Bob Mackie’s book looks back on a brilliant costume career
When Bob Mackie was 11 and his uncle asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he didn’t hesitate: a costume designer on Broadway. The Southern California boy had never been to New York, but he was obsessed with âthe color, the excitement and the glamorâ of film and show business.
The famous celebrity costume designer tells the story of his career in a new coffee table book, “The Art of Bob Mackie”. The book by authors Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross was released on Tuesday.
Mackie didn’t have to cross the country. His first job out of college was at Paramount Pictures in 1961, as a freelance sketching costumes for films. His talent and work ethic quickly landed him jobs in television, where he teamed up with Carol Burnett. Mackie’s designs for her variety show captured attention for their colorful glitter and campy style.
Mackie received three Oscar nominations and nine Emmy Awards while also designing for celebrities such as Elton John, Diana Ross, Pink, and her ultimate muse, Cher.
The book, which comes out Tuesday, is filled with Mackie’s original sketches and hundreds of photos that help tell the story of his successful career.
Mackie spoke to The Associated Press about icon design and a musical character based on himself. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: This book is a look back at your career as a costume designer. How does it feel to see him?
MACKIE: I’ve been in the Costume Designers Union for 60 years. It’s a long time. It’s a lot of costumes. And it even surprised me a bit. And then I see Cher being 75, and I met her when she was 22, and it really freaked me out! So, you know, you just do what you do.
AP: One of your first sketches turned into a very famous dress worn by Marilyn Monroe.
MACKIE: He’s been asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. So she calls (the designer) Jean Louis and says to him: “Would you like to make me one of those see-through dresses like you do for Marlene Dietrich?” And he used to do that for his Vegas acts and stuff. So he asked me to do the sketch and he showed me what he wanted. And I made the sketch and put it, as close as possible to Marilyn Monroe. Then I never heard of it for a very long time. And then a few weeks later, all of a sudden, there are all these photos in the diary of her singing to the president in that dress.
AP: How did you approach the costume design for âThe Carol Burnett Showâ?
MACKIE: It’s fabulous because you can really laugh or two before you even open your mouth. I like to design costumes. It’s the most fun because you are helping. You’re part of the team that helps create the story, really, and who is this woman or who is this man and where they are from. And are they fancy or are they messy? Who are they? This is the fun part.
AP: Perhaps your most iconic design is the âCurtain Rod Dressâ for a âGone with the Windâ parody on âCarol Burnettâ. How did it happen?
MACKIE: His name was âStarletâ in our version. She walked over to the window, unhooked the green velvet curtains, and patted them on the stairs. And of course that also happens in the real movie. So that was already funny for me. And then all of a sudden they stuck it in the sketch, and I had to do something funny and I thought, “Well, how do I do that now?” What am I doing that is different? And that was the best I could do, and it was a success. Thank goodness it was a success and there was more laughter per second or whatever than ever before. It was really fun. And it’s in the Smithsonian now.
AP: At one point, were you designing costumes for Carol Burnett and Cher at the same time?
MACKIE: We had the best time. Carol was in one studio and Cher in another and the only thing in between was the men’s room, which had two doors – one for each studio. And every once in a while, Cher would walk into the men’s bathroom and say, âI go by guys! And she was running and they were all getting very nervous at the urinal. There was always a lot of laughter and it was a good deal of theatrical performance. Both shows were very funny in their own way and very different from each other. But the two ladies loved each other and often exchanged appearances.
AP: There’s a photo in the book of you escorting Cher to the Met Gala in 1974.
MACKIE: Cher shows up in a dressâ¦ and that was pretty amazing. And people were just wearing cocktail clothes and maybe a jumpsuit or something. They were dressed, but nothing like today. And of course, Cher wearing this outfit made them all think, “Oh, maybe we should dress a little more.”â¦. pictures of herâ¦ and “what can we wear to get so much attention?” And then the same dress made the cover of Time magazine a few months later, and it was huge.
AP: You also designed a memorable dress for Cher to wear to the Oscars in 1986.
MACKIE: The first jester she wore was with the large Mohawk headdress when she presented Don Ameche with the award for Best Supporting Actor. And I said to him at the time, “Aren’t you afraid to outshine whoever wins this award?” And she said, “Oh, they won’t care, he’ll be fine.” Well, the next day his picture was in all the newspapers across the country, and it got really famous. I remember at first people were horrified. They said, “Well, that’s not the fashion.” She was so beautiful and she still is. So why not?
AP: Looping, you won a Tony Award in 2019 for costume design for “The Cher Show”, how was that experience?
MACKIE: I got to go to the Tonys and win my prize, do my little speechâ¦ and it was just the best. And there was a guy on the show who played me – he had a blonde wig and a funny costume and he was awesome. He was maybe a little more flamboyant than me. But it was a Broadway musical, so everything was fine.