SARA FISHER

Staff Reporter

As hard as it may be to imagine, there was a time when stars didn't show up at the Academy Awards dressed in taffeta and jewels. Janet Gaynor, who won the very first Oscar for best actress in 1929, wore a sweater and scarf combo that looked more secretarial than star-worthy.

Today, no Oscar-attending celebrity would be caught dead in such an outfit. To do so would be to pass up the year's single best opportunity to show the world how celestial the stars can be.

Celebrities (or their managers) approach the Oscars as a business opportunity and shrewdly use fashion as their ultimate marketing tool.

"Talk about the ultimate one-night stand," said Michael Nyman, president of Beverly Hills-based publicity firm Bragman Nyman Cafarelli. "No other entertainment event commands such a far-reaching worldwide audience. It is a night when even stars get excited about seeing other stars. All parties involved the celebrities, the major corporations, the studios, the media and the public know that this is the biggest night of the year."

The viewing audience is so large that a single appearance can drastically change perceptions.

It worked to transform Courtney Love, the former grunge queen who made her glamorous debut at the 1997 Academy Awards.

It worked for Minnie Driver, whose unconventional looks were re-labeled as "stunning" when she appeared in a striking red sheath dress at last year's ceremony.

"A lot of actors and actresses recreate their image every year for the awards, and they definitely get more publicity," said Chantal Cloutier, head of Santa Monica-based Cloutier Agency, which manages Hollywood's leading wardrobe consultants, hair stylists and makeup artists. "More actresses are choosing to change their looks regularly. It's very healthy and exciting to see them do so."

While fashion has always played a big role in Hollywood Gaynor's outfit notwithstanding the frenzy is reaching a fever pitch, as celebrities crowd the red carpet in front of ever more camera crews.

In addition, more pre- and post-awards shows have cropped up to dissect fashion's winners and losers. ABC will broadcast the first official pre-show in Oscar history, with Geena Davis hosting. Although Davis said she won't ask every celebrity who crosses her path about what designer he or she is wearing, fashion will be the main component of the half-hour show.

The network is entering the fray somewhat belatedly, hoping to lure viewers away from the extensive "unofficial" coverage. Joan Rivers has been hosting highly popular, sometimes-vicious Oscar fashion coverage for E! Entertainment Television since 1995. This year, the Los Angeles-based cable channel is starting its pre-Oscar coverage at 9 a.m., and will also feature some Oscar fashion coverage on its new spin-off cable channel, the Style Network.

While straight news coverage of the award winners dies down within days, many fashion magazines stay with the story for up to a month after the event.

"Anyone successful today in Hollywood is a superb manipulator of self-image and is intelligent enough to rely on the team behind him or her. That only grows more true year after year," said Marshall Blonsky, professor of semiotics at New York University.

Blonsky also voiced what may be an unpopular opinion for why Oscar fashion has become arguably more critical than the awards themselves: He believes it reflects the shift away from substance and talent, and toward superficial appearances.

"We have seen the end of the actor and the beginning of the star-celebrity," he said. "The Oscars is the night that celebrates that shift."

And it's the dress, for better or worse, that often highlights that celebrity.

Sometimes, it's for the worse. Kim Basinger, Demi Moore and Geena Davis are among the stars who have suffered some major Oscar gown fiascoes. But those who follow the annual fashion dance quickly point out that they have all survived the embarrassment.

"I've never seen a bad dress ruin a career," Nyman said.

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