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Stand tall like Gwyneth Paltrow and more lessons from 10 years of watching the red carpet

Clothes can make people like you!

This is the actual point of the red carpet, when you think about it. The red carpet is the only time we watch actors and actresses being themselves. It is their moment to promote their personal brand: fun, kooky, clever, sweet, whatever. The smart ones know that for the long-term longevity of this brand you need people to like you, not just fancy you. Cate Blanchett is brilliant at this. I’ve only ever seen Blanchett being a scary ice queen (Elizabeth, Blue Jasmine) or a kids’ film scary ice queen (the Lord of the Rings trilogy; the Hobbit) and, once, a madwoman called Lotte in a German play at the Barbican I couldn’t make head or tail of. And yet she has my lifelong devotion, primarily for the lavender and yellow Givenchy she wore at the 2011 Oscars, but also for livening up every red carpet I’ve ever covered. See also: Claire Danes, who has successfully softened and humanised an image dominated by her stressy black trousersuit-clad on-screen character by joyous, colourful red carpet choices, like the Tiffany-blue Prada dress she wore to the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2013.

Hourglass shape … Sandra Bullock in navy McQueen at last year’s Oscars. Photograph: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

For impact, shape matters more than anything else

Corsetry is your friend. Boning is your friend. If your dress lets it all hang out, you have to hold your tummy in. And nobody remembers to hold their tummy in except when they are looking in the mirror, and especially not after two glasses of champagne. This is not just about looking thin, it’s about looking like you have a shape, because shape looks good in photographs. On camera, a dress with a waist looks more dynamic and warm than a loose, blobby shape, which is why every red carpet, ever, is dominated by hourglass shapes. The masterclass: Sandra Bullock at last year’s Oscars in navy blue McQueen. Look inside a really good red-carpet gown and you will find two corsets: an inner one to squeeze you in, and then an outer one that keeps the dress in shape but is fractionally larger than the inner one, so that the dress never looks too small. I am not advocating two corsets in real life, but the takeaway here is that in any situation where you will end up in photos where you want to look nice – from your wedding, to being photographed at work – you will make life easier for yourself if you wear something with a built-in shape.

Offputting … Nicole Kidman in high-neck Balenciaga. Photograph: Steve Granitz/WireImage

High collars make you look a bit mean

The thought process behind wearing a high-necked evening dress is impeccable – why should women bare their chests, making themselves exposed and vulnerable, when – at least, since the tragic demise of boyband JLS – a man would never do the same? And anyway, if you’ve been even remotely concentrating on fashion recently, you’ll be aware that polonecks are quite the thing. But the brutal fact is that high collars for evening are deeply offputting. Think of Nicole Kidman in that Balenciaga dress with the raised turtleneck and the red bow at the neck, at the 2007 Oscars. She looked terrifying! (The outsize bow that looked like a mechanical key for a wind-up robot didn’t help.) This doesn’t mean you have to go bare and strapless: both Helen Mirren and Judi Dench always show some skin at the throat, but cover their arms and shoulders.

Southern Belle … Jennifer Lopez. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Pretty-but-blah dresses don’t cut it except on pre-teen bridesmaids

The most common red carpet mistake is to go soft and ruffly and drippy. That lobotimised dolly look is my red carpet bugbear. Also, it is in my experience a bad sign, career-wise. You can basically date the steepening downward trajectory of Jennifer Lopez’s cultural relevance to when she wore a great Southern Belle ballgown to the Met Ball. Can the word “fairytale” be applied to your dress? Have you reached puberty? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, you are in the wrong dress.

Fabulous earrings … Sienna Miller at the Golden Globes. Photograph: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

It’s not just about the dress

The devil is indeed in the details. Like, use fake tan – not too much, but a little – if you are pale. Yes, yes, I know Blanchett and Glenn Close look incredible, but they are otherworldly goddesses. Normal humans always, always look better a little bit tanned. (Felicity Jones, I’m talking to you!) Also, it is impossible to overstate the importance of backcombing and Elnett. Sade was basically the only woman who ever looked really good with flat hair. (Again: goddess.) Also, there is almost no look that cannot be improved by a pair of really fabulous earrings. (See: Sienna Miller at the Golden Globes.)

Forever emerald … Julianne Moore. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

If it works for you, stick to it

Julianne Moore’s colouring looks fantastic in emerald green. Jennifer Aniston’s shoulders look awesome in halternecks. Neither of them are afraid to reprise a formula that works. There is a misguided narcissism at the heart of the idea that you can’t wear a black jumpsuit to Lucy’s birthday party because you wore one to Nina’s Christmas drinks. Your eveningwear wardrobe is unlikely to be constantly on the mind of anyone else, however much they love you. There are many issues to be negotiated when getting dressed, but boring other people is an imaginary problem.

Cape crusader … Gwyneth Paltrow in Tom Ford gown at the 2012 Oscars. Photograph: Dan MacMedan/WireImage

Timeless = good. Old-fashioned = bad

My all-time least-favourite red carpets to write about are the ones when I feel like I’ve slipped through a snag in the time-space continuum and landed in 1961. Silver screen glamour is boring and wet and irrelevant if you don’t bring it up to date. This is not about wearing trainers on the red carpet, it’s about referencing modern style in an elegant way. My all-time favourite example of this is the Tom Ford white caped gown that Gwyneth Paltrow wore to the Oscars in 2012. It looked like she was shoulder-robing the cape, which brought a fabulously Wintour-esque front-row moment to the red carpet. See also: Cara Delevingne in a little black dress with a diamond ear cuff.

Poise … Carey Mulligan. Photograph: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Your mum was right. Stand up straight!

Seriously, this drives me insane. Keira Knightley: fabulous, talented, stylish, but sticks her head forward like a duck. The Duchess of Cambridge: beautiful, enviable height, but ruins it with that round-shouldered slouch. At the other extreme: pageant poses makes you look like an idiot. The one-leg-forward pose jumped the shark with Angelina Jolie at the 2012 Oscars. Reese Witherspoon’s beauty queen hand-on-hips posing, still in evidence at last week’s Screen Actors’ Guild awards, is lagging badly behind her awesome modern-Hollywood-feminist vibe. For tips, study Gwyneth Paltrow (simple, graceful) and Carey Mulligan (as Paltrow, but with an Alexa Chung ankle-crossed thing going on, for extra hipster points).

  • This article has been amended to correct errors

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