Part of an ongoing series of 29Secrets stories, taking a deep dive into the history of legendary beauty products and iconic fashion and pop culture moments…
By Christopher Turner
Illustration by Michael Hak
When Gwyneth Paltrow stepped out on the Oscar red carpet on February 26, 2012, with a slick ponytail and barely-there makeup wearing a white floor-length Tom Ford dress with an uber chic cape and silver jewels, fashion critics unanimously declared the gown one of the best Oscar dresses of all time. Deservedly so. Paltrow and the simplicity of the Tom Ford dress absolutely stole the red carpet that night, standing out amid a sea of heavily embellished dresses in a rainbow of colours. Ultimately, the minimalist dress caused a shift in red carpet trends and inspired a ton of replicas.
The cap sleeve column gown and double silk crepe cape were first seen eight days prior to the 84th annual Academy Awards at Tom Ford’s private London Fashion Week presentation, where the outfit caused quite a stir with the limited number of attendees. But no pictures of the collection were released publicly, so the first peek at the highly anticipated Tom Ford fall collection happened when Paltrow surprised everyone by wearing the gown to the Oscars. Here’s the story of why the dress was so important for Tom Ford’s dive into womenswear, and how Paltrow ended up wearing it and dazzling us all on Oscar night.
But first… Paltrow Oscar style highs and lows
Paltrow has walked the Oscar red carpet eight times, and her track record for memorable red carpet gowns is pretty unmatched. She wore a simple Calvin Klein bias-cut slip dress to the 68th Academy Awards on March 25, 1996; a pink Ralph Lauren dress (reminiscent of a Grace Kelly dress) to the 71st Academy Awards on March 21, 1999; a sparkling silver Calvin Klein dress with a sheer overlay to the 72nd Academy Awards on March 26, 2000; a gothic Alexander McQueen gown (sans bra) to the 74th Academy Awards on March 24, 2002; a peachy Zac Posen gown to the 79th Academy Awards on February 25, 2007; a shimmering Calvin Klein number to the 83rd Academy Awards on February 27, 2011; the high-fashion minimalist white Tom Ford gown and matching cape to the 84th Academy Awards on February 26, 2012; and a Ralph & Russo Couture to the 87th Academy Awards on February 22, 2015.
Talking to her Goop website in 2013, Paltrow opened up about the worst sartorial choices of her career and included two looks from the Oscars: the sparkly silver dress with a sheer overlay by Calvin Klein that she wore in 2000, and the now infamous gothic Alexander McQueen gown that she wore two years later.
“There are a few glaring ones.… The first is the Calvin Klein. It’s an okay dress, but not Oscars material. I chose it because I wanted to disappear that year,” Paltrow said.
She went on to agree with what every fashion critic said about her 2002 look – wearing the McQueen dress sans bra and with heavy makeup and milkmaid braided hair just didn’t work.
“There were a few issues. I still love the dress itself, but I should have worn a bra and I should have just had simple beachy hair and less makeup. Then it would have worked as I wanted it to. [It was] a little bit of punk at the Oscars.”
Outside of her fashion mishaps, she also talked about her favourite style moments, which include the high-fashion minimalist white Tom Ford gown and matching cape that she wore to the 2012 Oscars.
Tom Ford’s secret showings
On February 19, 2012, Ford presented one of the most secretive showings of his career. For his eponymous womenswear line, then in its second season, he opted to forget about an on-schedule catwalk show and instead invited a few of his closest allies to something much more private, forbidding all photography. In fact, the Tom Ford Fall 2012 womenswear presentation was so hush-hush, it wasn’t even on the schedule for London Fashion Week.
It wasn’t the first time Ford had kept things under wraps: at the time he was notorious for keeping his runway shows a private affair. Pictures from his Spring 2011 show – which featured the likes of Beyoncé, Julianne Moore and Lauren Hutton modelling the clothes – were kept secret for months, and editors who wanted to attend his Fall 2011 presentation had to first sign non-disclosure agreements.
When a few reviews of the top-secret Fall collection finally came out days after the preview, it was reported that the collection included 25 looks, and almost all of them were black leather and red statement pieces. Standing out from the collection of black and red was look 25, a white gown and cape that renowned fashion critic Tim Blanks said “was Golden Age of Hollywood artifice at its most glamorously precise.”
According to critic Isabel Wilkinson of The Daily Beast, Ford deemed the white gown his favourite from the collection because it was “dead simple.”
