At 83, Bob Mackie Is Still Sparkly As Ever
The iconic naked dress Cher wore to the 1974 Met Gala. The curtain rod costume Carol Burnett shrugged on for a Gone With the Wind parody sketch in 1976. That slinky see-through gown Marilyn Monroe slipped on to infamously sing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in 1962. These are only a few of the legendary looks Bob Mackie has been responsible for over the course of his 60-plus years designing for the biggest names in show business.
But Mackie’s influence on red carpets isn’t just past, it’s present. In recent years, instead of turning to more contemporary labels, a slew of fresh-faced A-listers have graced red carpets wearing vintage looks plucked straight from Mackie’s extensive archive. Anya Taylor-Joy kickstarted the trend in 2020, wearing a beaded, Victorian-style gown to the premiere of Emma. Last March, Succession‘s Sarah Snook oozed old Hollywood glamour at the Directors Guild Of America Awards in a strapless sequined dress. And just last month, Zendaya—It-girl and the arguable face of Gen-Z—created quite the buzz when she showed up to the Time 100 Gala looking fresh as ever in a blue, turquoise, and black vintage Mackie from 1998.
“That was a complete surprise,” Mackie told T&C during a phone call a few weeks after the event. The collaboration started when the 25-year-old actress’s stylist, Law Roach, saw the color-blocked number at Mackie’s studio and considered it as a potential red carpet option for his client. “He showed it to her and she liked it,” explained Mackie, but she wanted to save it for the perfect occasion, which happened to be the celebration that honored her as one of the most influential people of 2022. “I was thrilled because I didn’t think she was ever going to wear it. You never know with these things, but I loved that.”
By the time Mackie was Zendaya’s age, he was influential in his own right. After dreaming up one-man performances in his California bedroom, and short stints at Pasadena City College and the esteemed Chouinard Art Institute, Mackie decided he was ready to show the world his talent. “I said, ‘I’m going to leave now. It’s time for me to go to work. I’ve been working on this my entire life,'” Mackie, now 83, recalled. “Then I wasn’t sure, but I took my portfolio to all the right people, and within a week I was working at Paramount.”
At just 22 years young, a then-unknown Mackie already had it made: he was splitting his time between working with Academy Award-winning costume designer Edith Head at Paramount and French haute couturier Jean Louis at 20th Century Fox. “I was quite pleased with that,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess somebody wants me.'” One of his first assignments with Louis was to sketch a dress for Marilyn Monroe for a top-secret event. It turned out to be JFK’s birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden.
“I remember it clearly,” said Mackie. “Marilyn called Jean Louis herself and said, ‘I want you to do one of those see-through dresses like you always do.’ He was very famous for doing [actress and cabaret singer] Marlene Dietrich’s dresses that you could see through on stage. They were quite sexy, yet everything was covered.”
With a pencil and paper, Mackie went forth and illustrated a figure-forming, crystal-covered gown that would later become known as the infamous ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ dress. “Jean Louis wouldn’t tell me what it was for,” continued Mackie. “It was like a week or so later, that all of a sudden pictures were in the newspaper of Marilyn singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and it was on the news and everything.”
Six decades later, the sparkly number continues to make headlines—most recently, in May, when Kim Kardashian sparked controversy by wearing the archival piece to the Met Gala. At the time, Mackie publicly expressed his displeasure with the bold move, calling it a “big mistake.” His sentiments remained the same, several weeks later: “When I heard that she was going to wear it, I thought, ‘Oh, nobody should be wearing that dress,” he said. “It should be in a museum.”
At the time he designed the dress, never in Mackie’s wildest dreams did he imagine the garment would become as famous as it is now: “I didn’t even think about it really!” he quipped. But what he did realize was that designing for Marilyn was only the beginning. Shortly thereafter, he went on to work with costume designer Ray Aghayan on The Judy Garland Show from 1963 to 1964 (the two would become life-long partners until Aghayan’s death in 2011) and later, The Carol Burnett Show from 1967 to 1978, where he created every single costume—including the iconic curtain rod dress that spoofed Gone With the Wind during a 1976 sketch.
