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There have been so many memorable Oscars gowns over the last two decades, but to get the definitive list, we called in the experts: The Fug Girls. Writers Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan are the brains behind the beloved style website GoFugYourself, a go-to destination for smart, funny, and often snarky commentary on celebrity fashion since 2004. Here, they share their picks for the top 20 Oscar dresses of the last 20 years.
Almost exactly 20 years ago, Nicole Kidman delivered a knockout punch at the Academy Awards by wearing a heart-stopping chartreuse Dior; on Sunday, she will step onto that same red carpet as one of the consistently biggest and boldest dressers in a styling game her gown helped change forever. Will Kidman come fashion full-circle with a nod to the dress that put her on the map? That question is just one of a zillion reasons we’re spending Sunday’s Oscars glued to the fashion parade, awash in snacks and bubbly (as brand ambassadors, Piper-Heidsieck gets our nod!).
To whet your palate, we culled a list of our 19 favorite Oscar gowns since Kidman’s showstopper. Some you may have forgotten, some may be burned into your brains, and — spoiler alert — some might involve water fowl.
1. Nicole Kidman in Dior, 1997
If you told us to close our eyes and imagine Nicole Kidman, two images would come to mind: a glorious mane of red curly hair, and this photo. The dress was from John Galliano’s first Dior collection, and at the time, it felt wildly unusual for Hollywood’s Night of Nights. Even Tom Cruise is looking at her like he can hardly believe it, and he rode over in the limo with her.
This red carpet moment cemented Kidman as a style star and showed her fellow celebs just how impactful a well-chosen dress can be — after all, people can barely remember who won from year to year, but fashion can burn into their brains forever.
2. Sharon Stone in Vera Wang... and The Gap, 1998
La Stone stunned everyone with this easy, breezy approach to what Duchess Kate watchers now call “high fashion meets High Street," with her unexpected combo of a button-down Gap dress shirt and a Vera Wang skirt. Sure, the red carpet was less styled in the late ‘90s than it is these days, but most A-listers still weren’t giving shout-outs to a mall chain, either.
Best of all, Sharon made us all feel better about those identical Gap staples hanging in our own closets (which may then have spawned a whole generation of hoarders, but hoarding is underrated anyway). You truly do never know when those khakis will come back again! Case in point: Gap is selling them online again right now — maybe someone can wear those this year!
3. Bjork in…a Swan, 2001
In the pantheon of crazy red carpet outfits, Bjork showing up at the Academy Awards wearing a bird has to rank among the absolute craziest. While this look is not wholly off-brand for Bjork as a human, it’s definitely, shall we say, unusual for the Oscars, where people don’t generally engage in interspecies cosplay.
Even people who weren’t alive yet when this happened have somehow never forgotten it, and, more importantly, Bjork and her Swan Dress have become an easy shorthand to explain why red carpet watching is such a delightful sport.
4. Julia Roberts in Valentino, 2001
While this isn’t technically old enough to have been vintage, in that it dates from 1992, it did come straight from the Valentino archives rather than the runway — a thoroughly unexpected provenance. Its streamlined elegance is utterly timeless.
Valentino himself has said that watching Julia accept her Best Actress Oscar in this frock was the highlight of his career. It’s hard to argue with that; it was possibly also the highlight of hers.
5. Kate Winslet in Ben de Lisi, 2002
Prediction: This dress will appear in every magazine spread that’s ever created about Kate Winslet’s career. The bold red neck detailing capped a simple, curve-hugging sheath that should have taught the industry then and there that fashion isn’t just for the Size 00s of the world. The designer, American-born Ben De Lisi, has lived in London since the ‘80s; can we negotiate a knighthood, Your Majesty?
6. Halle Berry in Elie Saab, 2002
Looking back at this dress, the sheer aspects seem almost played out. But at the time, this look was so fresh and unexpected — and Halle looked so gorgeous in it during her tearful acceptance speech — that it felt quite revolutionary. It also launched Elie Saab as a major red carpet designer in the United States, a development for which we’re all grateful.
7. Jennifer Lopez in Valentino, 2003
Why doesn’t J.Lo wear caftans more often? She looks awesome in them: floaty, glamorous, and ever-so-Liz-Taylor-inspired. (She wore this in the midst of Bennifer 1.0. Does that make Ben Affleck the Richard Burton of the early aughts?)
8. Hilary Swank in Guy Laroche, 2005
Over the years we’ve certainly seen plenty of prim-looking dresses with rearview surprises, but none of them hit the mark as achingly well as this one. Just when you think maybe she’s wearing it backward, Hilary turns around, and boom. If we’d had Twitter in 2005, this would’ve been #BackGoals.
