In 1988, one of the biggest news stories of the year was a dress.
Specifically, a dress donned by Cherilyn Sarkisian, a k a Cher (post Sonny), who attended the Oscars barely covered in some black netting, a few feathers and some very well-placed beads.
Known as “the naked Cher dress,” it was an ensemble that would go down in fashion history.
You could call it designer Bob Mackie’s pièce de résistance — if you don’t count the gown he designed, sewn to Marilyn Monroe’s curves, when she crooned a sexually charged “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy.
Sequins, feathers and more than a touch of burlesque, with a barely covered tease of breasts, derrieres and lots of leg— all are a part of Mackie’s signature look, even today at 81, making his designs both famous and historically infamous.
“The Art of Bob Mackie,” by pop culture historian Frank Vlastnik and editor-author Laura Ross, (Simon Schuster), out next month, is a celebration of the designer’s outrageous creativity, with hundreds of sketches and essays about the dozens of celebrities who have proudly worn his lusty designs over the past 50-plus years. The compendium is authorized by Mackie, with colorful, insider commentary by him, a foreword by Carol Burnett and an afterword by Cher — a 300-plus page testament to his singular talent.
Mackie designed “as many as 60 to 70 costumes a week for 11 years,” writes Burnett of her beloved eponymous TV show.
“Do the math . . . Hiring Bob was the smartest thing I ever did.”
And Cher, another of his muses, along with Burnett and Bernadette Peters, asserts that among all the men in her life, it’s Mackie who “has been one of the most important, hands down,” noting that she has known him since she was a “very shy” 19 or 20 years old in 1967. He once promised her in the early days of “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” that her gowns would have “millions of beads, and true to his word, there have been GAZILLIONS . . . sometimes with just a tiny bit of fabric, for the past 50 years,” she writes. “Bobby, you are brilliant.”
A section entitled “Mackie in Judyland” includes Mackie’s original sketches of gowns and dresses for Judy Garland. Another called “Lucy in the Sky,” details flamboyant outfits for Lucille Ball, who was, according to Mackie, “determined to out-fly Mary Martin in Peter Pan, with these huge butterfly wings to flap.”
Mitzi Gaynor, Raquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Debbie Reynolds, Ann-Margret, Cheryl Ladd and Bette Midler all chose Mackie to be their designer, as well as countless Vegas showgirls.
Mackie was born on March 24, 1939, in Monterey Park, Calif., and brought up by his grandparents after his parents divorced. Looking back to those days, he attributes his “relative solitude” to the development of a vivid imagination. Listening to the radio was his biggest influence.
“I could visualize the mysteries I listened to, but I also loved movies, especially musicals,” he writes. “I wanted so badly to be in a technicolor world.”
In his high school drama department, designing costumes and scenery, he soon discovered he was “meant to be a costume designer.” At Pasadena Civic College, he won a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute, where his first mentor, a teacher who had been a dancer in movie musicals, discovered his talent. With a fashion show scheduled, she suggested adding a showgirl costume to the proceedings. Mackie submitted some 20 sketches and was selected. Years later, when Mackie “opened a show in Las Vegas, I made sure that teacher was there.”
Mackie’s name first appeared in credits at the end of an episode of “The Judy Garland Show” on TV in 1963 — credited as an assistant costume designer. But two years later, the credit at the end of a 1965 Danny Thomas TV special read “Costumes Designed by Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie.”
The two became business and life partners.
“What Ray taught me about designing was that it was always about the stars and making them look good,” he writes.
And Mackie’s hardly-there gowns for Cher always ignited a volcano. The one she wore for the Met Gala in 1974, arriving with her arm entwined with the designer’s, was a sheer beaded number with feathered sleeves and feathered skirt; her whole body was there in all its glory for everyone to see, including her nipples, with no pasties. It caused such a stir that Time magazine’s cover, usually reserved for world leaders, featured Cher in the famous gown.
The cover line declared “Glad Rags To Riches” and was a newsstand sell-out.
Next to Cher, there was Marilyn.
Mackie was just 23 when he sketched Monroe’s now infamous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” gown, creating, as the authors put it, “an unforgettable moment in the annals of pop culture, when politics, show business and (nearly) naked sexuality would come together unapologetically under the guise of American patriotism.”
It was May 19, 1962, when Monroe, in one of her last public appearances, sang at JFK’s 45th birthday party at Madison Square Garden.
It was a bizarre evening. Jackie chose not to come, and Marilyn was introduced by Rat Pack member and Kennedy brother-in-law Peter Lawford, who called her “the late Marilyn Monroe,” because of her well-known tardiness on movie sets. Tragically, she would die several months later at 36.
Her flesh-colored gown was the star of the show, with 2,500 glittering rhinestones, and the whole affair had actually been sewn onto her body so that it “fit her like a second skin every bit as miraculous as her first.”
Marilyn had lensed a few scenes for George Cukor’s “Something’s Got to Give” that would be her final film and she asked the film’s wardrobe designer, Jean Louis, to help her create that “unforgettable moment.”
Mackie was Jean Louis’ assistant at the time. Jean Louis designed it, Mackie rendered it.
Mackie told the authors, “She really wanted to wake people up. She asked for something that would make everybody think she was nude, but her body appeared to be covered with diamonds.”
Her performance, whisper-singing to the president, lasted less than a minute, and it has, like Bob Mackie’s designs, become a part of history.