Ford told the Telegraph of the current state of red carpet dressing: “No one wants to take any risks. It’s all about a strapless dress, a fishtail hem, some borrowed and pretty hair. And who can blame them with the fashion police on the prowl?” And to Vogue UK: “Nobody would be brave enough” to wear one of his gowns, especially the white minimalist gown and cape.
Picking the dress
Despite the designer’s insistence that “no one wants to take any risks” on the red carpet, an unafraid Paltrow showed up on the Oscar red carpet on February 26, 2012, wearing the brilliant white column gown and cape from Ford’s Fall 2012 collection. It was the first time the public had caught a glimpse at anything from the collection. (Pictures and videos from the collection were finally released to the public on March 21, 2012, weeks after Paltrow debuted the white dress on the Oscar red carpet.)
Paltrow’s stylist Elizabeth Saltzman had secured the gown for the big night. Ordinarily, in preparation for an event, Saltzman works with no more than four specific designers to gather several viable options, which requires months of work, phone calls, meetings and many long conversations. 2012 was different. Saltzman simply called Paltrow and said there was only one dress she should consider.
“After looking at what Gwyneth wore last year [the gold shimmering Calvin Klein dress she wore to the 83rd Academy Awards], I called each designer that I wanted to work with and looked at their sketches. These are usually designs that they create specifically for the Oscars. This particular time, I went to meet with Tom Ford at his studio about a week before the event,” Saltzman told Goop. “This dress screamed OSCARS to me. It simply was ‘the one.’ It was composed of all the elements that I like for Gwyneth: supreme elegance, grace, royalty, modern luxury, simplicity…but intense skill and risk are still there. It had a positive edginess to it as well. Also, being such a fan of Jackie Kennedy through the years, I thought the dress channelled some of her iconic style.”
The big night
Paltrow was attending the 2012 Oscars as a presenter; she would ultimately present (with Robert Downey Jr.) the “Best Documentary Feature” to Undefeated, a film directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin about a high school American football team in Memphis.
But before she presented the award on stage, getting to the ceremony proved a challenge.
“If you have a big dress, you will normally have a minivan you can stand in,” Saltzman told Vogue after the big night. However, there was no limo or minivan available for Paltrow on Oscar night, so she and her style team went to extreme lengths, with Paltrow getting to have a bit of a lie-down en route to the event to save her dress.
“I had her lying way back so there would be no folds,” said Saltzman. “Then the cape was stretched out into the back of the SUV with two people holding it so it didn’t get crumpled. There are ways to sit or not sit to prevent creasing.”
When Paltrow finally arrived at the Oscar ceremony, she stunned on the red carpet, wrinkle free. With a refined shape, asymmetrical neckline and striking column cape, her minimalistic gown packed maximum impact, especially when paired with a glittering rose-cut diamond cuff and a double hoop diamond and purple sapphire floral ring, both courtesy of jeweller Anna Hu.
After the Oscars
Ford has dressed everyone in Hollywood from Beyoncé to Madonna, but he says he’s most proud of the minimalist white gown and matching floor-length cape that Paltrow wore to the 2012 Oscars.
“I have to say that was my favourite fashion moment,” Ford told the audience at the 92nd Street Y’s “Fashion Icons” lecture series in New York City. “I loved the simplicity of it and I loved it for that moment in time.”
A cape takes confidence to pull off, and Ford acknowledged that. “I love that Gwyneth was brave enough to do that,” he said. “And that she stood so perfectly in that outfit.”
The dress did have quite the impact: within weeks, the silhouette had been copied by mass retailers and was available everywhere.
“I think putting Gwyneth in that white, caped Tom Ford gown for the 2012 Oscars really made a huge impact on the fashion industry,” Saltzman said. “It was the first time people saw Tom Ford’s eponymous line. Before that moment, red-carpet dressing was all about tulle, sparkles and diamonds – that clean, minimalist silhouette was totally new, and I think we’re still feeling the ripple effects from that look.”
As for the original dress? Paltrow still has it hanging in her closet. She’s been assembling a style archive of sorts, saving all of her Oscar gowns and other high-wattage pieces. And while daughter Apple will almost certainly get to benefit from the treasure trove one day, the actress says it’s a collection she’s been amassing way before the little one was even a sparkle in her mother’s eye. “What’s funny is I’ve been saving my gowns and special things since 12 years before she was born,” she told PeopleStyle. “So I have everything. I have every Oscar dress.”
Oh, to go through that closet!
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