Costume designer Bob Mackie says he is “not sitting on a porch somewhere rocking in a rocking chair,” as one might assume a successful 79-year-old man might like to be. In fact, Mackie, whose career began in 1961 as a sketch artist for film costume designers including Edith Head and Jean Louis, before eventually creating his own designs for legends like Diana Ross and Carol Burnett, spent the last year working. He dedicated his remarkable talent to creating more than 600 costumes for The Cher Show, which opened on Broadway last December.
The musical follows Cher’s career as an actress, singer, and producer, but it’s her role as fashion icon — dripping in diamonds, beads, sequins, and feathers — for which Mackie deserves a lot of the credit. The two have been friends and collaborators for more than 50 years, and in that time he’s dressed her for The Sonny & Cher Show, the Academy Awards, and her many concert tours and Las Vegas residencies.
I caught up with Mackie to discuss working on The Cher Show, their friendship, and Cher’s armpits.
When did you first meet Cher?
I met her on The Carol Burnett Show in ’67 — the first year we did it. She and Sonny were guests, and I liked her immediately because she was just adorable. She had a beautiful body. It was a beautiful shape — beautiful arms and just the most beautiful armpits!
The average American girl was usually portrayed by a Scandinavian girl with blonde hair, but she looked very different than what America was thinking is beautiful. She had that long straight black hair when everybody had bubble cuts and beehives which was a problem for her as a kid because she wanted to look like everybody. But once she became famous, everyone was entranced by the fact that she looked completely different and had a style of her own. All of a sudden every girl in America had long straight hair with a parted middle.
How did you get involved costuming The Cher Show?
Cher really wanted me to do it, and nobody could say no because she is one of the producers. It worked out well, and I was really quite involved because I was the only one that really had any experience with her, knew her that well, and knew all the things she had done because I’d been there from the beginning. I was the expert on the Cher look for sure. It worked out nicely, and I had a good time doing it. It took a whole year out of my life!
In retrospect, what was it like to create such famous looks for her?
Some of them are so iconic because whenever she wore anything crazy to the Academy Awards, for the next 20 years you’d see it printed every year when people talked about red-carpet fashion. Her things that she wore were never really fashion. They were always just kind of fun in the “why not dress up it’s a party” kind of attitude she has about things. The couple of times at the Oscars when she wore just a regular evening gown, people weren’t nearly as interested. She always liked to say like she says in the show, “Go bigger, Bob. Let me go real big.”
How did you re-create those historical moments for the show?
Everything’s new. You see some of the wildest stuff, but then there are times when they’re just playing a scene in jeans and a jean jacket. Cher’s one of those girls that either had a crazy wild outfit or a T-shirt and jeans. One time she asked, “What does a lady wear to lunch?” And I said, “Well, not anything you’ll ever wear. That’s for sure!”
We also had patterns, beading patterns, and the actual originals available to look at. So making them wasn’t a huge problem. The embroiderers and the beaders could look at them and say, “Oh okay! That’s what you used here.” It just happened really painlessly, and people do realize that it is the same. It’s amazing though when “Cher” comes out of the floor in these iconic things. The audience goes crazy. They applaud and laugh and scream. They have a good time because they really recognize it.
How was designing costumes for so many decades of fashion history?Oddly enough, it hasn’t changed that much. People are trying to copy the stuff she wore 40 years ago, and I’m thinking, “Oh really?” It’s interesting to see that people are paying attention after all these years, but that’s what happens with the internet now. You really can look at everything over and over again and see it really clear. Where in the old days, you didn’t see pictures of old movie stars like you do now. But now it’s time for people to be creative on their own.
Has the show been received well?
The opening night was a riot because the audience dressed up for the opening, but not in regular opening clothes. They dressed up in glitter and sparkles and diamonds and platform boots. And they were people that don’t wear that every day! They just wanted to do that.
The audience is just full of all kinds of people. You’ll have a huge group of middle-aged people that were young kids or teenagers when she first started on TV, and then you see a lot of young ones that are fascinated with this woman. Of course, huge groups of gays come to see it. It’s like a religious experience. Very often it’s because those people are still fans, and they were young fans at the time. They’re reliving what they lived through and the fun they had then. They have such a good time.