possible shade of fuschia. And she looked totally elegant while doing it.

Viola Davis

(Matt Sayles/AP)

Much has already been said about how awesome it was that Davis ditched the wig for the Oscars. Her emerald green gown was a dazzler, too.

Penelope Cruz

(Chris Pizzello/AP)

I didn’t see anyone else in quite the same shade of lavender that Cruz chose via this floaty, feminine Armani Prive gown. A good thing; it saved others from having to be compared to how show-stopping she looked.

More on the 2012 Academy Awards:

‘The Artist’ wins best picture; Streep takes home third career Oscar

TV review: Oscar’s wishful thinking

Academy Award winners 2012: Full list led by “The Artist.”

Governor’s Ball Oscar party

Vanity Fair Oscar party

‘Saving Face,’ despite sensitive topic, embraced in Pakistan

‘A Separation’ Oscar win heralded by Iranians as best public diplomacy in years

At the Governors Ball, Meryl Streep, Billy Crystal, Melissa McCarthy and more

Oscars 2012: The comprehensive Academy Awards recap

Oscars red carpet Q&A

View Photo Gallery: Celebrities arrive at the 2012 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter at Sunset Tower in West Hollywood.