I recently spent a Sunday afternoon at the Neil Simon Theatre, watching the Broadway musical, “The Cher Show.” It was a sumptuous train wreck. My notes, scribbled in the dark, went like this:
They cast this show at Equinox.
When in doubt … feathers.
Even Gregg Allman sparkles.
This show is an idea factory for Pride Day floats.
Two hours later:
The beat goes on and on and on and on.
I can’t take it anymore.
The cast, though, was terrific, and one performance in particular stole the show. Well, more like 500 performances.
As catchy as Cher’s musical hooks are, the audience leaves the theater humming about the costumes. They are the work of Bob Mackie, and Mackie, played by Michael Berresse, is a character in the show.
At one point, Mackie dresses Cher, played in this scene by Teal Wicks, in one of his nude illusion gowns for her television show. With its strategically placed beads and sequins, the dress is a miracle of slutty peekaboo, and the television censor balks.
“It’s a scandal,” cries the censor.
“No,” Mackie retorts. “It’s a brand.”
So it is, and has been, for 50 years.
The next day, I visited the man himself in his temporary New York City digs, an anonymous corporate apartment. The only personal item was his ever-present artist board, with sketches carefully placed face down to foil nosy reporters.
Affable and decidedly unflashy in no-name trousers, a striped pullover and an unstructured jacket, Mackie has retained his Tab Hunter-ish youthfulness as he heads into his ninth decade. (Apparently without the surgeon’s dark arts. “Can you imagine how much that would hurt?” he said. “There’s enough that hurts when you’re 80 without that.”)
Mackie is having a moment. More than a moment really: a belated appreciation of his place in fashion history.
In addition to a forthcoming documentary about his career and the costume blitz that is “The Cher Show,” for which Mackie is nominated (and favored to win) for best costume design of a musical at the 73rd Tony Awards this week, the Metropolitan Museum is displaying one of his nude illusion gowns in its exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” (“I’d hear people say, ‘Oh, that’s so campy, darling,’ and I never quite understood what they meant,” Mackie said. “And then it turns out I’m the King of Camp.”) And on Monday, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
The fashion world has not always been kind to Mackie. When he introduced a line, Bob Mackie Originals, in the 1980s, the industry brushed him off. At a talk in New York earlier this year, Mackie called it “one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had.” But Mackie didn’t aim to be a member of that club anyway. “I am a costume designer,” he told me. “Fashion is never something I set out to do.”
If Mackie has not always felt the love of the fashion community, he’s feeling it now. “Costume designers have long been overlooked for the importance of their work in creating and influencing mainstream contemporary fashion,” Tom Ford said in an email. “Bob Mackie’s work has influenced fashion in a dramatic way, in that many of the body fitting, seemingly transparent and heavily beaded gowns that are worn on red carpets today are derivative of his work for stars like Diana Ross and Cher. The images of his costumes and gowns for these women have become a part of the landscape of fashion from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and in my case become part of my hard-drive of references.”
“His famous quote that his clothes are ‘for the woman who is not afraid to be noticed,’ ” Ford added, “is one of my mantras.”
Yes, the Met Gala red carpet would exist without Mackie. But would Lady Gaga have felt compelled to do a four-layer striptease on the red carpet? Would Katy Perry have shown up as a chandelier? If anyone is responsible for blurring the lines between fashion and theater, it is Mackie. Diane von Furstenberg put it succinctly: “He is the quintessential showbiz designer who knows how to create dresses that make an entrance.”
Robert Gordon Mackie never had a Plan B. He was born in Monterey Park, to young parents who divorced when he was a child. Early on, he was sent to live with his grandmother.
“I was one of those kids you didn’t even know was in the house,” he recalled. “My grandmother used to lock me out on the porch so I could get some fresh air. Otherwise, I’d just hole up indoors all day and draw.”
On weekends his mother would visit and take him to the movies. They both loved musicals, and anything Technicolor. “My girls very early were Betty Grable and then Carmen Miranda,” he said. “The colors, the ruffles and sequins and things: just beautiful.”
When he saw “An American in Paris” — Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, the Gershwin, the dance, the heat, the way the clothes heightened it all — he thought, “Yes, I can do that.” Mackie was 10.
After attending art school, he got work in Hollywood assisting the great costume designers of the time: Jean Louis, Edith Head, Frank Thompson. He had an early brief marriage to the singer-actress LuLu Porter. (Their union produced a son, Robin Mackie, a makeup artist who died of complications from drugs and AIDS at age 33.) His first movie was at Paramount, working for Thompson: 1963’s “Love Is a Ball,” with Glenn Ford, Charles Boyer and Hope Lange.
