There must be an enormous amount of pressure when you’re an Oscar front-runner even as a newbie, but surely it’s double the stress when you’re a) a very popular actress who’s been around for a while but not really in the Oscar conversation until now, and is finally expected to take one home (see: Sandra Bullock’s glittery gown from 2010); or b) a very popular actress who’s been around for a while, nominated repeatedly and never won, and expected to take one home. In either case, it must feel even more like dressing for the history books (Glenn Close’s amazing gold ensemble for the year we all thought she was going to snag it for The Wife; Glenn came ready for her moment, and then Olivia Colman snuck in and took it for The Favourite). Julia Roberts kind of fell into both categories on this date. She’d been nominated for Steel Magnolias and then Pretty Woman, but then a decade passed before Erin Brockovich. She has the Major Movie Star status of someone you’d expect to get nominated for pretty much anything, but not always the resume (her next one took another thirteen years: 2014’s August: Osage County, aka Eat The Fish, Bitch), and in her acceptance speech in 2001 she even said she wasn’t sure she’d ever be up there again. All of which is to say: This was a big one, and she knew it.
That made it extra-noteworthy that Julia went vintage. It wasn’t entirely unheard of; in fact, Renee Zellweger wore a vintage gown this same year. But it was very rare; I don’t even know how often the term “vintage” was bandied about before this. The gown was part of a 1992 Valentino couture collection, allegedly worn on the runway by Helena Christensen — I couldn’t find a photo — and then sported by Christy Turlington in an editorial for Harper’s Bazaar later that same year. The story is that Julia was underwhelmed by the gowns that had been sent to her stylist, who had a connection with someone at Valentino; they sensed an opportunity and sent her this dress. Valentino himself has since commented that this was his favorite and most meaningful moment, telling the Telegraph, “It makes me so very happy and proves once more that movie stars love my clothes.” So while I sadly can’t find any comment on why or how they had the idea to go into the archives for Julia, the tenor of that comment makes me wonder if Valentino was feeling somehow less trendy or left behind at this time, and perhaps he knew he had to take a bigger chance or make his pitch more unique than anyone else’s. The result is a dress almost everyone can recall from memory, and while I wish more stars would look into vintage or archival gowns with more regularity, the perfect storm of Julia (JULIA!) and a victory and this specific dress boosted the notion that everything old can feel fresh again.
Side note: Isn’t it crazy that she wore this the same year Bjork wore the swan? I had no idea. My memory did not connect the two, and yet, they’re two massive fashion moments. Somehow neither overshadowed the other.
And because I love a flashback, obviously I’m giving you the rest of what she’s worn to the Oscars, too. Some of it is… not as successful. Maybe she should’ve gone vintage more often.