9. Michelle Williams in Vera Wang, 2006
In which Michelle Williams makes it impossible for any other blonde — including herself — to wear a yellow gown and red lip without inviting comparisons…which will inevitably fall short, because this is flawless.
10. Penelope Cruz in Versace, 2007
Penelope had been nominated this year for "Volver," making her the first Spanish actress ever to receive that honor (she would, the next year, become the first to win one, for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"). In this dress, it hardly mattered whether she won; she was guaranteed to be the belle of the ball.
We love it when a plan comes together and looks breathtaking. To prove the strategy’s success, do you even remember who did win this year? We had to look it up: It was Dame Helen Mirren. It speaks to the power of this gown that we completely forgot about our queen in "The Queen."
11. Marion Cotillard in Jean Paul Gaultier, 2008
"La Vie en Rose" was America’s first real introduction to Marion Cotillard. And what a first impression. This gloriously detailed frock, including an almost tactile scale-like pattern, took the concept of the mermaid dress to the next level.
12. Viola Davis in Reem Acra, 2009
Viola Davis — nominated in 2009 for "Doubt" — is one of the red carpet’s most reliable women. She knows what looks good on her body, and how to stretch those boundaries without going too far. It’s relaxing that we never need to worry about her. Having said that: This isn’t just good. It’s great. It’s a shame that no one ever re-wears their Oscar dresses, because this one deserves a second turn.
13. Cameron Diaz in Oscar de la Renta, 2010
Everyone in the background of this photo is gawking -- which says something, because if you find yourself on the red carpet at the Oscars, you’ve definitely seen your share of up-close glamour before. Cameron Diaz wasn’t typically known for Old Hollywood glamour, so this was a heady, princessy surprise. And one we’d love to see her recreate one of these days. Where are you, Cameron Diaz?
14. Amy Adams in L’Wren Scott, 2011
This was an “off” year for Amy, in the sense that she was between two of her many nominations — yet she didn’t phone it in on the red carpet. In fact, she wore one of the sexiest and simplest sequined gowns we’ve ever seen on her, frosted with some unreal emeralds (and, obviously, her entire enviable head). But this gown lives all the more bittersweetly in our memories because of designer Scott’s tragic suicide in 2014. She was a force of creativity and elegance; what a light we lost.
15. Jennifer Lawrence in Calvin Klein, 2011
Jennifer’s first time at the Oscars — she was nominated as Best Actress for "Winter’s Bone" — was also her most successful, sartorially speaking. This tank dress put the exclamation point on her coming-out year by letting her playful, sporty aura shine through — not to mention her bod. She set a high bar her first time out of the gate, but luckily, she’s got a whole career ahead of her to top it.
16. Gwyneth Paltrow in Tom Ford, 2012
She may not have succeeded in causing an uptick in genital steaming, nor consumption of grass-fed macrobiotic Himalayan yak milk, but the current — and welcome — proliferation of red-carpet capes? Gwyneth can take some credit for that.
She hasn’t been Oscar nominated since her surprise win in 1999, and while some people think that pink Ralph Lauren is her more iconic look, we believe this one is the more influential (and better-fitting). The second she strode onto the red carpet in this sleek gown, we knew it would spawn a passel of imitators.
17. Octavia Spencer in Tadashi Shoji
Shoji and Spencer are a great example of how the right marriage of actress and designer benefits both sides: Octavia glows, and because he made her look so unforgettable, Shoji becomes unforgettable too. Even better: She won for "The Help" that night, so we assume this dress will live forever in a picture frame on her mantel, as it should.
18. Jessica Chastain in Alexander McQueen, 2012
Why don’t more women opt for pattern on the red carpet? This lushly embroidered custom gown is regal perfection — a risk that paid major dividends. She’s never looked better than she does here.
19. Zoe Saldana in Alexis Mabille, 2013
Never has anyone thumbed their nose at the color wheel so effectively. Mabille is French, and this feels like a classic dish from his country: chock full of ingredients and requiring complex techniques, but in the end somehow all you taste is the delectable whole. Pair that with Zoe’s inimitable panache, and it’s a winner for the ages.
20. Lupita Nyong’o in Prada, 2014
Lupita collaborated with Prada to create this dress, in a blue that the star said reminded her of Nairobi, where she grew up. It feels right that she wore a glorious Cinderella dress to cap off her own fairytale awards season.
May we see many such joyous red carpet moments on Sunday. (Although we’d accept more people in bird dresses, too.)