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The All-Important Oscar Gown

Julia Roberts accepts the award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a leading role for her role in the film "Erin Brockovich," at the 7th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards Sunday, March 11, 2001, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
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For fashion designers, this year's Oscar "It Girl" is Julia Roberts.

"Everyone wants her," says Tom Julian, fashion commentator for Oscar.com., the official Oscar Web site. "She has the stature, the longevity, the box-office draw, and she's not one-designer friendly. She wears everything from Vivienne Tam to Calvin Klein, to Armani at this year's (Golden) Globes."

Celebrities are still deciding what to wear to the Academy Awards, arguably the biggest fashion show of the year. But predictions are that the overall look on March 25 will be old-Hollywood glamour, not flashy or trashy.

"This year's nominees and particularly Julia, would rather be in jeans than gowns," says Pamela Dennis, who designed the green organza gown that Allison Janney wore to the Golden Globes and onto many best-dressed lists.

Expect simple slip dresses for women, gold- and champagne-colored shirts and ties for men. Also on tap: fur stoles - faux and real - and dangling earrings.

"There aren't going to be any `Wows!' and I'm really happy about it," Dennis says. "I like personalized, clean, simple gowns - things that don't overpower the person."

She calls Roberts a favorite to win best actress for Erin Brockovich a "beautiful plain Jane," and would like to see her in a white gown, maybe a wrapped look with a diamond hairpin closure. Or maybe a "tweed" sequin gown with long sleeves and a V-neck, a sportswear-turned-evening look.

Julian would like to see Roberts break away from her simple and sophisticated look and wear something spectacular. But, he says, risque can be risky - and that doesn't fit her personality.

"My gut is she'd stay toward Armani; it works for her classic sensibility. Maybe a dusting of detail, but her gown won't be garish, it won't be loud; maybe it'll have some color but it will be a regal color like burgundy or plum."

Brian Rennie of Escada believes he has the perfect dress for Roberts: a cap-sleeve gown with an open neck in black and gold. "If you're going to wear black, you need to do something unexpected with it," says Rennie, who thinks about "camera appeal" when he designs evening gowns.

Roberts' preference for simpleness "bugs" celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch, who helped edgier dressers Lara Flynn Boyle and Kim Cattrall get ready for the Golden Globes.

"Julia Roberts can do no wrong, but what bugs me is she's so beautiful, so talented, but there's no glamour. I'd love to put her in couture, something sexier, more fun - or at least give her some great accessories," he says.

With Roberts likely to play it safe, who will push the Oscar envelope?

It could be Kate Hudson, the best supporting-actress nominee of Almost Famous, who is seen as one of Hollywood's new trendsetters.

Julian, who is also a trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide advertising agency, expects Hudson to wear Vera Wag, who designed her Golden Globes dress and her wedding gown. Wang is also a favorite of Hudson's mother, Goldie Hawn.

"Kate has an innate sense of style," says Matthew Williamson, who dressed Hudson in a hand-embroidered iridescent coat with fur collar and cuffs for the British Academy Film Awards in February. "Obviously, my ultimate goal is to dress her for the Oscars, but I know I'll just be in a queue with every other designer."

Williamson says he'd put her in a vintage-like detailed gown in an eye-catching color. "I would hazard a guess that she likes things that look antique and tell a story."

Rennie would dress Hudson in his red, beaded, strapless "T-shirt" gown. "It's a little more expensive than a T-shirt," he adds. Hudson wouldn't have to pay for it, though, since Rennie gives the dress to any Oscar nominee who wears Escada.

As for French best-actress nominee Juliette Binoche, she gravitates toward a more international look, says Rennie, who envisions her in an Asian-inspired coatdress with detachable fur collar.

"There may be an Asian story, thanks to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' says Julian.

Look to Catherine Zeta-Jones of the best-picture-nominated Traffic to adopt a more runway-inspired style.

"Catherine Zeta-Jones will probably wear an international name and something more daring," says Julian. "It's kind of like a coming-out party after her baby."

Zeta-Jones is following in the tradition of red-carpet stunners Nicole Kidman and Sharon Stone, says Dennis. "These are women who can carry anything off because of their presence and confidence."

Seasoned stars know that a photograph snapped on Oscar night may be used again and again. "No one wants to be known as the morning-after bad look, and that leads to safe and classic choices," says Julian.

"The problem is the nominees aren't the ones who will wear the amazing dresses," adds Bloch. "That's why there always are people like Charlize (Theron) and Jennifer Lopez as presenters."

By SAMANTHA CRITCHELL