Love, Oscar, and What I Wore

Her marriage was the stuff of Hollywood drama: cancer, infertility, estrangement. But when her husband was up for a second Academy Award, all Peggy Orenstein wanted was a happy ending — and a killer dress.

By Peggy Orenstein
I thought that term applied to the child, not the mom.) The scowl of concentration I wear while writing is permanently etched between my eyes and Howdy Doody lines extend from the corners of my nose to the edges my mouth. Sadly, middle age has not discouraged zits. I turned around to check my butt. "Toto," I said, "I don’t think we’re 29 anymore."Still, I’m more comfortable in this old cowhide than I was in my dewier days. The other ladies my age attending the awards would doubtless be Botoxed, liposuctioned, collagened, and sandblasted into some parody of their former selves. Not me. I decided to go come-as-you-are, and I was proud of it. Coco Chanel famously said, "Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30. But at 50, you get the face you deserve." I was somewhere between those last two milestones, but I was ready to put my best face forward: This was the beauty I’d earned.For two weeks, I trudged to department stores and boutiques. I checked out frocks by Armani, Zac Posen, Vera Wang, but none looked quite right. Besides, although money wasn’t the obstacle it once was, I wasn’t ready to blow my IRA on a single dress. My most stylish friend dragged me to her favorite local designer, where I tried on gowns that looked stunning — or would have, on her. Everything else seemed to make me look like a bridesmaid or — horrors! — mother of the bride. I pressed on."Why don’t you call one of your editors and see if they can convince a designer to lend you something?" Steven asked."That’s cheating," I said, stubbornly. "This gown is supposed to be a reflection of my hard-won sense of style. It’s supposed to symbolize how well I know myself. Besides, I want to be able to keep it." Another friend suggested the designer Carmen Marc Valvo. "He makes beautiful gowns for grown-ups," she said. I gave it a shot. At Neiman Marcus, I found a blue silk chiffon Valvo embellished with mantilla-like metallic black lace. The color turned my eyes lapis, and the length, just below the knee, showed off my legs. It was lovely, a not-unreasonable $620, and I could even see wearing it again to a wedding or an haute garden party. I hauled Steven in for a second opinion."It’s great," he agreed, as I twirled before him. Then his eyes wandered to a rack behind me. "But how about this one?" He plucked out a black silk number, off-the-shoulder with a body-hugging, shutter-pleated bodice that kicked out into a confectionary, six-layered skirt. I slipped it on. It was frothy without being flashy, froufrou without screaming "prom night." Like my last Oscar dress, it was mass-produced rather than carefully crafted. At $450, it was also a bargain. I’d adored the Carmen Marc Valvo, but I had to admit it was a touch casual for the glitziest event on the planet. There was no question: This was the one.The dress flattered my form, but it destroyed my narrative line. I had wanted to set myself up as a woman who’d come into her own, who knew both herself and her style and would prove it by choosing the perfect, wearable-yet-soigné dress. Well, if I’ve learned nothing else from cancer and infertility, it’s that you have to be flexible when faced with an unexpected plot twist. Steven picked out the bag and shoes as well (rhinestone-studded Calvin Klein slides with 2-inch heels that didn’t hurt my feet). You see, I really do know myself: I was smart enough to marry a man with excellent taste. "You look beautiful, Mommy," my daughter said, gazing at me with a reverence usually reserved for Disney princesses. In the mirror, the woman looking back was 44. There was no doubt about that. But she was real, and she was gorgeous. In addition to purchasing the shoes, bag, and dress (and three pairs of hose in case I got runs), I hit the M.A.C counter for an understated makeover, had a manicure, a pedicure, and even a massage. It took a lot of effort, but I sparkled from head to toe.This time, HBO, which had acquired the nominated film, arranged our trip. They put us up at the Regent Beverly Wilshire (the hotel featured in the film Pretty Woman) and hired a stretch limo to ferry us to the ceremony. We strutted down the red carpet between Keira Knightley, in a perfect one-shouldered crushed silk taffeta, and Michelle Williams, in risky saffron tulle, both by Vera Wang.

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