“That week was hard,” he recalled of crafting the piece, adding that he didn’t come up with the idea for it until the day before the skit was shot. “I called Carol and I said, ‘What do you think of this?’ She came into the fitting room and she tried it on and she started laughing, and she said, ‘I have to call Harvey [Korman]. If he doesn’t see this, he’ll never get through the sketch. He’ll start laughing so hard,'” Mackie continued. “It was one of those moments. You can’t plan those, really, but it just happened.”
And then there was Cher. By the time the late ’60s came around, Mackie and the up-and-coming singer with a slim figure and long, black hair were both still in their 20s and relatively new to the industry. The two met on The Carol Burnett Show when the real-life couple and musical duo Sonny & Cher were brought on as guests. “Cher came on and she said, ‘You’re so young. Everybody that we work with is so old. They’re over 30,'” Mackie recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I’m not over 30 yet, but I’m about to be there.'” From that conversation on, they were collaborators. “Before I know it, I was getting calls to do specials that she was going to be on. She requested me,” he said.
As Cher rose to the pinnacle of pop stardom in the ’70s, so did Mackie and his glitzy, glamorous, embellished designs. He created her costumes for The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, live performances, music videos, and magazine covers. One of his most notable pieces was the so-called ‘Naked Dress,’ the embellished look she wore to the 1974 Met Gala, and then again for the cover of Time magazine later that year. According to Mackie, the icon was adamant about wearing the dress for the event despite how see-through it was or how much of a spectacle it might make in the press. “She was never intimidated by anything that I ever put on her,” said Mackie. “She was just amazing in that department.”
Another costume Mackie designed that was equally as outrageous, and perhaps even more memorable: the two-piece black sequins outfit with the over-the-top, towering headpiece that Cher wore to present a Best Supporting Actor Award at the 1986 Oscars. “By that time, she’d been doing a lot of movies, but she was doing very unglamorous movies where she was playing just normal people,” explained Mackie. “She wanted to wear something fun. She was very comfortable in her own skin.”
In addition to Cher—whom Mackie continues to work with (their most noteworthy partnership of the last decade was The Cher Show on Broadway in 2018)—he went on to add several other famous clients to his roster, including Elton John, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand. At one point, the designer teamed up with Madonna for the 1991 Oscars, when the “Material Girl” singer dressed up as Marilyn Monroe in a strapless gown and white fluffy stole alongside Michael Jackson. “I had no idea [she was attending with him],” Mackie recalled. “I’m not sure if she knew, but all of a sudden he was there, and he was all dressed up in one of his getups. She just spent the whole evening with him. I mean, is that the strangest couple you’ve ever seen in your life, those two going out for the evening after the Awards?”
Life only got busier for Mackie through the ’90s and early aughts. He continued dressing starlets for red carpet events, while also creating costumes for critically acclaimed projects, many of which earned him accolades, including several of his nine total Emmys. “I’ve had a very good run,” Mackie said looking back, before revealing “I’m still working. I still have stuff I’m doing, you know?”
He isn’t lying. Mackie won his first-ever Tony Award for The Cher Show in 2019; last November, an authorized book about his life and cutting-edge designs was released; and in June, he was among the numerous top designers to be tapped for a TCM and HBO Max production called Follow the Thread (running through July 30), which examines the relationship between fashion and costume in film. “I just loved doing that show,” Mackie said of the project. “I mean, that’s talking about things that I talked about when I was a little kid. I had opinions about costumes in movies, and I liked this one and I didn’t like that one. I felt very comfortable doing it.”
On top of that, an untitled documentary about Mackie is expected to come out in the near future. “I haven’t seen the whole thing,” he hinted when asked about the project, “but I’m excited about that. There’s some really fun stuff in it.” There’s bound to be, given his life’s work.
“I’ve had a really long career and dressed a lot of really fabulous people,” Mackie said, reflecting on the last six decades. “I’m not bragging, it’s just the way it worked out.”
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