The real winners at this week's Academy Awards ceremony will not be the most talented, they will be the best dressed. After all, everybody knows that what counts at the Oscars is not whether you win or lose but what you wear to the party. MERLE GINSBERG reports, with contributions from BRIDGET FOLEY, GODFREY DEENY and ALESSANDRA ILARI. NOW that Oscar ostentation and fashion faux pas are reported as much as political and sexual scandals, and crimes against nature, you would think Academy Award nominees would take a breather and think about what they are going to wear. 'Oscar arrivals should be treated as the runway,' veteran Hollywood columnist George Christie says, 'because that's really what they are.' Of course, it is hard to think clearly when most of the major designers in the world are courting you with flowers, sketches and sunglasses - not to mention free clothes - and, as a serious thespian, you are not supposed to take clothes all that seriously. Sure. Look what happened when certain actresses decided to 'have fun' with their Oscar garb. Would Cher have worn the Bob Mackie G-string and feathers if she knew the repercussions it would have on her career? Would Barbra Streisand have donned her see-through Scaasi pants if she knew her derriere would be recorded for fashion-don't posterity? Would Geena Davis have done the Little Bo Beep look if she knew it would bring more ink than all of her performances combined? The eternal Oscar night question - 'To overdo, or not to overdo?' - has as many answers as the ceremony has viewers, which is about a billion. So we put the question to fashion designers and show business insiders from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe, hoping for a stylish consensus for this year's crop of actresses. The result: lots of stylish advice, but little consensus. 'I liked the Oscars when you would look forward to what everyone would be wearing,' New York fashion designer Anna Sui says. 'I liked Streisand in her Scaasi outfit. I loved Cher in her Bob Mackies. Maybe an actress achieves a certain credibility by dressing in a more normal way, but why does that have to be?' Isaac Mizrahi also thinks that more is merrier at the Oscars. 'They better start getting glamorous again,' he says. 'When Geena Davis goes out on a limb, it's brilliant. But she's misunderstood, and people say she looks like a freak. Mistake or not, at least she tried. In Hollywood these days, women look like they were dressed by some committee, when I want them to look like they were dressed by the old studio system.' 'You have to dress like a star,' model-turned-designer Ines de la Fressange says. 'It should be haute couture with spangles, even if it borders on kitsch. It's Hollywood, after all - people want a spectacle and not the Nobel Prize.' 'The audience always wants to dream about superstars,' says designer Valentino, who has dressed many. 'So they should give them what they crave. Stars have begun to understand their image at the Oscars transmits their personal taste for the ultimate dreamof fans.' 'People watch waiting for the Wild One!' Christie says. 'They want to see confection - a banana split with a cherry on top and a little Hollywood hair. Cher, Geena and Demi Moore will never let you down. We need them to have something to write about.' Fred Hayman, fashion co-ordinator of the Oscars, is also fed up with the current vogue for understatement. 'Some people are too understated for words. They're nearly invisible,' he says. 'Pretty and low-key aren't enough. Fashion changes, and so should nominees.' And Giorgio Armani, the man responsible for simplifying the whole shebang, is also, surprisingly, in the go-for-the-gusto camp. 'I don't think the Oscars is about elegance and sophistication,' he says. 'When I went in 1990, there was everything from the ridiculous to the super-glamorous. It goes hand-in-hand with the lining-up of limos outside the entrance, the paparazzi desperately yelling out people's names. The fact is, it is kitsch that gives it an element of fun.' Meanwhile, the usually flamboyant Gianni Versace takes a low-key approach. 'Actresses believe that at the Oscars one must shine in sequins, while one should in fact sparkle through one's poise and personality. Fashion has recently moved toward less elaborate outfits.' Amy Archerd, Variety columnist and official celebrity greeter at the Oscars, thinks many actresses should look for help. 