March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

At a reception at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Natasha Richardson was doing what any stylish screen siren would do—checking out who was wearing what. But Richardson, who has been raising funds for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) ever since her father, director Tony Richardson, died from the disease in 1991, wasn’t just woolgathering. “I thought of all the fabulous dresses made for these events,” she says, “and said to myself, ‘Why not get great dresses from the biggest stars and auction them like the [Princess] Diana sale?’ ”

Richardson’s epiphany becomes reality on March 18, when 56 of the more memorable ensembles sported at what has become the biggest fashion event of them all, the Oscars, go on the block at Christie’s in New York City. Dating from the 1930s to the present, they include the elegant lilac silk chiffon Prada gown (plus stole, bag and matching shoes) that Uma Thurman donned for the 1994 Awards, Janet Leigh’s beaded sheath from 1960 (complete, says amfAR official Sally Morrison, “with spare beads given to her by designer Edith Head”) and the body-hugging champagne beaded Bob Mackie that Cher wore in 1984. “It was a very informal curating,” says Morrison of the way designers and fashion editors helped come up with the wish list of gowns. “If people remembered a dress and why it was important, then we knew we had to have it.”

Getting it, though, was often a problem. Winona Ryder ransacked closets on two coasts without finding her 1998 black Badgley Mischka. Most of Ali MacGraw’s wardrobe collection was lost in a 1993 fire. At first, Richardson was despairing. “It’s like when you’ve decided to give a party,” she says, “but no one is there for the first 10 minutes and you think, ‘Help! No one is coming.’ ”

But her spirits brightened when Emma Thompson offered to donate any of her Oscar dresses. Then Elizabeth Taylor, the veteran of 25 Academy Awards ceremonies, pitched in with the offer of a 1987 pink silk taffeta Nolan Miller gown. A month later, Taylor’s assistant telephoned amfAR’s Morrison. “He was very excited,” she recalls, “and said, ‘I have good news. I just found this box marked Dresses Worn to Special Occasions.’ ” From this mother lode, Taylor donated an additional dress, the periwinkle crepe gown by Edith Head that Taylor wore to the 1969 Awards—and that some believe will break the threads-at-auction record of $222,500 set by an ink-blue velvet gown of Princess Diana’s.

Bidding for each dress (most, including a “mystery dress” to be worn at this year’s Oscars on March 21, are sizes 2 through 8) will begin at $2,000. The trove, plus sales of the auction’s catalogue (available for $40 from Christie’s at 800-395-6300, and through the Home Shopping Network), are expected to fetch as much as $1,000,000.

For many, the gowns’ emotional worth is even greater. “If you’ve won an award like the Oscar in one of these dresses,” Richardson says, “it might be something to pass to your children. So none of these dresses was given lightly.” Anjelica Huston, for one, agonized over donating the single-shouldered green crepe she wore in 1986, not only because she won a Best Supporting Actress award for Prizzi’s Honor in it, but also because the film was directed by her late father, John Huston.

Other ensembles provided reminders of more mundane woes. Raquel Welch told amfAR that her 1979 sequined Loris Azzaro cat suit was so tight, “I couldn’t sit down in it. I had to unzip it and lie on my back in the limousine all the way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.” And according to Lizzy Gardiner, 1995’s Best Costume Designer, her sheath—a Gardiner original, made of 171 American Express Gold Cards—”left imprints all over my bottom.”

Still, most Oscar-dress memories are fond. Emma Thompson’s ivory-beaded Armani for the 1995 Awards “marries happily with black or navy and steams out a treat in the bathroom,” she told amfAR, tongue firmly in cheek. “Also, I think Arnold Schwarzenegger patted my bum in it.”

Susan Schindehette

Joanne Fowler in New York City, Joanna Blonska in London and Steven Cojocaru and Deanna Kizis in Los Angeles

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