To know Bob Mackie’s work is to know the greatest performers of our lifetimes.
From Cher’s most transgressive translucent gowns to Bernadette Peters’ dazzling décolletage, from the consistent laughs he got as The Carol Burnett Show’s most valuable unseen player to the phoenix-inspired extravaganza that translated Tina Turner’s pain into glamour, costume designer Bob Mackie has provided visual expression for the world’s greatest talents since the 1960s.
Many a Mackie look has turned celebrities into stars, or stars into icons. Who wouldn’t want a Bob Mackie gown designed for them?
While Mackie has dressed culture’s most notable single-named divas (Madonna, Pink, RuPaul), he himself has joined that elite club of craftsmen, like Tiffany and Fabergé, whose last name alone signifies the unmistakable quality of their work. When a show has designs by Mackie, you know in an instant that it’ll make an impression—usually an indelible one.
Mackie's output has been so prolific that he was the subject of a 2021 coffee table book, The Art of Bob Mackie. He has won nine Emmy Awards, including the very first one given for costume design. He has been nominated for three Academy Awards. He has helmed his own QVC Wearable Art Fashion Collection for nearly three decades.
And although Mackie turns 84 in 2023—an age that seems impossible to accept given his energy and indefatigable precision and dry wit—his oeuvre is still in the making.
Last November, Mackie reimagined the glittering baseball cap for Elton John's globally televised concert at Dodger Stadium—a riff on the similar full home-run outfit Mackie made for the singer to wear at the same venue in 1975. For performers like Elton John, Mackie's visual imagination is woven into their own stage identities, inspiring several stars to partner with the designer over a lifetime rather than a single assignment.
On a recent TCM Classic Cruise, Bob Mackie talked about his life, his career, and the role that travel plays in his work.
"Elton John never ordered just one of anything," Mackie said. "If I did 10 sketches, he'd want 20, and he’d pick one that needed to be made in one day for tomorrow. And they were expensive clothes! They were covered in mirrors and beads and diamonds and feathers. I mean, it was like a showgirl on crack."
Mackie is the first to admit that not everything he constructed is worthy of the fashion pantheon. Take the Star Wars Holiday Special, a variety show commissioned by CBS to cash in on the sci-fi franchise in 1978.
“That show was a piece of crap,” Mackie said flatly. "I mean, I did a few costumes on that. I dressed up Diahann Carroll and she looked pretty good, and then we had some acrobats that were strange creatures and I liked that pretty well. But the people that are involved in Star Wars just thought it was the biggest piece of whatever that they’d ever seen. They were very unhappy with it.”
But even that less-than-lustrous commission still turned to gold in time. “Fans of Star Wars collect everything,” Mackie said. “I sold my Star Wars sketches for that show and made a lot of money! Figure it out.”
The designer met Cher when she was in her late teens and he was in his mid-20s. Mackie has been an essential collaborator ever since. He dressed Cher for her 1970s landmark variety series with Sonny Bono—Cher wrote later that Mackie vowed there would be “millions of beads, and true to his word, there have been gazillions.”
While that was going on, Mackie was simultaneously charged with dressing the ensemble of The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978), pumping out dozens of sketch- and song-specific outfits every single week. Even under that pressure, Mackie managed such strokes of genius as Burnett’s now-legendary "Went with the Wind" curtain rod dress. The moment it was revealed to the audience is now recognized as one of the greatest comedy scenes in the history of television, and the original garment is in the Smithsonian. Mackie has even more gowns in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“It was funny, you know, but when you do a comedy show like The Carol Burnett Show, you'd better get your laughs or you're out of a job," Mackie remembered. “But with Carol Burnett, I just got her. I liked her. You could talk to her and explain things. There are the sort of stars that you can't say anything to because they know everything and, you know, you couldn't possibly have a good idea. There are those. I don't stay with those.”
(Mackie meets a fan wearing an homage to his famous Gone with the Wind parody dress on the 2022 TCM Classic Cruise.)
For Mackie, travel serves as a chance to decompress and open himself up to inspiration.
"In 1974, I did Funny Lady, which was with Barbra Streisand. We made that, and then I did this huge show in Las Vegas called Hallelujah Hollywood, which had thousands of costumes—literally thousands. There was also a lot of Cher stuff and Mitzi Gaynor stuff and stuff for all kinds of people. I was just so tired, and I said, ‘Well, I'm gonna go away by myself. I don't want to go with anybody. I don't wanna hear any conversation.’ You know, when you do those big shows, people are just talking and asking you questions. Constantly, constantly, constantly."
When Mackie travels, he makes a point of wandering through local boutiques for inspiring finds. "After my first fashion collection—not costumes, but fashion collection—I went off and spent quite a bit of time in Bali. I just love being there. I bought these hand-painted banana tree [sculptures] and I've had them since then. This was like in the early '80s when I got them and got them shipped home, and they're still in my house."
Mackie’s California home is as overstuffed with souvenirs from his journeys as his résumé is with entertainment triumphs. One particular weakness—apropos for a man hailed as the greatest theatrical costumer who ever lived—is masks. "I love masks," Mackie said. Some of his faves are mounted on a pole in his hallway, while his walls are lined from floor to ceiling with more than 250 salon-style works.
Mackie has found décor as far afield as North Africa, the Pacific Northwest, and Mexico's San Miguel de Allende.
"I’m not a collector of one specific kind of thing. I just like to see things. I like color, and I like certain personalities that some things have. You get inspired when you’re there, when you travel," he said.
"I have too much," he continued. "I mean, well, I don’t have too much, but, you know, all the counters in my kitchen have tchotchkes all over them. You can't cook anything."
The guest washroom is reserved not for souvenirs but for memories of his collaborations. "In the powder room, I frame pictures of my old clients. It’s just covered," he says.
When you’re a costume designer whose job is to amplify the unique qualities of your clients, finding the perfect materials is essential. Travel is often a necessary part of the process—Mackie finds he often has to hit the road to complete his visions.
"Los Angeles has a whole downtown area [Wall Street near 9th Street] with one fabric store after another, after another, after another," he said. "They have stores with all that glittery, sequined stuff with designs and beautiful edgings. You can design a mean show in Los Angeles. But you have to give yourself enough time. You can't go in and have 10 minutes to spend."
Mackie says that the unusual designs he finds in L.A.’s fabric district can often help him achieve the looks he envisions. "You never have enough time or money to design fabric and have it printed and bead it and all that. But in Los Angeles, there's a street, one street over, that has the best costume jewelry ever that you won’t find in any department store."
Even with assistants, Mackie often needs to source the best materials himself. "I live in Palm Springs. I'm two hours from L.A. and, you know, I grumble every time I have to drive there, but I do."
In Palm Springs, he has found rugs for his home at the city's monthly vintage market, which he scouts with a neighbor.
Mackie's luggage may often return home packed with finds that speak to him, but there’s one particular item he says he always makes sure he packs.
"If you're a man who travels, you should always have a sewing kit in your bag," Mackie said. "Because if a button or something isn't sewn on, it makes you really feel inadequate. Terrible! And if your pants split open, God help you."