While we love to see our celebrity friends-in-our-heads honored for their work in music, film and TV, we can't deny it: The best part of awards season - which ends next Sunday with the Oscars - is watching celebs traipse about in flowing gowns and tailored tuxes.

Thanks to the onslaught of red-carpet specials hosted by the Joan Riverses and Ryan Seacrests of the world, we are now armchair fashionistas with eagle eyes for detail - especially when it comes to cleavage - and sharp tongues for those who don't measure up.

Winners - such as the sexy Halle Berry, the whimsical Kate Winslet, and the mysterious Angelina Jolie - are crowned style divas. Losers - can we say Björk? - spend years trying to live down their poor style choices.

It's no wonder celebs hire fashion stylists. What better way to shield them from image-wrecking faux pas?

"It's about feeling like an expert," says Erica Salmon, whose venture, the Fantasy Fashion League - think fantasy football for fashionistas - has an online community of 15,000.

"We love to say, 'She looked better than her,' or 'I'd never wear that.' . . . It gives us entrance into a world we wouldn't ordinarily have."

In the last six years, stylists have become almost as popular as the celebs they dress. Phillip Bloch is known for sprucing up John Travolta, Sandra Bullock and Salma Hayek.

Misa Hylton-Brim (the P. Diddy ex who managed to get $35,000 a month in child support out of him) has dressed Mary J. Blige and Lil' Kim. And Rachel Zoe, who styles Lindsay Lohan, Mischa Barton and, at one time, Nicole Richie, is a household name (at least in households where Us magazine appears on the coffee table).

The popularity of these celebrity dressers has trickled down to everyday women (and men), who turn to expert stylists when they have to look good. Whether through one-on-one shopping consultations or writing books aimed at helping the woman on the street, stylists are in ascendance as the latest member of a fashionable woman's personal entourage.

"The last six years have put us on the map as people who are needed beyond the makeup artist," said Anthony Henderson, a Philadelphia-based fashion stylist who has dressed rapper Eve and actors Cheryl Lee Ralph and Morris Chestnut.

"We know the ins and the outs. What's hot and what's not. We are creating looks."

Dayna Spitz worked exclusively with celebrities for more than 15 years, including Cindy Crawford and Cybill Shepherd (she styled Barbara Walters for the cover of Good Housekeeping magazine). Now Spitz, originally from Pittsburgh, serves as a personal stylist for ordinary women, charging $175 an hour.

"I have over 50 clients that I dress," said Spitz, who is based in New York. "Finding the right outfit that flatters them is a stressful situation for many women."

Spitz edits closets, educates women about their body shape, and takes them shopping, introducing them to new designers. Then she creates looks for them.

A typical client, Spitz says, usually doesn't experiment far beyond the outfits that she picks out for them. Many women call her for even small fashion decisions, such as switching a white blouse for the black one that Spitz may have paired with tweed pants.

"People want to look good and don't want to spend the time doing it," Spitz said. "And then they see celebrities walking down the red carpet and they are looking fabulous. . . . They want that look, too."

For those of us who can't afford personal stylists, there are plenty of follow-me-and-I'll-make-you-presentable books out there.

In December, fashion consultant Christine Schwab's book The Grown-Up Girl's Guide to Style (Regan Books, $34.95,) was released, followed by It's So You (Spence Publishing, $28.95) by consultant Mary Sheehan Warren. That's in addition to the do's-and-don'ts books put out by InStyle and Glamour magazines.

However, my all-time favorite is The Science of Sexy by celebrity fashion designer Bradley Bayou (Gotham Books, $35), in which he informs us that pear-shaped women can look sexy in straight skirts. (I'm ready to learn how, now!)

All of these books claim to help women develop a personal style that will give them the confidence of a celebrity on the red carpet. But what does that really mean anymore?

With so many people determining what a celebrity's style is (not to mention all the free stuff they receive), how do we know what their taste is, anyway?

Did Cate Blanchett see the lacy black Alexander McQueen dress she wore to the Golden Globes, and demand to have it? Or did she really like a Zac Posen that we never saw, because it was nixed by a stylist (or two)?

Stylists were probably responsible for Vanessa Williams (remember that oddly shaped Carmen Marc Valvo she paired with out-there hair?), and for the weird tiered Valentino that Cameron Diaz wore down the red carpet. I know both these women have better taste than that; perhaps neither trusted their instincts to stand up and say "No."

Part of the reason that fashion is fascinating is that it's a window into a person's creativity, or lack thereof. Say what you will about child stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, but those girls have individual style (at least we think they do.)

Given today's environment, will we ever know celebs through style the way we knew Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe?

Probably not.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com.

Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/elizabeth

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