The Dying Art of Ridiculous Oscars Red Carpet Fashion

We spoke to designer Bob Mackie on the 30-year anniversary of him designing one of the most iconic, insane Oscar looks of all time.

Feb 28 2016, 12:00am

This year marks the 30-year anniversary of Cher wearing the amazing outfit above to the 1986 Academy Awards. The look, which was designed by Bob Mackie, was widely mocked in the press at the time, and has appeared in pretty much every Worst/Most Shocking Oscar Dresses of All Time list written since that day.

Mackie, who has been designing clothes since the early 60s, has devoted the majority of his career to creating extreme and outlandish looks. Which isn't to say he makes clothing that is intentionally awful; his work consistently manages to be beautiful, while never taking itself too seriously. Over the years, he's dressed everyone from Beyoncé to David Bowie to The Supremes to Whitney Houston to Barbie.

There's a reason a look from 1986 is still talked about every awards season: People don't wear crazy shit on the Oscars red carpet anymore. On most lists of shocking/bad red carpet looks, the most contemporary outfits are Diane Keaton's tuxedo or Uma Thurman's weird Swiss geisha dress, both from the 2004 ceremony.

I spoke to Mackie about creating a look so absurd that people are still talking about it three decades later, and why nobody takes chances on the red carpet anymore.

Bob Mackie. Photo by Harry Langdon

VICE: What do you remember about the look for Cher?
Bob Mackie: I remember it well and everybody was so horrified and said "That's not fashion!" and I remember saying to my friends "Well, of course it's not fashion–it's about getting attention and having a good time," you know?

I was reading a couple of interviews with Cher about the look and she said presenting [an Oscar] was performing, so she wanted to look like a performer.
Well she had been doing movies and plays and playing unglamorous things, and she hadn't been dressed up in these funny outfits and she kind of missed it because she liked it. She really enjoys that, dressing up and having people look at her and make comments. She wasn't horrified or hurt if someone didn't like it, she kind of liked that actually, and so it was a funny time. She was in New York and she was dating Tom Cruise at the time, so she was in his apartment and I met her in the apartment and she says "You know, nobody has seen me dressed up in a long time..." and I went "Oh dear."

What's the process for putting together a look like that?
She asked "What're you going to make for me?" and I said, "To begin with, you're giving an award—I don't think you should upstage." She said, "Oh they don't care, they won't care." She was determined to be dressed up in something funny or amusing or flamboyant or whatever. It was what made her Cher. For her it was perfectly all right. You know if she'd just worn a gown we would've never seen that picture, we would've never seen that gown again; this picture is re-printed every year over and over again. It's amazing to me. I said "OK, I'll do it for you." It wasn't like I was a fashion designer and I wanted to show my latest whatever off the runway, this was strictly a Cher thing.

Do you think at the time that people might still be talking about it in 2016?
Listen, I had been working with her since 1971. I had put her in so many crazy things and she's a very interesting woman. Especially then, the body was amazing, there was no extra flesh anywhere, you could put her in the most wild things and she never looked vulgar, it kind of looked like it just belonged on her. It was an odd situation with her always, I've never had a client quite like that. But then people started thinking that's all I knew how to do and I was doing all of these other people, plays, things like that, but people just thought Bob Mackie shows navel, Bob Mackie does crazies, you'll wear a funny hat. But that's OK.

I like performers to look like performers, and I like a little bit of pizzaz. I think there's a trend to look a little bit more normal these days.
Well there's a reason to look normal. It depends on the person, the personality, their product that they're selling. I always approach it like a costume designer. With a character or an image that we've started that we're going to continue and just try to update it or whatever. But the whole red carpet thing has gotten to be so boring.

I think today there is such a fear of ending up on worst dressed lists, so they end up having these very safe looks and safe designs.
I see these tabloid magazines and very often what they say are the best dressed at an event I think are the worst. They think that's good? Why do they think that's good? Or do they just want to print that woman's picture in the magazine because that makes the magazine more full of stars or whatever.

I think people tend to pick safe and bland designs.
For me there's nothing worse then seeing an actress walk out and seeing the whole front of her dress gaping open down to her waist and you're seeing unfortunate breasts. Unless they're absolutely gorgeous and perfect... But when it's kind of saggy and they are kind of taping it under and all of that. Come on, she can't be comfortable–you're going to get a bad shot of it eventually that night and they will print that bad shot for sure and its not good. You don't have to look like you're just barely 19 for the rest of your life. A lot of [celebrities] almost do which is OK. I think that's fine. But to look foolish is not a good thing, you just don't want to look like you're trying too hard or trying to hang on, that's not a good thing.

I think Jane Fonda is a good example of someone who dresses great for the red carpet. Was it the Globes recently where she wore the white dress with the ruffles? Did you see that one? I liked that a lot.
Yeah I did. I think the clothes should be extreme enough that it makes you look at them and say oh look at that. You know, not just oh another slip dress. Another boring slip dress.

One of the moments that stands out for me was Bjork in 2001 when she wore the Marjan Pejoski dress with the swan, did you like that at the time?
No. I didn't like it because, to begin with, it was so badly made. Her stockings were all wrinkled like an old swan with wrinkled legs. I mean, it looked really sad and kind of like trying too hard. If you're going to do this crazy stuff it better be made like a piece of fine jewelry. Everything has to sit in the right place, everything has to fit, everything has to be taken care of, and she certainly didn't look attractive or even magical. She just looked really silly, all she needed was a big Donald Duck beak.

Is there anyone you think has good red carpet looks?
There are people there are people that obviously take chances in their fashion, like a Cate Blanchett always takes chances but she always looks like a Cate Blanchett. She never looks like she's trying to be anybody else. I don't think about it too much... That little girl Zendaya is working her way into becoming a red carpet star because she's very attractive and she seems to have a good taste level even when it's different from the usual.

What do you consider to be good style in terms of presenting someone on the red carpet? What do you think is good lasting style?
I'm the one that's done the most iconically horrifying styles, and I got away with it. I just think you want to look like a goddess when you walk out. It needs to be oh my god, how beautiful that is.

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