Bedazzling and Beguiling: An Interview with Bob Mackie

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There’s sparkle in everything Bob Mackie does. He began working with legendary Hollywood costume designers Edith Head and Jean Louis, for whom he eventually sketched Marilyn Monroe’s Mr. President dress, before he made his way to Las Vegas to join Mitzi Gaynor, regarded for musicals including South Pacific and Les Girls. Famously, Mackie returned to Los Angeles, where he began collaborating with the likes of Judy Garland, Carol Burnett, Cher, and a lifetime of others: Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Liza Minnelli, RuPaul, Elton John, Bette Midler, Barbie, and the list goes on. Early on in his career, the designer became known for his incisive wit and imaginative storytelling in costumes, not to mention a bevy of dazzling sequins and beads. It was a reputation that only continued to grow as he designed some of Cher’s most famous ensembles, like the trendsetting “naked” dress she wore at the 1974 Met Gala and the explosive black Mohawk ensemble she wore at the 1986 Oscars. His gift of flair even translated to New York’s runways for a spell, where he was recognized for the joy and showmanship he brought to typical fashion week madness.

A nine-time Emmy winner—including the first ever accolade of its kind for costume design in 1967 for the 1966 live action version of Alice Through the Looking Glass, with designer and partner Ray Aghayan—and three-time Oscar nominee, Mackie has also made a great deal of contributions to the theatre. This includes Carol Burnett’s ensembles in the play Moon Over Buffalo and Carol Channing’s wardrobe in the musical Lorelei, among many others, as well as the new Broadway musical The Cher Show, for which he designed all the costumes and is even a featured character. In celebration of his 81st birthday, CR revisits our interview with Mackie on couture attitude in costume design, building narratives on stage and off, and the importance of confidence.

How is being a costume designer for specific individuals different than being a couturier?
“When you’re designing costumes, you’re designing for a particular person or character. It has to be right for that character. It also has to telegraph where she is, who she is, and what’s going to happen. You can’t just put anything lovely on her. If it’s a performer who’s going to sing and dance, people have to look at her and say, ‘Yes, that’s her!’ when she walks out on that stage. That’s what she stands for, that’s who she is! ‘Doesn’t she look amazing?’ A fashion designer will do a beautiful dress and 20 different, 30 different, 50 different women could have that dress. I always like it when I know who’s wearing the clothes. It’s a couture attitude where you make it right for that woman. In real couture, you may put sleeves on clothes, shorten things, lower or raise necklines so it’s absolutely made for that woman. A lot of fashion designers just do clothes, they do things they love, and they have a style. As a costume designer, you have to change. I’ve designed for women who’ve had vastly different personalities and bodies and it’s important that they not lose that vision because they have an image with their public.”

What did costume design teach you about the ways clothes tell stories?
“The minute you have a script—whether it be a drama or a comedy or whatever—you know what you have to do to make it work. It has to work for the performer and it has to look like it belongs to them, nobody else. It has to work for what the actresses are doing in the scene and the emotions they’re trying to create. If you get the right reaction and it pushes the play or the musical in the right direction. Even in The Cher Show, she’s known for wearing lots of crazy things, but most of the time on the stage when she’s going through very dramatic moments, her clothes are very simple. And then when they do the big funny numbers and everything, she wears very extreme, fun things, but you can’t do a dramatic scene or sad scene or a frustrated scene dressed in very strange clothes. The audience gets very distracted.”

How did you learn that a sense of humor was something important in clothing and how did you cultivate it?
“You shouldn’t take everything deadly serious. You’re not a nun, you’re just there. It’s just a little whimsy. It doesn’t have to be a clown costume, but sometimes whenever you’re wearing evening clothes you’re in costume anyway. That’s not your everyday look and it often harks back to another period or seems more romantic, seductive, or sexy. You can manipulate the viewer who’s looking at you into think you’re a really hot number or you’re so lovely, gracious. It’s fun, otherwise everybody’d wear their turtleneck long black dress.”

What do you think the fashion world could learn from costume design?
“Costume design can be very inspiring. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, movie design was very inspirational to what women thought they should look like. They made these beautiful, simple little dresses for secretaries in a scene, and if you were to make it it would be thousands of dollars. The real secretary, of course, couldn’t afford that. It was all fantasy, it was all the ideal for whatever you did in life. But life isn’t like that unfortunately. When you’re doing a fashion collection and you’re the designer, you’re looking at what people want from you from your collection that’s made it successful. At the same time, you have to bring them something they haven’t had before. A strong collection includes things that you can really function in and wear and look terrific and look flattering and have a reason to be.”

Some of us have known of your work for decades, but what is it like to get all of this recognition now?
“I’ve been in the business almost 60 years. Recognition is fine. You have to know in your heart, yes, I did a good job here. This works. If I look at what I’ve designed for someone and think they look good, if they get a good reaction, if they look comfortable in their skin and in their clothes, I think that’s very important. There’s nothing worse than somebody that’s dressed in something and they feel they’re not sure if they look alright or not. You have to be confident in yourself. It’s not about the beginning and the end, believe me. There are more important things in life than that.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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