The Evolution of Primetime Emmy Style: 1949-2013

Posted Saturday September 21, 2013 8:00 AM GMT

On Sunday (September 22) the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take over Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre, and a who’s who of top-name celebrities will compete for media attention by getting all gussied up in designer duds. In fact, over the past six decades Tinseltown favorites have set the fashion pace with their red carpet choices, and it all got started way back in January 1949.

Hosted by NBC radio legend Walter O’Keefe, the 1st Annual Emmy Awards (the ‘Primetime’ didn’t get added until the Daytime Emmys debuted in 1974) was minuscule compared to today’s fanfare. The Hollywood Athletic Club played host to stars like Shirley Dinsdale, Rita LeRoy, Patricia Morrison, Mike Stokey, and Bill Welsh.

And given the shortage of European-designed clothing due to the recent ending of World War II, American designers Gilbert Adrian, Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, and Tom Brigance had all taken a step forward as newly-prominent forces in the fashion realm.

From the 1st Emmys in 1949 through the 1950s, the prevailing trend tended towards conservative-yet-elegant, with an absence of the now-commonplace cleavage for the ladies, and straight-cut jackets and trousers for the gents. That being said, stars like Lucille Ball, Loretta Young, Nanette Fabray, and Pat Carroll utilized beaded accents and embroidered embellishments to add their own gregarious flavor to the red carpet recipe.

When she won the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in both 1957 and 1959, “Father Knows Best” starlet Jane Wyatt celebrated each victory with gowns and jewelry that served as a harbinger for the coming tastes of the 1960s.

By the time the 12th Annual Emmy shindig got started in June 1960, celebrities were already pushing the envelope in terms of showing more skin. Gals like “Bye Bye Birdie” babe Ann-Margret blatantly displayed her curves beneath a flirty white frock with a cutout neckline as host Fred Astaire handed out trophies to Robert Stack and Ingrid Bergman.

Barbra Streisand caused plenty of swooning with her ample bosom in 1965, and the following year Bill Cosby decided on a white tie/vest combo to go with his black tuxedo, both paving the way for a new non-traditional trend for Emmy attendees.

If the 1960s were the years of breaking free of convention, then the 1970s served as a decade for stars to push the boundaries of good taste, thanks to Robert Blake’s massive butterfly-style bowtie at the 27th installment of the Emmys as he accepted the Best Male Actor –Drama award. Even Betty White took a risk with a low-cut black and gold metallic dress as she received a trophy for her work on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

And some Emmy recipients of the 70s like Bob Barker and Barbara Walters opted to forgo the whole glamorous evening wear vibe altogether, instead choosing to don blazers and pantsuits as they posed for the cameras.

In 1979, Loni Anderson made perhaps the boldest style statement up to that point when she chose a seriously-low-cut lavender gown for the 31st Primetime Emmys. Meanwhile, Robin Williams got silly with a velvet beret, and John Ritter added some blue to the otherwise black sea of tuxes worn by the likes of Ron Howard and Chevy Chase.

Adding some youthful zeal to the Emmys, “Diff’rent Strokes” stars Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, and Dana Plato showed up at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium for the 32nd installment of the Awards in January 1980. The boys wore black tuxedos while Ms. Plato was beautiful in a blue gown.

Coleman was back in 1981 with a powder blue jacket and increased swagger and Miss Anderson played her usual role in a par-for-the-course strapless red number.

“Miami Vice” stars Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas got plenty of attention with their dapper duds at the 37th Emmys in 1985, and “Hill Street Blues” babe Barbara Babcock turned heads in a sheer see-through lace top as she arrived at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with costar Rene Enriquez.

The 45th Emmys in 1993 was overrun with classic black tuxedos on the gents and traditional gowns for the gals as ensemble casts from “Seinfeld,” “Home Improvement,” and “Melrose Place” all made significant showings.

“ER” hunks George Clooney and Anthony Edwards caused mass swooning in 1996 at the 48th Emmys, and the following year “The X Files” costars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson proved that even sci-fi nerds were hot.

Taking things to the next level in the 2000s, Sarah Jessica Parker established herself as a bona fide style icon in 2003 thanks to her flirty pale strapless Chanel dress, and both Halle Berry and Eva Longoria scored points at the 2005 shindig in their Ungaro and Angel Sanchez garb, respectively.

In 2008, Olivia Wilde was the center of attention in her cap-sleeved, beaded Reem Acra dress, and the following year, Blake Lively made a strong statement in a ravishing plunging red Versace frock.

And bringing things up to the current decade, Lea Michele stunned shutterbugs with her Dark Oscar de La Renta dress with Lorraine Schwartz jewels in 2010, while Kelly Osbourne posed up a storm in an asymmetrical J. Mendel gown the following year.

The Primetime Emmy Awards continues to serve as an important source of inspiration for designers and consumers alike. And as an added bonus, the red carpet action offers valuable insight into the zeitgeist of American popular culture.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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