Oscar newcomers survive red carpet scrutiny

For celebrity newcomers, nothing cements their place in Hollywood as much as a successful debut at the Academy Awards. And aside from going home with a golden statue, the best way for actresses to ensure that success is to don a memorable dress.

Amid the strapless necklines and ruffled confections of Sunday’s red carpet walks, the Oscars presented an unadventurous but glamorous slew of gowns that reinforced the ceremony as a conservative, low-key event.

Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick were all nominated newcomers to watch, and viewers anxiously awaited their red carpet entrances to see what and who they would be wearing.

“It’s the most watched fashion parade in the world, way more so than fashion week, which is still a niche market and has a niche audience, relatively speaking,” said Elizabeth Currid, an assistant professor and author of The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City.

With all the pressure on their afternoon entrances, the women didn’t disappoint. While their ensembles were star-worthy, they also didn’t shock — each actress chose traditionally glamorous, flowing, floor-length dresses.

“Every fashion choice impacts the impression people have of you,” said Daniel Durbin, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism who teaches a course called Fashion, Media and Culture (COMM 396).

“The younger actresses were in very, generally elegant, generally pretty conservative, often very ruffled and laced looking outfits, placing you in a comfortable space for the audience — not challenging the audience or threatening them. As a newcomer, that is a valuable place to be because you are asking these people to end up buying tickets to your movies,” he said.

Carey Mulligan’s strapless Prada dress with its Swarovski beaded bodice was a quirky and perfect choice for the actress nominated for her lead performance in An Education. The pixie-cut blonde has made eight out of the last 10 of Vogue’s Ten Best Dressed lists, wearing demure and sophisticated styles uncharacteristic of actors her age and reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn.

Wearing an empire-waisted, flower-adorned blue Marchesa gown, Gabourey Sidibe said of her look, “If fashion were porn, this dress is the money shot.” The actress nominated for her lead performance in Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire radiated with excitement, and her ruched dress didn’t disappoint in her Cinderella moment.

Vera Farmiga, nominated for her supporting role in Up in the Air, also donned Marchesa with a dress that fully embodied designer Georgina Chapman’s signature embellished romantic style. Farmiga’s strapless column dress featured dramatic cascading pleated ruffles that embodied the glamour of old Hollywood.

“That one was like an endless flower,” Durbin said.

Most ordinary of the bunch was Anna Kendrick, whose Elie Saab Haute Couture blush gown with frilled drapery weighed her down and washed her out. The actress nominated for a supporting role in Up in the Air was pretty and didn’t look bad by any means, but was the least memorable of the four neophytes.

While the choice didn’t harm her reputation, it also didn’t set her apart as a risk-taker, but as a newly famous actress, that’s not something you necessarily want to be.

“For the new up-and-comers, it’s their foray into this world and it’s probably better to just be observed as being pretty and having a pretty dress than to be judged,” Currid said.

While there are many factors that determine what dress a particular celebrity wears — relationships they might have with stylists or designers, for example — the endless critiques that follow the ceremony are definitely a factor to consider in the decision-making process.

“Why wouldn’t you just wear the dress that made you look good rather than wearing something that might get made fun of?” Currid said.

“The only thing that really matters is that you don’t screw up,” Durbin added. “If you play it well and safe and wear something that is relatively conservative and caters to the international audience, it’s almost always a positive.”

By those standards, all four actresses won, even though none of them managed to snag the coveted award.

But with such promising young talent, this certainly won’t be anyone’s last Oscars appearance. As they rack up red carpet experience, hopefully they’ll become comfortable enough to take more risks.