When it comes to the Oscars, it's not about who wins or loses, it's about who looks good doing it.
Jim Sheridan and his daughters, 27-year-old Kirsten and 31-year-old Naomi, all screenwriting nominees for the Irish immigrant tale In America, were well aware of the red carpet as they prepared for tonight's 76th annual Academy
"I'd like to look like Grace Kelly in the '60s," Naomi Sheridan said as they began "shopping" for their free Oscar dresses, which were practically thrown at them by publicity-hungry designers.
"Maybe we'll put my dad in a red dress - that'll get us noticed," Kirsten Sheridan said jokingly.
It's true that the right Oscar outfit makes a lasting impression.
More people remember a glamorous Gap-clad Sharon Stone at the Academy Awards in 1996 than who took home the top acting trophies that year (Susan Sarandon and Nicolas Cage). Salma Hayek, still a struggling starlet in 1997, stole the spotlight when she wore a beaded Giorgio Armani gown and a diamond tiara.
Last year, nominee Renee Zellweger won rave reviews for her sexy red Carolina Herrera gown even though Nicole Kidman, who went with a more demure midnight-blue Jean-Paul Gaultier dress, was named best actress.
And then there's poor Celine Dion, who is probably still haunted or at least taunted by the backward white coat and fedora by John Galliano for Christian Dior that she wore on the red carpet in 1999.
This is why the search for the perfect Oscar-night ensemble is more than a last-minute shopping spree.
Some designers begin working with likely nominees months before the contenders are officially announced. Scores of jewelers, accessory-makers and hair and makeup stylists set up temporary shops in Los Angeles the week before the ceremony.
Holly Hunter, an Oscar winner for 1993's The Piano and a nominee this year for Thirteen, has had a long collaborative relationship with Vera Wang.
Ms. Hunter turned up in the front row of Ms. Wang's New York Fashion Week runway show earlier this month, and she wore a Ms. Wang-designed purple halter gown to Sunday's Screen Actors Guild Awards.
"A really fabulous designer will have ideas that I won't," Ms. Hunter said.
Meanwhile, the Sheridans paid a recent visit to the Kwiat diamond showroom in New York and then made stops at the Max Azria BCBG and Laundry by Shelli Segal stores.
"There are so many A-list actresses who will be dressed by the Diors and Valentinos, I'm not trying to compete, I'm not going to try to outdo them," said Kirsten Sheridan.
"I'm thinking of something a little more independent like our film," she added.
That doesn't mean she's thinking small: Kirsten Sheridan was practically giddy as she tried on a 5-carat cushion-cut diamond necklace, while Naomi Sheridan favored a 38-carat necklace featuring two large round stones surrounded by Marquis-cut diamonds that would retail for about $200,000.
"The kind of jewelry I usually buy is the $8 stuff you can get at the airport," said Kirsten Sheridan. Then she wondered aloud if jewelers would provide security for the diamonds that would have to be returned the day after the event.
Even Mr. Sheridan, a veteran Oscar nominee for In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot, got caught up in the fashion frenzy as he eyed gold and diamond cuff links.
"When I went (to the Academy Awards) for In the Name of the Father, I didn't realize what a big deal the red carpet is. ... This time I want to wear something really nice," he said. He'll probably wear a classic Brooks Brothers or Ralph Lauren tuxedo.
Jennifer Royle, public relations coordinator for Laundry, said the Sheridan sisters seemed a little overwhelmed by all the attention they received at the store, but stayed true to their own sense of style.
"They knew what they wanted: A dress was either an immediate yes or an immediate no," Ms. Royle said. "I think they left happy. Each girl took one dress."
Kirsten Sheridan's choice was a V-neck dress with lace panels on the bodice, a red sash around the waist and full black ball skirt. Naomi Sheridan liked a long black matte jersey dress.
The dresses were a gift from the company. "For the right celebrity, we would absolutely give them anything they wanted with the hope they would wear it in public and get them photographed in it," said Ms. Royle, who also noted that Laundry offers dresses to TV show costumers just to see the company's name listed in the credits.
About 50 percent of the garments that are sent out to celebrities get worn, including dresses that stars specifically request, according to Tara Hannert, BCBG's public relations director.
"The kind of exposure you get from being photographed on the red carpet and Joan Rivers asking, 'Whose dress are you wearing?' ... There is no other marketing tool like it."
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