From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
The giddy anticipation that greets Oscar night each year is grounded in certain unshakable truths: The host will poke fun, stars will sob, and as sure as the show is long (this one ran a record-breaking 4 hours, 8 minutes), Cher's apparel will be gloriously gaudy. So when the Duchess of Daring turned up at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium in a demure black velvet Bob Mackie frock, the 79 million U.S. viewers of the 72nd Annual Academy Awards knew they were witnessing a new era in Oscars fashion, one in which subdued elegance not only plays a part but prevails.

"Everyone was really tasteful," said Christina Ricci (in a backless draped silk jersey Richard Tyler gown), who, along with Best Supporting Actress winner Angelina Jolie, 24 (in a long-sleeved Versace dress with train), Best Supporting Actress nominee Chloë Sevigny (in a cotton Yves Saint Laurent halter frock) and presenter Cate Blanchett (in a bead-trimmed Jean Paul Gaultier), made it clear that black—though it never really went away—is back. "Nobody," Ricci concluded, "was horrendous."

Much to the disappointment, no doubt, of those who view Oscar night as the year's preeminent Diss That Dress opportunity. But any hankering for sartorial disasters past (see page 142) was quickly dissipated with a welcome shot of old-style Hollywood glamor. From Best Actress winner Hilary Swank, in a strapless bronze silk duppioni Randolph Duke gown ballasted with $250,000 worth of Asprey & Garrard diamonds, to The Cider House Rules' Charlize Theron, in a plunging tangerine bias-cut chiffon by Vera Wang, Oscar's American beauties made it plain that excess was back in the closet.

Fittingly, tresses were tamed in chic knots (worn by Blanchett, Uma Thurman and Spanish actress Penélope Cruz) or slick dos reminiscent of 1940s elegance (Theron, Sevigny and Winona Ryder). The exception: Jolie's witchy jet-black hair extensions. ("I wouldn't have the patience for [real] hair this long," she said.)

With little to sink her claws into, even Joan Rivers (in a lavender beaded Vera Wang sheath) purred on her E! preshow telecast that "everybody's looking glamorous." Drew Barrymore, for one, wasn't convinced that Rivers had been kept safely at bay. "I'm sure she's going to have my ass in the morning!" said the actress, who joined the black pack in a flowing backless dress by Charlie's Angels costume designer Joe Aulisi.

In a stunning display of conspicuous recycling, some stars even raided their own wardrobes. Ryder unapologetically trotted out a 1940s black Pauline Trigère dress ("I had it, and it's fabulous!") she has owned for seven years and worn at three events. Ricci said she found the perfect Versace heels at the bottom of her closet. And Nicole Kidman confessed she'd accessorized her golden ruffled sheath by John Galliano for Christian Dior with a pair of antique French fingerless gloves from her drawer. "I've had these for years," she explained, "and I haven't been able to wear them."

Not that the evening lacked a bracing splash of cash. Neck and neck in the priciest-borrowed-bijoux stakes: models Heidi Klum, in a jaw-dropping $15 million, 110-carat yellow diamond pendant from David Orgell, and Tyra Banks, in a $9 million, 81.62 carat (but who's count-yellow diamond pendant and $1.1 million white diamond ring from Harry Winston. Not to be outdone, presenter Salma Hayek paired a $5 million, 6.17-carat pink Winston diamond ring and $40,000 drop earrings with her simple lavender dress by New York newcomer Eric Gaskins. Afraid of losing the gems? Not Melanie Griffith, who had a diamond anklet sewn directly into her black Hanes hosiery. ("I'm wearing a $20,000 pair of stockings!" she squealed.)

Erykah Badu, on the other hand, wasn't having any of it. Rejecting the diamonds Harry Winston had sent to her hotel ("They just didn't go with me," she shrugged), the singer and The Cider House Rules star chose just a few ethnic rings and bangles to accompany a green leather and raffia dress designed by her friend Charlene Shepherd.