'Extreme decolletage is not appropriate. It's not tasteful and half the audience is looking down the star's dress just from the angle.Don't they want people to look at their faces?' Of course, a deconstructionalist designer is not going to want to deify stars. 'I like a simple dress, straight, mid-calf, made of black lining material and open in the back,' Jean Colonna says. Then there are the designers who want to see glamour and minimalism in the same neat package. While Karl Lagerfeld's evening wear for Chanel or Chloe is often pure fantasy, he does not want to see too much razzle-dazzle at the Oscars. 'An actress needs a dress she can move in easily - no big stones or important jewellery. The days of the '80s, or the old Liz Taylor glamour days, are over. There is a new Hollywood glamour in fashion, not too understated but not glitzy, either.' 'They belong in costumes when they do a period movie,' Donna Karan says. 'I'd much rather see someone look beautiful in something simple. What I love about my clothes is that the person looks fabulous. It's not about the clothes. And you have to remember that it's daylight when they arrive. If it wasn't daylight, I might understand the gussied-up looks - but the fact that it's daylight makes the whole thing weirder.' Vera Wang triumphed last year when she dressed Sharon Stone in her 'blond dress', which was simple, elegant and classic and gave Stone a new cachet. 'I like a certain minimalism, but with the Oscars you need a bigger silhouette - there has to be a scale to it - so I put a train on Sharon's dress,' Wang says. 'You're playing to a room of monstrous size, so the dress needs a certain drama.' The only thing the designers seem to agree upon is that black has finally had its day. 'Everyone is looking at colour for next autumn,' says Richard Tyler, whose tailored clothes are perennial Hollywood favourites. 'And I love white. It's so Hollywood andglamorous. A beautiful white bias-cut satin gown - what could be more glamorous than getting out of a limo in white?' 'Colour is better for television,' Hayman notes. 'Nominees sometimes forget more people see them on television than in the flesh at the show.' Karan, for one, wants to see her dolls in something different from her usual midnights. 'The platinums would be great. My little sheer dress with a sheer top in celadon opaque jersey - I could see that on Holly Hunter. And I see the ivory satin suit on Michelle Pfeiffer and Emma Thompson in one of the ivory halters.' Everybody knows which nominees they would like to get their hands on. 'The actress has to please me, even if she's a big American star,' Corinne Cobson says. 'Holly Hunter does not impress me, but Emma Thompson, she seems very piquant. She doesn't need paillettes [spangles] or any kind of dress that would take away from heras a person. Something short, not long, and decollete in the back not in the front.' Mizrahi would love to dress two actresses - Anjelica Huston and Juliette (Cape Fear) Lewis. 'I'd probably put Anjelica in something simple - a bead-encrusted suit with a long, long skirt and little train, something austere. As for Juliette, I'd put her inlayers, definitely a funny mix and maybe a hat. I just love her attitude - she inspires me. It really is a deadpan glamour.' Sui chooses Winona Ryder. 'I just think she's the hottest actress. She dates somebody in a rock band and she makes real cool movies. I'd love to do her in something short, maybe one of the metallics or even a baby-doll dress.' Krizia's Mariuccia Mandelli's ideal Oscar candidate is Orlando's Tilda Swinton 'for her androgynous beauty'. Versace sees Julia Roberts in 'a simple body-hugging dress', and Daryl Hannah in 'pearly and delicate pastel colours with a touch of lame, as in my most recent couture collection'. You can bet the first-string Oscar designers - Armani, Calvin Klein, Valentino and Tyler - have had their people chasing down all the big stars, while Wang, Jil Sander and Los Angeles designer Pamela Barish are hoping to keep the showing they had at the Golden Globes. Who wins is not important - whoever looks the best gets the most press no matter what. As far as the public is concerned, Stone was Best Actress last year. 'Her image at the Oscars changed her image as an actress,' Hayman says. 'Everyone's watching.' But one person who will not be watching is Klein. 'I'm interested in who wins, but not in watching,' he says. 'It's just such a long show, somebody ought to tell them to tighten the whole thing up.' Well, at least the fashion end of it.