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Gioia Diliberto

Gioia Diliberto

Posted February 23, 2009 | 06:23 PM (EST)

Is the Red Carpet French?


Oscar is American, but the red carpet is French - with some Italian blood. When it came to choosing gowns for the Academy Awards this year, Kate, Penelope, Sarah, and Angelina went for Old World Couture. Of the 27 most photographed female stars at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood last night, only seven were dressed by U.S. designers. The French and Italian gowns, most notably the 60 -year-old cream silk Balmain worn by supporting actress winner Penelope Cruz, were gorgeous. But they were more of the same of what we've been seeing at the Academy Awards for years - beaded and structured extravaganzas that evoke European High Style. They looked as demodé as Hugh Jackman's song and dance number with Beyoncé - too big and too produced.

The television audience for The Academy Awards has been declining steadily in recent years, especially among younger viewers, and the ceremony's organizers are desperate to make it more exciting and youthful. Since many people watch the show mainly to see the stars' clothes, one solution would be to get the actresses out of their Diors and Valentinos, their Versaces and Armanis and into some fresh, sassy, U.S. frocks.

That might be too much to ask of the celebs, a group not known for pushing fashion to extremes. They're expected to make their grand entrances looking grand, and most of them have tended to play it safe, relying on stylists who steer them to famous European designers. The results are cookie-cutter confections - either pale, frothy, wedding type dresses like Sarah Jessica Parker's Dior, or severe black columns like Angelina Jolie's Elie Saab.

Three of the most stunning dresses last night, and three that did nothing to disappoint in the glamour department, were by American designers. At the top of the list was the pale lavender silk dress by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, of the California based Rodarte, worn by Natalie Portman. Tina Fey was gorgeous in a shimmery champagne colored dress by Zac Posen that looked like liquid silk. And Amy Adams's crimson gown with black spider web-piping by Caroline Herrera stood out so boldly it dulled all the red dresses around it.

In America today, as is often the case in periods of turmoil, there's a yearning to return women to traditional ideas of femininity. Perhaps that's why actresses are so drawn to the opulent luxuriousness of European couture. But Americans can do opulence, too, and it would be nice to see more dresses on the red carpet by U.S. designers. In this economy, they need all the help they can get.

Michelle Obama, for one, is making headlines for a personal style that reflects a passion for American fashion. Her taste for classic feminine clothes by Jason Wu, Thakoon, Maria Pinto, and Isabel Toldeo, plants her firmly in the tradition of such legendary style icons as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But unlike that other Mrs. O., Mrs. Obama is not a clothes horse besotted with French luxury. In fact, she's not a clothes horse at all. She loves clothes, but they are not central to her life in the way they were for Jackie or, say, Marie Antoinette.

Even before her husband became a candidate for president, Michelle supported American designers, and now that she's First Lady, she's continuing that support. Jackie, on the other hand, began patronizing American designers only after Women's Wear Daily reported her extravagant Paris shopping sprees during the 1960 election. The public remembers her best in the pink Chanel suit she was wearing when her husband was shot and the magnificent gowns by Givenchy and Valentino that she favored after leaving the White House.

I've never seen Michelle Obama in Chanel or Valentino. Jennifer Aniston, are you listening?