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Madama Butterfly

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a good fortune and unlimited access to haute couture, never wears the same dress twice.

Unless, of course, exactly the right occasion comes along, which is what happened for actress/producer Trudie Styler with this stunning, break-the-mold gown by Jean Paul Gaultier.

Trudie Styler in Jean Paul Gaultier, 2008. (With Sting and Kathleen Battle.) PNP/WENN

Styler wore this gown to the Oscars in 2001, when she accompanied her nominee husband down the red carpet.  She wore it again in 2008 at the “Some Kinda Legacy” benefit for the Rainforest Foundation Fund, which she and Sting founded in 1989.  Perhaps she felt the dress evoked the self-same beauty of the lands she was devoted to preserving.

The floral trumpet dress is a cascading print of flowers, grasses, and butterflies burgeoning into three-dimensional silk versions strewn about the top of a pleated organza train.  And if that isn’t enough, the train is tiered in at least four layers:  ruby over red over orange over grass green.  A few petals are caught in the drifting layers.

Gaultier designed the dress specifically for Styler to wear to the Oscars.  “It was down to the last minute,” she said.  “[He] kept adding lots of flowers.”

And thank heavens he did!  This dress is my second favorite of the decade, and, like Julia Roberts’ Valentino, is also a favorite from any era.  (And, coincidentally, it was worn down the red carpet the same year.  2001 was a good year for memorable looks.)

The beauty of this dress is that, while extravagant in the extreme, it still seems somehow organic.  Gaultier served up a truly opulent gown whose adornments  look like they took root and grew from its own swirling skirts.

Styler wisely let the dress speak for itself and didn’t add unneccesary decoration.  She wore stud earrings and carried a small ruby-colored purse.  Her hair was drawn back loosely with a white silk ornament to match the dress, and she wore bangs.  Her shoes disappeared beneath the hem of the skirt.  The dress itself showed no cleavage, and Styler’s toned arms were the best possible accompaniment, as they added to the overall aura of feminine strength generated by the gown.*

Trudie Styler and Sting at the Some Kinda Legacy benefit. PNP/WENN

In some ways, a dress like this is a risk.  It’s not solid, it’s not black, and it’s not remotely traditional.  (And there’s always the physical hazard that someone will step on your train.)   Yet what it ultimately proves is the old adage that sometimes the biggest risks pay off the most.  What we have here is a totally modern dress that is also a gown for the ages.

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73rd Academy Awards, given in 2001 for performances in 2000.  Styler attended with her husband, Sting, who was nominated as composer and lyricist of the song “My Funny Friend and Me” from the film The Emperor’s New Groove.

*Photos from the 2008 benefit, for which Ms. Styler altered her accessories slightly.

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Hello, Gorgeous

Those legs.  That hair.  That smile.  The giddy hoot of laughter that suggests the small town girl has never fully abandoned the Hollywood diva.  I maintain that Julia Roberts is the last of the old-style movie stars and will be well after she stops making movies.

It’s easy to dismiss the acting talents of those who not only make it look easy but are beautiful to boot.  Yet her 2001 win for Erin Brockovich marked Roberts’ third try for the envelope, following a supporting nod in 1990 for Steel Magnolias and one for best actress in 1991 for, yes, Pretty Woman.  She’s got spunk and a smile, and Clooney is smooth and Hanks is a sparkler.  Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable and Katharine Hepburn all had their types, too.  The undefinable “it.”

But let’s talk about this dress.  It ranks as my favorite dress of the decade and one of my favorites from any era.  Black velvet with white silk stripes cascading down the back and creating a simple Y in the front, the dress was designed by Valentino in 1982 and manages to completely circumvent the frilly excesses associated with that decade.  Roberts completed the outfit with an upswept hairdo enhanced with a fall, strappy black  heels, diamonds on her ears and wrist, and silver rings on her toes.

Julia Roberts in vintage Valentino Couture, 2001

As beautiful as the front of the gown is, the back is even more spectacular.

Valentino himself was particularly pleased.  After the ceremony, his spokesman said, “Mr. Valentino thinks it looked glorious. It’s hers [now].  She can eat hamburgers at home in it if she likes.”

On the October 20, 2004 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, on which Valentino discussed his career and retirement, a model wore a specially recreated version of the gown.  Later, he cited having Roberts’ wear his creation as a highlight of his career.  “I have dressed so many people but I have to be sincere.  The person who made me feel so very, very happy was Julia Roberts.  When she got the Academy Award for Erin Brockovich I watched it on television and really I was so excited that she appeared in my dress.  It makes me so very happy and proves once more that movie stars love my clothes.”

They aren’t the only ones.  It’s not just the clean lines that would have been elegant at any point in the history of the Oscars, and it’s not just the flattering cut and the always elegant combination of white and black.   It’s the mystique of a dress that is simultaneously regal enough for a queen of Hollywood and swishy enough to delight even a little girl.

Don’t believe me?  This ten year old told her mother she wanted to be Julia Roberts for Halloween.  And not just any incarnation.  She wanted to be the Oscar winner on the big night.  So her crafty mother used her skill and ingenuity to make her daughter’s night.

"Julia Roberts," age 10

And this girl blogger loves it, too.

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73rd Academy Awards, given in 2001 for performances in 2000.  Nominees for best actress:  Joan Allen — The Contender, Juliette Binoche — Chocolat, Ellen Burstyn — Requiem for a Dream, Laura Linney — You Can Count on Me, Julia Roberts — Erin Brockovich.

Collection of the actress.

The Very Beginning

For my inaugural post, and with the 2010 Academy Awards only 2 days away, I thought I would write about my favorite Oscar dress of the decade.  However, I’ve decided to save that for the second post and instead I’ll tell you a little about why I created this blog. 

I’m not a fashion writer, a fashionista, or even a (particularly) devoted reader of Vogue.  Although I briefly attended a fashion institute, it was really more out of an inchoate love of pretty dresses than anything a person could found a solid career on.  I loved the dresses that had a story.  Not a runway vision, but the ones that were worn by real people to real events. 

These real people didn’t have to be famous, or famous any more.  The clothes could be museum pieces worn by forgotten debutantes, theatrical costumes, gowns worn by the First Ladies, or even just the lovely two-dimensional representations by Ingres and Sargent.  An Edwardian photograph of a woman in pearls would do it, too.  I loved a dress in context, even if I didn’t have anything scholarly to say on the subject.

However, the context that I really loved was the Oscars.  My first viewing was in 1990, which was Billy Crystal’s first year as host (may he come back soon.)  I recorded the ceremony and watched it again and again and again.  I memorized the opening monologue.  My mother and I raced each other to see who could identify the most films in Chuck Workman’s montage.  And I unknowingly kindled a passion for the clothes worn on that particular red carpet.  (Who looked the best that year — in every way imaginable?  Daniel Day-Lewis, hands down and in a walk, but that’s a topic for another post.)

In subsequent years, without really trying, I found myself memorizing the nominees for acting.  Listing them was a trick that came in handy if I was bored in class and wanted to look like I was taking notes.  I had strong opinions about the winners, the losers, and the clothes.  I still do.

So a love of the Oscars and the clothes thereof took me to that esteemed institute.  It wasn’t a strong enough motive to keep me there.  I majored in history and am a librarian by trade.  I don’t claim any special knowledge of style or film, fashion or Hollywood.  I don’t even claim to know why this fascinates me so much.  All I claim is love.