NEW YORK – 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 fixated on the “color, excitement and glamour” of the movies and show business.
The famed 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 is out Tuesday.
Mackie didn't have to go across country. His first job out of college was at Paramount Pictures in 1961, as a freelancer sketching costumes for movies. His talent and work ethic soon helped land jobs in television, where he teamed up with Carol Burnett. Mackie's designs for her variety show drew attention for their colorful sequins and campy style.
Mackie has received three Oscar nominations and nine Emmy awards while designing for celebrities such as Elton John, Diana Ross, Pink, and his 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 sparkling career.
Mackie spoke to The Associated Press about designing for icons and a musical character based on himself. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: This book is a look back at your costuming career. How does it feel to see it?
MACKIE: I’ve belonged to the costume designers’ union for 60 years. That’s a long time. That’s a lot of costumes. And it kind of surprised me even. And then I see Cher turned 75, and I met her when she was like 22, and that really freaked me out! So, you know, you just, you do what you do.
AP: One of your early sketches turned into a very famous dress worn by Marilyn Monroe.
MACKIE: She was asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. So she calls (designer) Jean Louis up and said, “Would you make me one of those see-through dresses like you do for Marlene Dietrich?” And he used to do that for her Vegas acts and stuff. So he asked me to do the sketch and he showed me what he wanted. And I did the sketch and I put it on, as close as I could come to Marilyn Monroe. Then I never heard about it for the longest time. And then a couple of weeks later, all of a sudden, there’s all these pictures in the paper of her singing to the president in this dress.
AP: How did you approach designing costumes for “The Carol Burnett Show”?
MACKIE: It’s fabulous because you can really get a laugh or two before you even open your mouth. I love designing costumes. It’s the most fun because you’re helping. You’re part of the team that helps create the story, really, and who that woman is or who that man is and where they come from. And are they chic or are they a mess? Who are they? That’s the fun part.
AP: Perhaps your most iconic design is the “curtain rod dress” for a “Gone with the Wind’ spoof on “Carol Burnett.” How did that happen?
MACKIE: Her name was “Starlet” in our version. She went to the window and took down the green velvet drapes and drug them up the staircase. And of course, that happens in the real movie as well. So that was already funny to me. And then all of a sudden they stuck it in the sketch, and I had to do something that was funny and I thought, “Well, how do I do this now? What do I do that’s different?” And that was the best I could do, and it was a hit. Thank God, it was a hit and it got more laughs per second or whatever than anything ever had before. So that was kind of really fun. And it’s in the Smithsonian now.
AP: At one point you were designing costumes for both Carol Burnett and Cher simultaneously?
MACKIE: We had the best time. Carol was in one studio and Cher was in another and the only thing in between was the men’s room, which had two doors — one from each studio. And every now and then, Cher would go into the men’s room and say, “I’m coming through guys!” And she would just race through and they would all get very nervous over at the urinal. There was always a lot of laughs and it was good theatrical show business. 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 picture in the book of you escorting Cher to the Met Gala in 1974.
MACKIE: Cher shows up in a dress… and it was quite amazing. And people just kind of wore cocktail clothes and maybe a pants jumpsuit or something. They were dressed up, but nothing like it is now. And of course, Cher wearing that outfit made them all think, “Oh, maybe we ought to dress up a little more.”….But then all of a sudden, people are wearing stuff that looks like maybe they looked at all the old shots of her… and “what can we wear that will get just as much attention?” And then the same dress was on the cover of Time magazine a couple of months later, and that was huge.
AP: You also designed a memorable dress for Cher to wear at the Oscars in 1986.
MACKIE: The first crazy one she wore was with the big Mohawk headdress when she gave the award for best supporting actor to Don Ameche. And I said to her at the time, “Aren’t you afraid of upstaging whoever wins this award?” And she says, “Oh, they won’t care, he’ll be fine.” Well, the next day, her picture was in every newspaper in the country, and it’s become very famous. I remember in the beginning people were horrified. They said, “Well, that’s not fashion.” She was so gorgeous and she still is. So why not?
AP: In a full circle moment, you won a Tony Award in 2019 for designing costumes for “The Cher Show,” how was that experience?
MACKIE: I got to go to the Tonys and win my award, do my little speech…and it was just the best. And there was a guy in the show that played me — he had a blond wig and a funny suit and he was great. He was maybe a little more flamboyant than I am. But it was a Broadway musical so it was all right.