Over the course of nearly 50 years, Bob Mackie has designed costumes for Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Chita Rivera. Called the sultan of sequins, the prince of glamour and the raja of rhinestones, his outfits have been worn on every major stage from New York to Hong Kong and have inspired virtually every drag queen who’s ever struck a pose. But no one screams Bob Mackie quite like Cher, whose show at Caesars Palace opens Tuesday. Here, the designer speaks to WWD about how he got his start, why he hated the fashion world and what inspired the most infamous Oscar getup of all time.
WWD: Tell me a little about the show.
Bob Mackie: It’s huge. She has 17 costume changes.
WWD: In how many numbers?
B.M.: More than 17. But that’s what her audience wants. She’s had a record in the top 10 in every decade since the Sixties. So she has grannies and children and drag queens. People are fascinated by her. And we’re having a retrospective of her clothes in the lobby, from the Sixties on.
WWD: Of everything you’ve designed for Cher, the most famous outfit might be the black headdress thing she wore to the Oscars in 1986. Was it intended ironically?
B.M.: Well, she was a little pissed off they didn’t nominate her for “Mask.” And she said, “I’d like to wear something that looks like my old days, with the Indian things.” I sat there drawing it, and I was like, “You can’t wear this to the Academy Awards. You’re giving an award — you’re going to upstage whoever you give it to.” She said, “Oh, they won’t mind, it’ll be OK.” I said, “Oh, God.” And this outfit has been hanging over my head for the rest of my life.
WWD: Some people believe it was the greatest moment in Oscar fashion history, because it was so out there.
B.M.: In a way it was. It was fun. It lifted the audience. You know how boring it gets.
WWD: But you worry that it’ll be on your tombstone, like Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress or Christian Louboutin’s red soles.
B.M.: No, I think that’ll be Carol Burnett’s Scarlett O’Hara curtain rod dress. It’s just one joke after another with me. But I guess it’s better to be known for something rather than nothing.
WWD: What was your first job?
B.M.: Well, I worked for Paramount for about a week. That’s how I met [costume designer] Edith Head. But the first big one was the last Marilyn Monroe movie that was never finished. I wasn’t designing for her. I was just a sketch artist. I did that for about three years before I started getting my own shows.
WWD: And you worked with Judy Garland, right?
B.M.: Yes. I was the assistant designer on the “The Judy Garland Show.” I worked with the guest stars and the dancers, because Judy was such a handful. Ray Aghayan, the designer, did just her and nothing else. The fittings were often canceled; you had to go out to her house. That was my first television show.
WWD: When did you meet Cher?
B.M.: On “The Carol Burnett Show.” I was the costume designer and she was a guest star. I remember seeing pictures of Sonny and Cher and she had all this dark heavy Sixties eye makeup and long hair. She was tall, he was little. It was kind of a novelty act that got a lot of attention because of the way they looked. And I thought, “What am I going to do? I have to put her into a Southern showboat finale.” But she walked in and she was adorable. She was the cutest little thing and we became fast friends. When “The Sonny and Cher Show” came on, she tried to get me to do her costumes and I did. And it’s been a long time. Too long.
WWD: Was there a moment when you said, “I’ve made it”?
B.M.: Well, the Seventies were crazy. I had some of the best ladies — Liza, Diana, Bernadette Peters. I never wanted to be a fashion designer.
WWD: What led you to it then?
B.M.: People were offering me things, so I thought, “Why not try that?” When you’re 40 years old, you still think you’re 29. You think, “I haven’t done that. I really ought to give that a go.” But I’m not sure I would do it again.
WWD: What didn’t you like about it?
B.M.: Doing a fashion show that’s on for 20 minutes and then it’s over and everybody runs to the next one. Nobody sings, nobody dances, nobody tells jokes. I found it quite unsatisfying.