With her clean ''English'' look and chic French attire at the Oscars, the actress has quickened the pulse of the fashion world

Fashion Icon: Kristen Scott Thomas

As appearances go, Kristin Scott Thomas’ have been extremely deceiving. None of her early roles — from the nun in Masterpiece Theatre’s Body and Soul to a wallflower in Four Weddings and a Funeral — hinted at the British actress’ potential to become a fashion darling. Yet designers, who last year proclaimed Gwyneth Paltrow the hot ticket, are suddenly smitten with this 36-year-old worldly-wise beauty.

Scott Thomas’ style profile crystallized in the desert, of all places. In The English Patient, amid blinding sandstorms, she made simple white shirts and everyday khakis look as crisp as lettuce. Then came her Oscar-night gown, a black-and-chocolate chiffon extravaganza by Christian Lacroix. Even as she struck out in the Best Actress race, her dress hit a home run, landing her on the cover of the fashion bible, Women’s Wear Daily, and a place on the annual International Best-Dressed list along with Nicole Kidman and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.

The fashion industry’s latest muse couldn’t be more amused by her new standing — especially given how belatedly she shopped for her Oscar outfit. ”I was between two films, and I had one day off,” recalls Scott Thomas, who grudgingly canceled her plans to see a play in London and hightailed it back to Paris, where she lives and where her friend Joan Juliet Buck, editor in chief of French Vogue, set up appointments at Dior, Chanel, Saint Laurent, and Lacroix.

Scott Thomas ignored Buck’s one admonition: Don’t wear black. ”I got the biggest black dress I could find,” says the actress. ”There’s this feeling you might never go [to the Academy Awards] again. I really felt I wanted to get my film-star kit on.”

If things go as planned, Scott Thomas could get a second pass at Oscar. She’ll next act opposite Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, as a hard-edged magazine editor who finds love in Montana. For this outing Calvin Klein, who dressed Scott Thomas for the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards, will provide the mix of casual and corporate clothes. ”Kristin has an understated dignity,” says the designer. ”There’s no ego or sense of entitlement, just genuine grace. She’s elegant; she’s real.”

Real enough to have been spotted lugging her voluminous Lacroix garment bag at the Los Angeles airport the day after the Oscars. (She later returned the dress to the couturier.) ”It was a nightmare,” she says, ”but what else was I supposed to do with it?”