As for the men, it seemed fitting, in a year in which Best Actress Swank won for playing a guy, that they took their fashion lead from the ladies. Copying their classic elegance were tuxedo-clad Best Actor Kevin Spacey, 40, Best Supporting Actor Michael Caine, 67, and Best Director Sam Mendes. Young Hollywoodites Brad Pitt, Ethan Hawke and Keanu Reeves scuttled the bow ties for still-tasteful four-in-hands in neutral hues.

But the female influence was strongest on South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who wigged up and stepped out in drag: Stone not so pretty in a pink frock like Gwyneth Paltrow's Ralph Lauren at last year's Oscars, Parker in something approximating the shocking Versace that Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammys. ("My body's so perfect, I don't need tape," Parker boasted.) Only marginally less flashy was purple-velvet-suited Samuel L. Jackson, who said he told designer Giorgio Armani, "I'd like something different, like an eggplant."

The edible shade must have been a powerful temptation for those attendees who—whether through nerves or necessity—skipped meals before squeezing into their skimpy frocks. "All I've eaten today is a protein bar," moaned presenter Angela Bassett, who was poured into a Bordeaux-colored satin strapless Escada gown. "I'm going to die before the show is over."

Not so Theron, whose pre-Oscar routine included a bagel with avocado, cream cheese and smoked salmon washed down with champagne. Or Lucy Liu, who chowed on a cheese, ham and chicken sandwich before slipping into her clingy red-beaded Versace one-shoulder sheath. "Hey, it's a four-hour ceremony," she said. "I'd go ballistic if I didn't eat." For some, just making it to the end of the red carpet was effort enough. "There was so much melodrama today about makeup, hair and limos," said American Beauty's 18-year-old Thora Birch, radiant in an iridescent silvery blue fitted jacket and long white skirt by Armani. "I'm ready to go home already."

Not so fast, young lady!—as her screen mother, Annette Bening (who swathed her much-mentioned nine-month pregnancy in a black tulle beaded Armani gown), might have put it. Once inside, attendees endured a marathon of movie montages and speechifying that belied the Academy's promise to speed things up. When all was—eventually—said and done, the event got a rousing raspberry from Elton John, who declared it "the most boring Oscars ever in the history of the Oscars."

Best Actress nominee Julianne Moore begged to differ. Decked out in a black off-the-shoulder couture Chanel gown that took 100 hours to make, the star of The End of the Affair spent much of the evening keeping her mascara in check. "When Michael Caine said he got to be where he was by surviving, oh, my God, I burst into tears!" she explained. And when Annette Bening announced, "I'm going to cry" in a taped presentation lauding husband Warren Beatty's Lifetime Achievement award, Moore said, "I'm going to cry too!"

She wasn't the only one. As his wife, Hilary Swank, 25, accepted her Best Actress Award, the TV camera focused on the tear-streaked face of her husband, Now and Again actor Chad Lowe (Rob's younger brother)—even before the world realized she'd forgotten to thank him in her speech. (Swank quickly made amends in the pressroom, calling Lowe "my everything.") For his part, seven—time host Billy Crystal was moved not by tears but by laughter at the now-traditional gag movie montage—this one starring himself—that opened the show. Said Crystal: "That to me was a great moment." And after four hours onstage, he noted, "saying good night was also a good moment."

Not for young Thora Birch, though. Reinvigorated by the thrill of American Beauty's five awards, the Oscar first-timer left the auditorium prepared to party till dawn—and wishing the evening could last a lifetime. "The end of the night will be the most emotional moment," said Birch. "I'm going to go home and, like, cry my eyes out."

  • Contributors:
  • Steven Cojocaru,
  • Ken Baker,
  • Karen Brailsford,
  • Kelly Carter,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Mark Dagostino,
  • Alison Singh Gee,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Sue Miller,
  • Edmund Newton,
  • Pamela Warrick,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg,
  • Paula Yoo.