There's only one fashion question worth asking about this year's Academy Awards show: What's Cher going to wear Monday night?
How other stars might dress is nowhere near as interesting a subject. Even the other questions about Cher herself--will she or won't she win an Oscar?--pale in comparison. That all may be because every last detail about her outfit has been a closely guarded secret, until now.
But at this late hour Bob Mackie, who is designing the mystery dress, lets slip the barest few words about what to expect of Oscar night's leading fashion item: "It's all see-through and black, and what you'd expect of Cher."
Precious little to go by, considering the extravaganzas Mackie has made for his clothes-queen client in the past. Since her days on "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" 15 years ago, he has envisioned and invented some of the most outlandish costumes ever worn anywhere by anyone--all for her. Some of them were legends before they got off the stage.
"You don't need to worry about sedate, Cher likes to whoop it up." Another glimmer of light shed on Mackie's Oscar '88 ensemble. But he stops himself then, explaining: "She'd like to keep it a surprise. Besides, it changes daily." That boyish grin of his is beaming. He's enjoying this.
So close to the event, bits of nervous chatter are bubbling up from those near the source. "Bob is making a few things for Cher," one reports with an air of authority. "She'll throw one of them on that night, depending on her mood."
Mackie denies it. "The dress hasn't changed," he says. "But we've gone from one wrap to another."
Ah-hah! So there's a wrap. And one more clue: The designer says he is only styling long, not short gowns for all of his Oscar night clients this year. (The others are actresses Sean Young and Joan Chen and the studio executive Sherry Lansing. For all his secrecy about Cher's outfit, Mackie gave The Times his exclusive drawings of all the others.)
That the world waits to see what fashion fantasy will be next for Cher is not news to Mackie. But he only seems aware of half the reason why. "There's a mystique about the woman; she's like Dietrich, not just an actress, a personality."
Ask about his part in making that magic and he seems unsure, even a bit embarrassed. Although he regularly reveals his fantasies about women through his fashion designs--for Diana Ross, Bernadette Peters, Ann-Margret--he is obviously uncomfortable talking about himself.
A certain amount is already known. Mackie has two careers, for example. Besides making custom dresses and costumes, he is designing the costumes for all the song-and-dance numbers in this year's Academy Awards show, with the help of his longtime business partner, Ray Aghayan.
The day after the Oscars event, Mackie will send his latest ready-to-wear collection down a New York fashion runway. "I'm nervous about that, the collection is all based on Hollywood," he says. Dresses and suits have names like "Mogambo," "Cisco Kid" and "Captain Blood." Until now, he says, he has kept his show-biz past separate from his New York-based fashion business. "I tried to lose the Hollywood image. But nobody let me lose it, not for a second. So I decided, why not use it?"
A ripple of impatience crosses his usually placid face as he remembers the cool welcome he got from New York fashion designers and press. "Everyone was very polite, very nice, but they acted like they thought, 'He'll go away soon.' In New York they get more excited about Hollywood movie stars than anybody. But if you're from there, it's a different story. You've got to prove yourself."
It's been almost six years since Mackie gave up full-time costume designing to launch his New York fashion career. He was 42 at the time. "It was a career crisis," he says. After the wave of TV variety shows and Las Vegas showgirl dresses that made him famous in the '70s, the costume business fell flat.
"It was going nowhere, down the tubes," he says. But he wasn't ready for the New York fashion business. "It was like learning a whole new occupation. The rhythms are so different, and I miss Hollywood."
In the course of six years, Mackie has made what he refers to as inroads. He now has furs, a fragrance and, starting in May, a lingerie collection in his burgeoning fashion empire. Next he will introduce bridal gowns. But before all that--before Vegas and Hollywood and Sonny and Cher--there certainly was a Bob Mackie.
In the sunlit room where he does fittings for models, he checks himself in a mirror to be sure he looks all right, and periodically looks again to smooth back his hair.
"I was born in Monterey Park," he begins. "I lived in Alhambra, Rosemead, Santa Monica--all over. My parents were separated and I spent a lot of time watching movies. They were a lot more interesting than my life, not that I was deprived."
From the first grade through the eighth he lived with his grandparents, saw his mother on weekends and spent a lot of his time lost in a wonderland of his own making.
"I began designing stage sets as part of this little fantasy world I was in. From age 6 or 7 until high school I was training myself. Then in high school I designed scenery and costumes. I had theater in mind."
He got a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute, the Los Angeles college that later became the California Institute of the Arts. From there he went to work as an assistant, first to LaMere and later to Edith Head, giants in the field of Hollywood costume design.
But it was when he met Cher that he got his big break. From then on he styled one after another feathered, beaded, cutout, cut-in outfit, which for some were as much a reason to watch her variety show as any song or dance she could do.
"The more she put on, the more she wanted," Mackie says of her fashion tastes. "She was never intimidated by anything."
Mackie's few words about his next Cher original do suggest a show-stopper. But the educated guess is that she'll avoid the extremes of her Oscar '86 outfit, also a Mackie, with its feathered headdress and studded, lattice-work, peek-a-boo bodice.
Fellow costume designer Nolan Miller expects something much more subtle: "I should think Cher will be very beautiful, but she won't show up looking like the Queen of the Gladiators. She wants desperately to be taken seriously as an actress."
He may have a point. After all, she did wear a surprisingly understated--for her--Mackie design for the Golden Globe Awards show in January. Her dress was black velvet with a modest, off-the-shoulder neckline and long sleeves. (OK, so it was backless.) Even Mackie admits, given the woman wearing it, "the dress was very covered up." And that night she did collect the "serious" Golden Globe Award for best actress for her performance in "Moonstruck."
Originals on Display
Mackie saved all Cher's costumes, not knowing that one day they would help him beard some fashion lions in their own den. This week at Bloomingdale's in New York, 18 Mackie originals for Cher are on display in a mini-retrospective. Besides that, the store commissioned him to create a collection of evening gowns for display in the store windows, as part of a tribute to Bob Mackie and Hollywood glamour. As usual, he seems mystified but has little to say.
"If you're yelling and screaming, you dissipate your imagination and energy," his partner Aghayan says. "If you're very quiet you have all that energy inside you to use for being creative."