How Social Issues Impacted Oscar Fashion Thru the 1970s

For some people, the Academy Awards is more about style than content. Not the movies, mind you. Just as some people sit through the tedium of the typical Super Bowl in order to catch the high profile commercials, some people tune in the Academy Awards for the fashion. Love them or hate them, in most cases the outfit worn by your favorite actress on Oscar night is the most important fashion selection of the year. A look back at the five decades of the Academy Awards reveals the extent to which events of the outside world impacted the sense of style in Hollywood on its biggest night.


Oscar was still a toddler by the time the Great Depression and public awareness of the awards coincided. This was the decade that witnesses the transition from the shorter dresses echoing flapper sensibilities to a more appropriately muted sense of elegance. If there is one word to describe the style of the dresses worn by the likes of Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh and Luise Rainer it would be minimalist. The typical gown was constructed of dependably glamorous silk or satin and the distinctive trademark of design was the cut across the bias.


Oscar fashion during the 1940s was split in two, as with everything else in the world. Rationing of fabric during the war years meant a trimmer fit to save on material. The accessory of choice for Academy Awards ceremony style was the hat because they could be made quickly, cheaply and in a vast array of styles to suit individual tastes and requirements. More elaborate and elegant gowns appeared once the war ended, material was readily available and the country was willing to enjoy the sight of excess without any of the queasiness related to the Great Depression or the war effort.


Everything about the movie business in the 1950s was bigger than ever. Free entertainment courtesy of television mean bigger screens, bigger spectacle on that screen and, at the Oscars, bigger glamour. The post-war boom meant opulence was no longer a dirty word and the more provocative and attention-getting the style, the better. Silk and satin came back with a vengeance, but this time without the slim design made necessary before. Long gowns were complemented with real furs and if the fashion of the 1950s made one thing clear it was that the flat look of the flappers was dead and buried. Décolletage was everywhere, even among those stars whose body was much suited to those 1920s gowns.


The turbulence experienced everywhere else could not be avoided at the Academy Awards. The decade began with 1950s glamour still on display and ended with the focus of style moved away from the fashion and toward the form. For the first time ever, Oscar audiences actually began to see the occasional knee of an actress. Glitz and glamour never go out of style completely in Hollywood so the 1960s was really more a decade-long wrestling match between traditional haute couture and increasingly experimental designs that could be, by turn, either more or less feminine than the old school counterparts.


The battle of the 1960s Oscar fashion appeared to be won by the move away from tradition during the 1970s. Even more so than the previous decade was eclectic the byword for Oscar fashion. Individual style choice was in reality stimulated by societal movements so that crocheted accessories paying tribute to the hippie counterculture would be later be eclipsed by form-fitting dresses that allowed actresses to head straight from the seats inside the arena to the disco dance floors as the post-Oscar parties. And, of course, there was also Diane Keaton arriving in full-on “Annie Hall” mode.