When Bob Mackie Dressed Cher as a Showgirl for the 1986 Oscars

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Don Ameche, Winner of Best Supporting Actor for ‘Cocoon’ with Presenter Cher, 1986Photography by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

A rebuttal to the Academy for failing to nominate her, Cher employed the talents of Bob Mackie to ensure all eyes were on her nonetheless

Of the several ways to get noticed at the Oscars – (not limited to) dressing as a swan and simulating the laying of an egg on the red carpet or wearing your clothes back to front – by far the most effective must be to employ the talents of Bob Mackie, the designer behind some of the red carpet’s most memorable gowns.

Known for his outré creations, with a canny knack for doing a lot with very little – “a lot”, in reference to the showgirl splendour of his looks (a surfeit of sequins, crystals and the like) and “little” in reference to the amount of fabric he utilises (his get-ups tend to fall into the “barely there” category). They are for daring women, and have tended to land those he outfits on worst-dressed lists – but that’s hardly the point. These are gowns made in the Hollywood tradition of causing a sensation. 

Such is the power of Mackie’s designs, you would be forgiven for thinking he has dressed more Oscar attendees than he actually has – his just happen to be the ones that you remember. Like that dress that Cher wore to collect her 1988 Academy Award for Moonstruck, entirely sheer bar a few well-placed bits of spangle to retain her modesty. Or the time he dressed Madonna as a bejewelled Marilyn Monroe in diamonds and white fox fur, worn with perhaps the only accessory befitting a woman of her stature: Michael Jackson, in a pearl-studded tuxedo.

By far his most memorable creation, though, was for Cher two years previously. She may not have been nominated in 1986, but that did not stop her from employing Mackie’s talents to transform her into a Ziegfield Follies-era showgirl to award Don Ameche with that year’s award for Best Supporting Actor. A beaded black two-piece, it revealed the star’s belly button and hips and was completed with a two foot (or so) plumed head piece. Subtle it was not, but, amongst the sea of safer options – namely, the satin column gown – you would be hard pushed to find a woman that looked quite as comfortable, or happy, as she.

“Cher’s the eternal 15-year-old who’s going to do exactly what her mother says not to do,” Mackie would later say of the gown. “We had a meeting at [Cher’s then boyfriend] Tom Cruise’s apartment in New York. She’d been in a lot of movies where she was wearing jeans and T-shirts and hadn’t worn a getup in a long time. I said, ‘But you can’t wear that to the Academy Awards’. She said, ‘I don’t care. I don’t want to look like a housewife in an evening gown.’ She was in every newspaper the next day; she’s not so dumb.”

Partly, the outfit was seen as a rebuttal to the Academy for failing to nominate her for her role in Mask, a much praised role as the mother of a son with lionitis for which she had received the 1985 Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress. “The act had movie history resonance,” wrote Stephanie Brush of the outfit in the New York Times in 1988. “I thought immediately of Scarlett O’Hara showing up in a flaming red ball gown at the main Atlanta social event of the season, after she’d just been publicly trapped in a sex scandal with another woman’s husband.”

The lady herself, though, did admit some regrets. “I knew some people in the Academy didn’t think that I was a serious actress,” she said to British Vogue. “I always felt a bit sad that I presented Don Ameche with his Best Supporting Actor Award in that outfit. It seemed to make him a little nervous.”

It is an outfit that has remained in the public consciousness – and on the back of her several (thousand) drag queen impersonators, including RuPaul’s Drag Race Allstars winner, Chad Michaels – finding itself constantly referenced in pop culture, and fashion. For his final collection for Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs employed milliner Stephen Jones to recreate the feathered headpieces for the show, which came with the description: “for the showgirl in all of us”. The clothes themselves played further homage in the gowns, which were black, frequently transparent and heavily embellished. More recently, Alessandro Michele showed several looks as part of his S/S18 collection for Gucci that referenced the high-camp fashions of Elton John – among which were recreations of Mackie’s spangly stage costumes for the star. Michele even printed Mackie’s name across the back of a T-shirt, in a further ode to the legendary costumier. 

So the question is: will any of the attendees at Sunday’s Academy Awards make such an impression as the lady formerly known Cherilyn Sarkisian? Almost certainly not. But maybe one or two will dare to try.