LONDON — You would think that after years of press calls and premieres, luncheons and prize ceremonies, the whole red carpet shebang would get easier for most movie stars. You would think — particularly for nominees in the running for major awards — that being photographed and judged and assessed would eventually become par for the course.
You would think that for someone like Olivia Colman, nominated for best actress for her role as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite” (and already a winner in that category at both the Baftas and the Golden Globes), choosing what to wear would long have been a pleasurable exercise. You would be wrong.
“I have never felt confident having to do any photographs or red carpet,” Ms. Colman, 45, said this month. “Being someone else is easy; being me is torture during those events.” The interview took place in London, where she is filming the latest installment of Netflix’s “The Crown” (she plays Queen Elizabeth II in middle age).
“To wear something that makes you feel like someone else, or at least makes you feel powerful and confident, up for the fight — I’ve discovered that is necessary. In Mary, I have found my enabler.”
That Mary would be Mary Fellowes, a fellow Brit and a stylist who has worked for 11 Vogue titles and has dressed the actresses Tracee Ellis Ross, Liv Tyler and Amy Adams, among others, over the course of almost two decades.
She and Ms. Colman were first introduced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer and actress behind television series like “Fleabag” and “Killing Eve,” while Ms. Colman was preparing for junkets for “Murder on the Orient Express” at the end of 2017. They quickly struck up a rapport.
“Olivia is a strong woman, a working mother and an independent thinker. She also has a real woman’s body. These have always been major considerations when we are thinking about how she should dress,” said Ms. Fellowes, who also said that personal style in the public sphere was ever more important for actors in the aftermath of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements.
But initial calls to big-name luxury brands for ready-to-wear outfits in the early stages of their partnership “did not get what I felt to be a satisfying response,” Ms. Fellowes said as she sat at her kitchen table in London, immaculate in polished black leather and oversize cat’s-eye spectacles.
“Throughout my entire career, I have been frustrated by the fact that fashion, both editorial and on the red carpet, largely exists in a bubble,” she said. “These size zero bodies, the fairy queen gowns: They don’t look or feel real, nor do they have anything to do with the lives of real women. Of course, a woman wants to feel good in the hot glare of the spotlight. But plenty can be done via a game of proportions and smart tailoring, styling tricks and knowing how to pose.
“Fashion should enhance and empower women; it shouldn’t shrink them.”
In the beginning, Ms. Fellowes contacted Deborah Milner, the former head of the Alexander McQueen couture studio, to make a series of bespoke looks that would make Ms. Colman feel comfortable, while also delivering the requisite impact (see the black wraparound gown with bejeweled shoulders that the actress wore to the “Murder on the Orient Express” global premiere). But as their relationship progressed and Ms. Colman’s star rose in Hollywood amid awards fever (she has long had celebrity status in Britain), the fashion industry did something of an about-face.
Suddenly, the balance of power had shifted, and the two women found themselves able to pick and choose. So they raised the stakes. They decided that if Ms. Colman was going to endorse a brand by wearing it on the red carpet, it should have associations that mattered to her. It should ideally be, for example, family-owned; make efforts toward sustainability; and maybe involve another working mother (Ms. Colman has three children).
Hence the structural ivory and black Emilia Wickstead gown worn by Ms. Colman when she won the best actress Bafta this month, and the caped black Stella McCartney dress (made with recycled bamboo) that Ms. Colman wore to scoop up the Golden Globe in the same category in January.
“Mary really listens when I say when I don’t like something and takes the time to commission pieces that flatter me or make me feel strong,” Ms. Colman said.
When it came to the Oscars ceremony dress, Ms. Fellowes said, there was one house in particular that she believed would check all their boxes: strong, intelligent voice; distinctive visual codes; and shared values. So what did she do when that brand called to say yes, it would make a bespoke gown for Ms. Colman for the Academy Awards?
“It sounds ridiculous, but when Prada rang I was so thrilled I nearly cried,” said Ms. Fellowes. “It felt like the stars had aligned.”
The two women then drew pictures of dream dresses in the car on the way to the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Ms. Fellowes had brought along a file of Prada dresses, fabrics and embroidery from years gone by. Ms. Colman said she knew she wanted simple, with a big bow on the back. The Prada atelier set about making their shared vision a reality.
“The Prada team are so bloody lovely, it’s like getting ready for your wedding,” Ms. Colman said. “And Mary knows what I want to hide and what I hate about myself.”
Thus was born the long, sleeveless A-line turtleneck gown in emerald green silk radzimir — plus a smoky-gray silk organza cape with puffed sculpted sleeves — that Ms. Colman wore on Sunday. Designed to be draped around the shoulders, it was gathered into a giant bow at the back that cascaded into an embroidered train covered in Swarovski crystal flowers. A team of eight in the Prada atelier worked on it for a total of 120 hours in the run-up to the Oscars; the embroidery alone took a dozen artisans more than 300 hours.
“Clothes, ultimately, are at the service of who wears them and what they want to portray of themselves, so to be part of this special moment for Olivia is very exciting,” said Miuccia Prada, the brand’s lead designer.
Many years ago — early in Ms. Colman’s career, during her bachelorette party in Paris — she and her friends stumbled into a Prada boutique. At the time, she remembered, she declared: “One day, when I have finally made it, I will wear a Prada dress.” By any measure, that day has come.