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The Anatomy of an Iconic Oscar Look

02/26/2015 12:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

Once upon a time in the not so distant past, actresses browsed their own closets or went shopping themselves for something to wear to an awards show. Today, however, the notion of wearing an off-the-rack dress is unheard of. The collaboration of stylists and designers to outfit the perfect celebrity in the perfect gown for the red carpet is big business.

Perhaps we can thank the late Joan Rivers for ushering in the age of "Who are you wearing?" A question she coined and made synonymous with award shows, it undoubtedly is proof of the shifting focus toward high fashion on the red carpet. But just because a celebrity is wearing a big name designer does not mean that it's an automatic hit. Plenty top designers have landed on the dreaded worst-dressed list. Nonetheless, there are moments when the stars align and magic happens. Moments when everything simply "clicks" and an unforgettable red carpet gown is born.

So what separates these one-of-a-kind fashions from the rest? Let's take a peek into the anatomy of an iconic red carpet look.

Element of surprise

Nothing is worse than a predictable red carpet full of actresses wearing gowns that are expected. There's something to be said for taking a risk. But a risk doesn't mean going off the deep end of the fashion spectrum. Yes, Bjӧrk's swan dress will be remembered forever...but for all the wrong reasons. Many of the most idolized looks of the past were when the celebrities took a slight step outside of the box. Nicole Kidman's stunning red Balenciaga with oversized shoulder bow. Lupita Nyong'o in a caped Ralph Lauren. Even Sharon Stone's unconventional white Oxford button down. These are the looks that make people's heads turn for a glimpse.

Match made in heaven

While wearing something new and fresh is one component of a classic red carpet look, gowns that live on in history also often match the wearer's style and physical characteristics. Skin undertones and hair color can dictate which shade of dress will be a pleasing compliment. When does Julianne Moore tend to top the best dressed lists? When she's wearing a warm shade of green that flatters her striking red mane. Likewise, knowing what works for one's body is key. Meryl Streep might get robbed of the film award year after year, but she's a winner in the fashion sense by wearing sleeved gowns and staying true to her individual style.

Fit to a tee

There are designers and celebrities who are simply made for each other. Like Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy of yesteryear, these designers and their muses are the prefect pair when it comes to making a lasting impression on the red carpet. And one of the main reasons why these pairings work is because the designer truly understands the woman and her body. An actress might wear the most coveted designer, but if the gown is not exquisitely tailored to fit her, the entire look will be off. When every seam, dart and hemline is in place, the dress looks like it was made specifically for her. Take Octavia Spencer whose numerous Tadashi Shoji gowns topped the best dressed list. Or Resse Witherspoon who often wears Nina Ricci.

All the little details

Success truly is in the details. The way that the celebrity's accessories are styled can make or break the overall look. While a minimalistic gown allows room to play with accessories, a busy gown is often left alone. But it is some of these details - a statement necklace or unexpected brooch, perhaps - that can make a look iconic. Just ask Eva Mendes, whose turquoise necklace stole the show, without which her Dior gown may have blended into the crowd.

Strut your stuff

It's commonly said that confidence is the sexiest thing a woman can wear. And nowhere is that more true than on the red carpet where millions of eyes are watching and dissecting. Each year when the fans and critics narrow in on the best looks of the night, it's no surprise that those actresses also possessed a certain sense of confidence that made them stand out from the rest. They walk the red carpet like they own it. It's this sureness that gives these looks the edge. Like it or loath it, Jennifer Lopez surely was rocking some serious confidence to pull off her infamous Versace gown. Likewise, this poise can also be seen in beautiful looks such as Kate Hudson in gold, lace Versace, and Hilary Swank in a backless Guy Laroche.

Though there's not a precise formula for the combination of these elements into the perfect Oscar look, each aspect plays a significant role in the overall anatomy. A walk through memory lane of some of the most beloved red carpet gowns will show each of these facets to some degree. And Sunday night's Academy Awards will be no different. There will undoubtedly be a plethora of gorgeous gowns. But the real question is: Whose look will encompass all of the credentials to be the next iconic Oscar look?