“It was pretty bad actually, but it was filmed in the South of France, so it looked good,” Mackie said. “I was supposed to sketch the menswear, and suddenly I, who’d spent all my life drawing evening gowns, was drawing pinstripe suits on Charles Boyer and jeans jackets on Glenn Ford.” Thompson got busy, though, and soon Mackie was sketching for Lange, as God intended.
Mackie’s big break in television coincided with his big break in love: He was hired at age 23 to assist the costume designer Ray Aghayan on “The Judy Garland Show.” Garland was, to put it mildly, unpredictable, and she could be impossible with the other talent. (“When someone great like Lena Horne guest-starred, she would rise to the occasion, but if she didn’t love the performer, she’d dismiss them as “only good for TV,” Mackie said.) The initial collaboration was trial by fire, but Mackie and Aghayan became partners and remained so until Aghayan’s death in 2011.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the work never let up. If you want to know what Mackie designed over the years in movies and television, ask yourself what looks from those decades have made you gasp.
The dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” He sketched it for the designer Jean Louis. So were many of the gowns worn by Diana Ross and the Supremes and the looks worn by Joan Rivers, Barbra Streisand and Elton John.
For 11 years, Mackie was the costume designer for “The Carol Burnett Show,” and that’s where he met Cher. On set for a guest appearance, Cher vowed to buy a couple of his beaded dresses when she could afford them. She’s now afforded thousands.
Cher remains Mackie’s most enduring partnership. This year, on tour at age 73, she is all Mackie, all the time. “Changing from one Mackie outfit to the next in two minutes, 13 times a night, is a challenge,” Cher said. “It's only Bob’s genius that makes it possible. I can’t imagine performing in one dress every night. Thankfully Bob’s sketchbook is a magical unending universe.”
Mackie remembers only one sartorial disagreement with Cher: the sheer body stocking she wore in the video for 1989’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” which got her briefly kicked off MTV.
“I tried to talk her out of it, and she wanted it, but then when she got there, she got nervous. So she put a motorcycle jacket over it,” Mackie said, grinning. “Today, even she admits it was a bad idea.”
Mackie says he is a control freak. He can even get hung up on quality where perhaps it’s not so critical. Mackie’s L.A. office is lined with the collection of Barbies he has designed in years past. (“When she came out in ’59, they said, ‘She is a fashion doll.’ But really, she was a little hooker.”) Eventually he had to give up doing the dolls because, he explained, “they wanted me to do them cheaper and cheaper.” No sequins or feathers? No Mackie for you.
Ask Mackie about fashion today, and his face squinches a little. “I walk around New York and, well, this is supposed to be the fashion capital of the world,” he said, referring to an increasing skimpiness on the street. “It’s just horrifying. Your eyes can bleed just looking.” On the red carpet, he sees a creeping blandness. “Sometimes they all look the same to me.”
If he could dress anyone currently on the scene? “Cate Blanchett,” he said firmly. “She is just dreamy and looks great in clothes.”
Mackie does not feel that the current occupants of the White House are great fashion ambassadors. Our first lady may have been a model, but “I don’t find her a chic woman,” he said. “She is very good-looking, of course, but she tends to overdress for the occasion.” (A favorite FLOTUS? Barbara Bush. “I loved those big pearls and Scaasi gowns. And her honesty! She knew who she was.”)
Mackie would also like to have a word with the president about those ties. “I think he thinks they make him look taller or thinner. A good vertical is always a good thing I guess. But it looks so silly to me,” he said. If a man wins in 2020, Mackie hopes he won’t have “a tie that hangs to his crotch.”
And if a woman wins? Acknowledging that it’s tougher for female candidates — “to always have to look presentable when they run, always worrying about whether people approve” — he does have advice for Elizabeth Warren. “She should wear shoulder pads, because she’s kind of slope-y,” he said, adding quickly: “But she wouldn’t have to look like Joan Crawford. Just a little padding would make her look more in charge.”
Mackie had another appointment. As he escorted me out the door, he hesitated a bit over the face-down sketches. Finally, he couldn’t help himself. He turned them over, glancing my way to gauge my reaction. At first I thought he was showing me a dragon. But no! On closer inspection, it was Cher wearing, well, something gasp-worthy.