(CNN) -- On Academy Awards night, the biggest speculation is still about whose name is in the envelope. But the most-asked question has become, "Who are you wearing?"
Actress Anne Hathaway adjusts her Marchesa gown as she arrives at last year's Academy Awards.
From the moment a star like Kate Winslet steps onto the red carpet leading to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, she will answer the question countless times -- often before a live television audience -- as she negotiates the media frenzy beaming her images all over the world.
In a matter of hours, her dress will be seen by tens of millions of people, analyzed in detail by fashion pundits and probably "knocked off" for the public eager to wear a cheaper version of red carpet couture.
If all goes well -- and especially if she turns out to be one of the evening's winners -- the gown can propel not only the actress to new heights of stardom, but her designer as well.
"It has been said that coverage at the Academy Awards is equivalent to a $25 million advertising campaign" for a designer, said Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of "Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards." See what it's like to walk down the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre »
With the stakes so high, the competition among fashion houses to have a star wear their creation is fierce.
"It's almost like going to war. They have these huge PR machines. They've got men on the ground courting stars to wear their clothes," Cosgrave said.
Months of planning
Some actresses stick with one label for the red carpet -- think Renee Zellweger in Carolina Herrera gowns -- because they either are a spokesmodel for the fashion house or have a special relationship with the designer.
Other stars, however, are up for grabs.
The process of wooing them can begin as early as the Cannes Film Festival in France, Cosgrave said, about nine months before the Academy Awards even take place.
Cannes gives fashion publicists a chance to look for break-out stars, a process that snowballs as the year progresses and more film festivals and movie premieres arrive.
The strategy also means designers zero in on stylists who work directly with the actresses.
"They woo you in the sense that they call and beg and plead and send pictures," said Phillip Bloch, who famously styled Halle Berry when she won an Academy Award in 2002 and who is styling two presenters at this year's ceremony. See memorable moments of Oscar history »
Bloch said he's always looking for the right gown for his clients, but for many designers, the real race to dress the stars begins in January, when Oscar nominations are announced.
"As soon as they have the nominees out, you start pitching right off the bat," said Pamella Roland, a New York-based designer whose gowns have been worn by Faye Dunaway and Jane Seymour to the Academy Awards.
The pitching process can include sending out sketches, images and finished dresses.
Roland said some of her designs have been requested this year by Taraji P. Henson, who is nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress for her role in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The request isn't a guarantee Henson will wear her dress, Roland added.
Meanwhile, bigger designers can spend lavishly to ensure that their gowns end up on the red carpet.
Major fashion houses courting A-list actresses may treat them to trips to Europe, where they get a front-row seat to a designer's fashion show and visit his atelier, or studio, Cosgrave said.
In the end, stars can look at dozens of gowns before deciding on a shortlist. Bloch said he typically brings a client 40 to 100 dresses to try on. An actress usually doesn't decide which dress to wear until the last couple of days before the awards, he added. See some of last year's standout Oscar fashions »
It all adds up to nail-biting time for the designers.
"[Stars] can hold these dresses, and you don't know until they walk on the red carpet what they're wearing," Roland said. "It's become a crazy business."
The gowns are often gifted to big-name celebrities, who usually keep them after the ceremony.
Fashion experts predicted that the bad economy won't have any impact on how actresses dress at the Oscars this year.
"You've seen opulence all the way through. You saw it at the Golden Globes. You saw it at the SAG Awards," Bloch said. "In times of economic crisis and hardship in America, Hollywood is escapism, it's not real."
The Academy Awards didn't use to create much of a stir among designers, but Cosgrave identified two key moments when that changed.
The first was in 1986, when Cher showed up at the Academy Awards in a "Mohawk" ensemble by Bob Mackie. The look sparked enormous debate, showing how much publicity a designer could get on the red carpet, Cosgrave said.
She traced the second milestone to the mid-1990s, when Georgio Armani made a concerted effort to court stars to wear his designs at red carpet events, prompting other designers to take notice.
"Once they all started moving in on the territory ... it became a real cat fight," Cosgrave said.
Today, the dresses are so closely watched, they can filter down to the public quickly thanks to labels like ABS, which rush to produce similar designs at a fraction of the cost. Oscar styles can also influence prom dresses and bridal gowns, as well as spark color trends.
But for the stars, dressing up for the Academy Awards is more than a night on the town.
"The public always mistakes the Oscars for a really big party. It's not. It's a complete part of the job to go and network and look good at these things," Cosgrave said.
"The entire fashion industry is looking to Hollywood on that night to find their next big girl."