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The Politics of Red Carpet Dresses

E! Illustration

The question "Who are you wearing" is a loaded one in Hollywood. It's a phrase that can elicit cringes in even the most poker-faced red carpet attendee. It's a phrase that can spark hundreds of reactionary tweets. Asking an Oscar attendee to identify the designer of her dress is an act that can seem trivial in a time of heightened awareness and attention to inclusion and equality (and, let's not forget, the movement to #AskHerMore), but it actually has a long and important history of necessity in the award show system.

That's because the tradition of dressing an actress for an award show, like almost anything in the industry, is truly a business opportunity.

As this Sunday's 89th annual Oscars approaches, fashion designers, actresses, and their stylists are all furiously preparing for what is to be one of their collectively most pivotal moments of the entire gold statue rat race: The red carpet. Viewers may be tuning in to find out who brought their mom as a date or whether Amy Schumer is going to shout out O.B. Tampons again, but there's a behind-the-scenes system that's banking everything on those few minutes of screen time.

This, ladies and gentleman, is the story of celebrity Oscar dresses. 

It's a long process that can take up all of an actress or stylist's free time, but the first rule of thumb is to never start too early—that's called jinxing it. Once the nominations are announced, however, it's go time, and so begins the act of trying on dozens of dresses (stylists cop to overseeing as their clients try on upwards of 50 dresses before they choose The One.)

There are, basically, two options for an actress attending the Oscars: They can choose to borrow from a designer's new collection, or have something custom-made for them by a designer. (Technically they could also purchase their own gown, but paying for it yourself isn't nearly as fun.) There are myriad reasons why it's simply assumed that celebrities will get free clothes for award season, but the short answer is that having an Oscar nominee (or even Oscar winner) wear, and talk about, your dress on the year's biggest red carpet is simply great PR. And fairly easy PR at that. 

A custom frock is kind of the Big Kahuna of award season, and it's an opportunity that doesn't come around very often. As Aliza Licht, formerly DKNY PR Girl, told E! News a few seasons ago, having a one-of-a-kind gown is a major selling point, both for the stylist and the actress she's working with, as well as the designer who's hoping to bolster their brand. 

"There will be a conscious decision to not show that dress on a the runway," she said of the top-secret process. "So, if you are a stylist [with a client receiving one of said dresses] you'll get sketches beforehand, but never photos. We want it to be special."

If an actress is choosing from a designer's collection, then the actresses who are nominated often get first dibs, followed by the show's presenters. Obviously, each sample can only be worn by one person—and each star needs to wear a different dress, especially in the Internet age of instant duplicate spotting—so things can get a little competitive. Said Licht, "Often, it becomes this calendar of fittings. If we think one celeb will look better in a certain dress than one of the other celebs requesting that dress, we can hold off." 

The result is a true organizational mix-and-match, in which stylists attempt to narrow down a partnership between a designer who's interested in dressing a certain actress, and an actress who's interested in wearing a certain designer. Say Louis Vuitton wants to dress Alicia Vikander, but Alicia has her heart set on a Calvin Klein gown, but Calvin Klein wants to dress Brie Larson...it all just shuffles around until everyone's happy.  

Once a designer decides that they have their heart set on dressing someone, they'll go to some pretty crazy lengths to accommodate them: Julianne Moore's stylist, Leslie Fremar, has spoken of Chanel once flying in five or six looks from the show in Paris, straight to New York, for Moore to try on before the big event. 

For those not being personally wooed by Karl Lagerfeld, a stylist can lobby or negotiate on an actress' behalf. As Kate Young, who has dressed the likes of Natalie Portman and Dakota Johnson for past Academy Awards, told E! News in 2013, "The first steps I take in styling for a red carpet, is I call the actress to find out what they like.

Then from there, I make requests to all the showrooms for looks I think will work, and then I get racks and racks of clothes. Then I edit that down, and we go to her house and do a fitting."

None of this takes into account perhaps the biggest factor that can sway a choice: A brand partnership. Many big actresses have inked deals with fashion houses that require them to do anything from modeling in campaigns to wearing their clothes to big events. The most notorious such relationship is the one between Jennifer Lawrence and Dior, who have been together almost as long as JLaw has been famous—her current contract, which was reportedly worth a whopping $15-20 million, is due up this year. 

These aren't iron-clad bindings, however: Actresses don't have to wear the designers' clothes every second of every day, but they are typically expected to do so at the Oscars. For her part, Lawrence wore Dior to the 2014 and 2016 Academy Awards, but opted for Tom Ford and Alexander Wang, respectively, at the after-parties. This might seem restrictive, but it actually removes the need for the aforementioned game of designer-actress musical chairs—and with it a whole lot of stress. (The eight-figure paycheck doesn't hurt either.)

The rules and regulations don't stop once an actress has gotten dressed on the big day, and in fact they usually get more important. There are strict loan agreements that accompany a fashion house passing off a gown that is worth upwards of tens of thousands of dollars, fabulous PR opportunity notwithstanding. For starters, the word loan should be stressed—actresses almost never get to keep the frocks. They're typically expected to be returned within a day or two, and any loaned jewelry is on an even tighter schedule (some earrings and rings can even come with their own security guards.) 

But, there are perks beyond the possibility of a free dress to hang in your closet, and the reality of a free dress to wear for the evening. According to The Hollywood Reporter, designers have been known to pay stars up to $250,000 just to wear their label, and stylists can receive $30,000-50,000 for getting the actresses into the duds. This also explains why the red carpet is often so chock full of well-known labels: If that's the going rate, then no up-and-coming brand can afford to pay. 

So you see, the probe of Who are you wearing is wholly necessary to keep the red carpet dressing system a well-oiled, if slightly confusing, machine. Designers are depending on the press that comes with the question, and actresses feel (and occasionally are on paper) obligated to name-check the company that provided them the opportunity to glam up for free. But crediting the designer that helped up your red carpet game can be more than just part of a long-held understanding between fashion house and celebrity: It can be empowering. 

Just last summer, when Leslie Jones spoke out about many designers' refusal to dress her for events (in this case, the occasion was the world premiere of her movie, Ghostbusters), reportedly due to her size, Christian Siriano stepped up to put her in a dress that made her feel beautiful. And Evan Rachel Wood's current crusade to show her fellow women that they should feel emboldened to wear whatever makes them happy, and not feel boxed-in by dresses and their feminine connotations, wouldn't be possible without the custom designs by Joseph Altuzarra

Discussing this topic goes beyond just name-checking; it's giving credit where credit is due.

For complete Oscars coverage, tune in to E! News at 7 p.m. and Fashion Police at 8 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 27.