BACKSTAGE WITH BOB MACKIE
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — For women whose exits have been as memorable as their entrances, Bob Mackie is their man.
He dressed Diana as she left the Supremes, Cher as she left Sonny and Tina as she left Ike. And the gowns that they wore have become as much a part of history as the moments they created.
Mackie, who has designed so many costumes for the stage and cinema that his nickname is “Mr. Show Business,” is taking his own turn in the spotlight Thursday night when The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology kicks off a retrospective of the designer’s works with an opening-night cocktail party.
The designer previewed the show with WWD last week and stopped to talk about some of the highlights of a career that includes working with the biggest names of film, theater and television; the looks he designed for them that have become part of the most defining fashion moments in entertainment history.
Carol Burnett is represented with her charwoman outfit, “Nora Desmond,” “Eunice” and a half-dozen looks she wore during the Q-and-A sessions of her weekly variety hour, where Mackie worked as costume designer beginning in 1967. There’s a Mitzi Gaynor section, with looks from her variety series, including a hillbilly outfit and a yellow sequined jumpsuit with a big green daisy running up the front.
Carol Channing is shown in her “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” costume; Diana Ross is wearing a dress from “Double Platinum,” a television special with Brandy shown last year; Ann-Margret wears her strip dresses from Las Vegas and Tina Turner wears her Icarus-like wings from her Vegas appearance in the late Seventies, when she was breaking away from Ike and going on tour with the Rolling Stones.
“That’s why when RuPaul did his Vegas act, he wanted a set of wings like those,” Mackie said. “And I made them for him.”
The first look a visitor sees at the show is one of Mackie’s most recent, the “Elizabeth” costume Whoopie Goldberg wore in the opening of the Academy Awards this year that was roundly hailed as one of the only funny moments in the show.
Cher, naturally, has the most looks in the collection, including the Cleopatra-inspired dress she launched a fragrance in, the black bare-midriff costume with a Mohawk headdress she wore at the Academy Awards in 1986 and, set off by itself, her “Laverne” getup — padded leopard-print jumpsuit, bauble bracelets, goofy glasses and pale blue rattan handbag embellished with paper flowers.
“It’s sort of pre-Dolce & Gabbana,” Mackie said. “I’m reemphasizing everything that everyone has ever said about me with this show. All the simple things, the bread-and-butter stuff, was out of the show real quick.”
The exhibit includes looks from Mackie’s ready-to-wear career, stacked on four tiers of a big purple “wedding cake” display that acts as a centerpiece of the show, like a set from a Busby Berkley show of the Thirties. On its top is “Tropical Sun,” a dress from 1961 that features a giant metal sun strapped to the back. His wedding gowns are featured on a separate display, topped by an “Indian Bride,” a look completed with a giant headdress.
“It looks a little like it should be from Ziegfield’s last show,” Mackie said.
The exhibit includes some of Mackie’s sketches for Broadway shows and movies like “Gypsy,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Pennies From Heaven.”
There’s Mackie’s earliest known existing sketch, a crayon and paper drawing from 1949, when the designer was nine years old and sketching pictures of what Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable were wearing at the cinema. In this example, their looks are modeled by Mackie’s mother and half-sister.
“I kept these in an old coloring book, placed between the pages,” Mackie said. “This one was about the ballet. It had great poses in it that I used for research, but I never colored in a coloring book in my whole life.”
There’s Barbra Streisand in “Funny Lady” and Lucille Ball in a 1965 sketch when she flew on a wire dressed as a Peter Pan-like nymph — “She wasn’t a happy woman,” Mackie said, referring to Ball’s reaction to the costume, which required the actress to wear a harness that cut into her crotch.
There’s also a sketch from a 1968 special called “Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations Getting it Together on Broadway,” which Mackie believes may be the longest-ever title for a television show.
“A month later, she left the group,” Mackie said. “But Mary Wilson inherited the clothes, and they wore them as the Supremes for quite a while, although Diana’s replacement had to have them let out a bit.”
His earliest professional sketches in the exhibit are from 1964, four looks from a Jimmy Durante variety special called “Jimmy Durante Meets the Lively Arts,” which show mannequins in dresses based on “Today’s Art,” “Today’s Music,” “Drama” and “Fashion.”
“I still know her,” Mackie said, pointing to the “Fashion” sketch, which is inscribed with the name Sonja Haney. “She’s Mitzi Gaynor’s trainer and choreographer.”
Some of Mackie’s most famous clients are expected to turn out for the opening, and they are an amusing mix. Among those who have confirmed they will attend, according to a spokeswoman, are Diana Ross, Carol Burnett, Teri Hatcher, Deborah Harry and drag queens Lypsinka and Brandywine.
Lady Bunny has not yet RSVP’d, she said.