Let’s pretend that taste isn’t relative. Some gowns inspire, some offend, and others are merely spectacles meant to breed buzz and interview requests. Glorious or hideous, a small selection of these Oscar gowns dominate the morning-after talk show fury. Even fewer are cemented in our collective consciousness, shown again and again every Oscar season, whether or not teenage girls adopt them for their proms.

The iconic gowns, the ones that make us swoon, cringe or start a juice cleanse, are not related to fashion’s seasonal encyclicals. The gal in the most-talked-about gown almost always wins the Oscar and, unsurprisingly, that exposure, plus her glassy-eyed soliloquy, tends to inculcate a look remembered from there to eternity. The dress lives on despite trend, capturing the zeitgeist of an evening and era while staying true to the starlet’s own sparkly je ne sais something.

The proof is in the taffeta.

In 1955, the teal Edith Head silk gown that Grace Kelly wore to accept the Best Actress statuette for “The Country Girl” became the standard for all that is lovely and right and feminine in Hollywood. Two other Oscar winners copied Kelly’s look when they picked up their very own golden idols: Julie Andrews wore a similar silk column gown a decade later, channeling the commoner Grace in white gloves, while Kim Basinger emulated the late princess in 1998 in sea-foam green when she won Best Supporting Actress for “L.A. Confidential.”

But other looks — such as Barbra Streisand’s Arnold Scaasi pantsuit, worn in 1969 when she accepted the Oscar for “Funny Girl,” or Cher’s shocking 1988 Bob Mackie showgirl mess — also captured the bold and fresh vibes of their eras, even if they now perpetually land them on worst-dressed-of-all-time lists. Streisand proved that after just eight years, women could celebrate the Swinging Sixties’ second half and forgo the restrictive organza worn by Elizabeth Taylor earlier that decade, when she accepted an Oscar for her performance in “Butterfield 8.”

Diane Keaton, too, proved that working actresses could dress like working girls, a sartorial statement in step with her beloved “Annie Hall” character, for which she won an Oscar in 1978. The masculine ensemble has never appeared in a “best dressed” montage, indicating that it continues to serve its purpose quietly.

And while the ’80s produced a shocking array of sequins, feathers and gaud, the late ’90s atoned for such exhibitionism. With the help of Ralph Lauren, Gwyneth Paltrow and a cloud of pink taffeta reshaped the leading lady, whether she plays a psychopath in “Monster” or a struggling single mother in “Monster’s Ball.” The actress is now always ingenue on Oscar night, arriving on the red carpet styled as a vintage LIFE photograph. Actresses-cum-princesses, or queens, if you happen to be Helen Mirren, now take to the stage to accept their Oscars looking two steps away from Westminster Abbey. (It was Mirren, not Middleton, after all, who wore lace sleeves and a plunging neckline first.)

So, the gowns (and their substitutes) live on, bearing up the past and showing a window into our collective taste at the most-hyped bellwether of the year. And whether the gowns debut on best or worst lists, these actresses continue to prove that accolades are always the most unforgettable accessories.


by Katherine Boyle