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The Magic of Mackie

Photo: Harry Langdon

by Lynn Stanley

Pull back the curtain on some of the most iconic moments in fashion and Bob Mackie was there. The diaphanous column dress Marilyn wore to wish JFK happy birthday? Sketched by Mackie while working with the designer Jean Louis. The sequined sheath Madonna sparkled in for the Academy Awards, when she wanted to convey classic Hollywood glamour? Designed by Mackie. When Beyoncé was tapped to honor Tina Turner at the Kennedy Center, she rocked it in a Mackie flame dress; versions of it have been worn by RuPaul, Raquel Welsh, Diana Ross, Cher, Ann-Margaret, and of course Tina. Liza Minelli’s wedding dress, #4? Mackie. Any number of show-stopping Elton John outfits? Mr. Mackie was there.

Throughout his sixty-year career, the designer has become synonymous with over-the-top opulence. In particular, he’s known as the visionary who created thousands of era-defining looks for Cher, such as a “nude illusion” dress she wore for the cover of Time magazine in 1975, and a certain feathered headdress and midriff-baring ensemble for the 1986 Academy Awards. “Gazillions of beads,” in Cher’s words, grace looks from her TV shows and concerts. While his creations might look like gossamer and star dust, any artist who’s worn them knows they were made to last.

On August 29th Mackie will make an appearance at East End Books for a long-overdue Provincetown celebration of The Art of Bob Mackie. The gorgeous, oversized compendium, filled with a dizzying who’s who of 20th and 21st-century performers—including Judy Garland, P!nk, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand—features an introduction by Carol Burnett, who hired Mackie in the ‘60s to design costumes for The Carol Burnett Show. The show ran for 11 seasons, featured over 17,000 Mackie creations, and won 25 Emmys. Both the designer and Burnett share a love of old movies, and the performer’s specialty was parodying classic films. One send-up of Gone with the Wind tasked Mackie with reinterpreting Scarlet O’Hara’s “curtain” dress. The hilarious results are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

“As a kid I lived with my mother and teenage sister and the only thing to do was go to the movies. I remember hearing my mother say, ‘Just put him in a seat and he’ll go to sleep,’ but of course I never did! On the street car ride home, I drove her crazy with questions. A lot of the movies were period pieces: ‘What were they wearing? Why did they dress like that?’ She was always very patient and explained everything,” Mackie explains.

Mackie’s first jobs involved interpreting and sketching the designs of other costume designers, including Hollywood legend Edith Head. When asked how he became so proficient at drawing the human figure and fabrics of all kinds, he describes attending extracurricular art classes every Saturday during his high school years. “I never missed a class, even though I had to ride a bus from one side of L.A. to the other. I was a cheerleader at football games on Friday nights, and it wasn’t easy dragging myself out of bed Saturday mornings, but it was worth it.”

After graduating, he was given a scholarship to attend the Chouinard Art Institute, where his focus was costume design. The school at that time was run by Walt Disney and was a creative locus for artists and animators. After a year there he left for his first job with Paramount Pictures. Asked what advice he’d give those who’d liked to follow in his footsteps he says, “Try to find a job with someone who’s doing work you like, and learn from watching them. I took every opportunity to watch and learn.”

Mackie with his favorite Cher, Thirsty Burlington.

Loyalty, love, and friendship are at the foundation of Mackie’s career. The brilliant designer Ray Aghayan was an early mentor who became Mackie’s life partner, a union that lasted 48 years (Aghayan died in 2011). Bernadette Peters, a favorite muse, has said Mackie gave her dresses when she didn’t have a dime. Their friendship has entered its sixth decade. Even his trip to Provincetown was planned around meeting up with his dear friend, the jazz legend Marilyn Maye, who’s performing at the Art House through September 2.

Mackie has been coming to Provincetown for years and he laughed as he remembered being followed down Commercial Street by a bevy of Cher impersonators. So, who does the best Cher ever? “Thirsty Burlington,” he declares. “I adore her! It’s uncanny to have known the original for so many years and then witness someone who sounds and looks just like her. She’s extraordinary.”

Fast forward to the cultural moment we’re sharing with a diminutive doll and fashion icon who turned 64 this year. Always ahead of the curve, Mackie started designing Barbies in the ‘90s, with all the panache we’d expect. We can look forward to a new holiday Barbie this year, and rumor has it this one will be angelic.

Original designs for The Cher Show by Bob Mackie

Mr. Mackie never slows down, a fact that his long-time design director Joe McFate humorously attributes to denial. At 80 he received a Tony for the hundreds of costumes he designed for the Broadway musical The Cher Show. This year the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has mounted Diva, an exhibition that includes his clothing and sketches. In January 2024, a documentary of Mackie’s life is slated for distribution. Luckily, we don’t have to wait to experience the magic of Bob Mackie.

Bob Mackie will be appearing in conversation with producer/director Dan Guerrero in support of the book The Art of Bob Mackie by Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross at East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St., on Tuesday, August 29, 5 p.m. For tickets and information call 508.413.3225 or visit

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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