The red carpet battlefield

For celebrities, gown choices are about as spontaneous as deciding who's going to star in $100 million movies. Both convey image and perception, both can triumph or fail. The cost is high in both cases.

This year's big-ticket Globes nominees — Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry — are expected to turn out an impossible combination of Grace Kelly-meets-Audrey Hepburn-meets-Sophia Loren looks.

That in itself is an image-juggling act: Stars use red carpets to shape-shift their public image, their status, their career trajectories and even their love lives.

It's hard to believe, but before the late 1990s, stars came casually to the Globes.

"They'd wear pantsuits and little glasses to read their speeches," says Carlos Souza, global ambassador for the Valentino brand. "Mr. Valentino would watch, get so angry and say, 'Where's the glamour of Old Hollywood?'"

Dressing for a new decade
The tables turned in 2000, when Berry, nominated for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, turned up in a sophisticated white Valentino stunner — to the collective reaction of "Wow!"

"That dress was the game-changer," says Phillip Bloch, the stylist who dressed Berry in her early iconic looks. "It upped the ante for Globes style and was a career-making dress: the perfect storm of right woman, right dress, right moment. We were going for Natalie Wood, not Raquel Welch. Beautiful, not va-va-voom. Halle was already sexy; we wanted her to look like a real actress. That began the time when a dress could actually make a career."

Now it's reached maximum combustion.

"Fashion and image has become a big part of my job," says one Globe nominee's high-powered manager. "You don't want to alienate your audience by going over the top, but you can't overlook that a young female audience is affected by what actresses wear."

Ugly onscreen, red-hot carpet
It's no accident that when stars play unattractive on screen — Kate Winslet in The Reader, Kidman in The Hours, Charlize Theron in Monster — they crank up the femme fatale factor on the red carpet.

"Hilary Swank didn't show off her figure in 'Boys Don't Cry,'" says Tanya Gill, her stylist of three years. "But when she went to the Globes, it was in a sheer Versace couture dress. The year of 'Million Dollar Baby,' you saw more of her body. She wasn't going to hide how much she worked for those parts."

Then there's the "suddenly single" moment. Reese Witherspoon donned a succession of princess styles before her breakup with Ryan Phillippe. But when she emerged in 2007 in a short, tight, strapless yellow Nina Ricci, the message was: "He's gone, but I'm still sexy! And available!"

Too fashionable?
"Actresses have to walk a tightrope," says Cameron Silver, owner of vintage boutique Decades, from where many Globes gowns hail. "Too avant-garde and you're a 'fashion girl.' Too underdone and you're on the worst-dressed list. You want that middle space occupied by Penelope Cruz or Jennifer Garner: serious actress who happens to be chic."

In the case of certain actresses — think Camilla Belle or Diane Kruger — they're much better known for outfits than for acting. "It's not so bad being famous for style, if you want to be famous," Stewart says. "It's not their fault they look good in clothes."

So do Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, but they work constantly.

"When an actress dresses authentic to who she is, she can go as far as she likes," Stewart says. "That demands true talent."

But when the scales tip and it's all style over substance, one stylist admits, "you wind up with free clothes and no parts."

Adds the major talent manager of one fashionista: "If there's too much emphasis on fashion, you do get taken less seriously as an actress. Courting the balance these days is almost harder than getting a great part — statuesque doesn't always lead to a statue."

As red carpet season comes hurtling towards us, we can’t help wondering what the stars will be wearing. Do you have any predictions for what the celebs will don?
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