Pin It
PP7YHP (1)
Bob Mackie and Cher in 1985Photograph by John Barrett/PHOTOlink via Adam Scull / Alamy Stock Photo

50 Questions with Bob Mackie

The legendary costume designer on Hollywood, glamour and the gown he has been trying to get Cher into for years

Lead ImageBob Mackie and Cher in 1985 Photograph by John Barrett/PHOTOlink via Adam Scull / Alamy Stock Photo

Fed by a childhood diet of MGM movies and fashion magazines, Hollywood costumer Bob Mackie has made the pursuit of glamour into a five-decade long career. His designs, at once maximal and barely-there – sequined, studded and slashed as they are – are brought to life by an exuberant and accomplished collection of clients: Tina Turner, Elton John, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Carol Burnett and, of course, Cher.

Beginning his career on the vast sound stages and wardrobes of Golden Age Hollywood (an early career as assistant to Jean Louis saw him help create the shimmering column gown Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade President Kennedy on his birthday in 1962) he climbed all the way to the very top: in 1988, he outfitted Cher in the sheer, jewel-encrusted ‘naked’ dress she wore to collect her Best Actress Academy Award for Moonstruck (and, in the process, the tens of thousands of drag queens who have replicated the look since). 

Now, as a collection of his most memorable garments go up for auction in Los Angeles tomorrow – including those for Raquel Welch, Lauren Bacall, Burnett and Cher, among others, as well as a litany of colourful illustrations – and he finishes work on The Cher Show, which will open on Broadway next month, we pose 50 questions on life and fashion to the legend of Hollywood style.

1. How did this auction come about?

I have so many things that I have accumulated over the years and people are always so interested. I thought maybe I should just get rid of some of them and put them up for auction and see if anybody is interested. So we will find out, that’s for sure!

2. Do you have a favourite piece from the sale? 

I am very fond of some of my costume drawings, because they remind me of the whole experience – there are some of Elton John, there’s some of Cher, and some Judy Garland ones when I was just the assistant on her television specials. It was my first time working in television; it was when I first met Barbra Streisand, and all these different people. I met people that I worked with for the next 20, 30 years.

3. Are you sad to see it go?

I’m not sad, because people who are really interested in that kind of thing, that sort of memorabilia, are serious about it. They really love it... I’d rather see it that way, than it end up in some second-hand store and somebody picks it up and they have no idea what it is or where it came from. 

4. What is your first memory of fashion?

I mean most of my memories as a young kid came from seeing films, like the MGM musicals with the technicolour and the production numbers. My mother and my sister were really happy to take me along to the movies, because I’d just sit there and be quiet and watch and watch and watch!

5. Do you remember the first piece of clothing you made? 

I guess it was probably in high school. I would design these outfits, and somebody’s mother or sister or whatever would have to take it home and make it. And of course it would always be plunging necklines, and tight tight tight skirts [laughs].

6. Where do you go to create?

I’ve had a studio for years and years. I’m an old guy now. I’m going to be 80 on my next birthday!

7. And to be inspired?

It used to be books, but now we go online. If I want to know about Napoleon or something I just ask my assistant to find it for me – and then I have 20 sheets of paper with all kinds of pictures. 

8. How would you define the clothes you make?

Well, a lot of people think my style is those kind of... funny, exotic, over-the-top outfits that Cher wears. Any time you become sort of well known or notorious for something they think that’s all you do. I don’t worry about it anymore, I just try to do the things that really amuse me, and have fun with it.

9. When did you know you’d made it?

I think the first time Cher was on the cover of Time magazine – you could see her full dress and everything, that was very exciting. You think ‘Wow, okay!’ You know, usually that stuff was not on the cover of Time magazine. 

10. How would you define glamour? 

I could put the same thing on somebody else, a gorgeous girl, a beautiful woman, and it might not be glamorous at all on her, because glamour has to come from within. Certain people just have it, and it’s not about classic beauty, or any of that. I always say, when the pope gets all dressed up he’s quite glamorous! 

11. Who is the most glamorous person, living or dead? 

Oh, that’s hard. I hate to name any clients [laughs]. It’s not about dressing well that makes you glamorous, it’s about being accomplished... now it isn’t the pop star that just wears funny clothes or shows too much skin, or whatever. I just feel people that are good at something, and have a good sense of themselves, they are always glamorous. 

12. What do you like about modern fashion?

I look in the magazines, I look at the latest [collections], and I see all these things that are very interesting, but then I never see them on anybody [laughs].

13. And the worst thing?

I was in London recently, and I thought, god we live in this world of T-shirts and jeans. It’s all based on that... It’s not very interesting, I’m sorry to say!

14. What’s the last photograph you took?

You know what? I never take photographs. I don’t even have a phone!

15. Do you collect anything? 

I’m not a collector – I have so much stuff now that I am not allowed in my brain to buy any more.

16. What’s your most treasured posession?

I like seeing things on my walls that remind me of good times and good places that I went, or people that I dressed, or friends. 

17. Who would you like to dress but haven’t?

I always loved the way Cate Blanchett looks, and all of a sudden I got this call, could she borrow something? She did borrow something, but I haven’t heard if she ever wore it... but hopefully she is a very organised woman and gets things done ahead of time!

18. Are there any fashion designers who have inspired you?

Well, you know, they are probably all dead [laughs]. Everybody I started work with in the old days, I was the youngest person in the business... I worked for Jean Louis, as an assistant, I drew the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to sing happy birthday to President Kennedy. But I really suppose my biggest influence was seeing beautifully designed costumes in movies...

19. What is your favourite movie? 

I always go right back to my all my old favourites from way back when I was a kid... like Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris. The film itself is kind of alright but when they get to the ballet I go, oh no, this is important!

20. What music would you put on to cheer yourself up?

Oh, I am very old fashioned. I usually put on a cable channel of music that I put on that’s singers and swing from the 50s and 60s. Sometimes they go way back into the 20s, to the Ella Fitzgeralds of the world, all these people that just sing great.

21. You were a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, twice. What song would you lip sync for your life to?

[Laughs] I don’t know – I know the words to songs that I learned when I was five or six years old, because in those days you heard them over and over and over. They are the only words I know!

22. What’s a book you could read again and again? 

I would love to read Gone With the Wind again, I was about 16 years old when I read it and I’m sure I would get a lot more out of it today than I did then. 

23. What’s the last exhibition you went to?

I’m thinking – I wish I sounded more fabulous! I haven’t had time to go to much recently, but when I’m in London I do love to go to the National Portait Gallery, and of course the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

24. Do you have a favourite artist?

I like so many. I don’t just like one period – I love looking at new things. But then you’ll look back and think, wow people really paid attention in those days.

25. What’s the best thing you’ve seen in the theatre?

We’ve been too busy doing it! [Mackie is currently working on Broadway production, The Cher Show.] The only thing I saw when I was in London was the Tina Turner show and well... it’s okay [laughs]. It’s different when you know the real story. 

26. Someone plays you in The Cher Show, what’s that like?

Oh I like it – they do this crazy fashion show in it, and in that moment, they are singing, and dancing and carrying on, and the audience loves it. And I love that part of it, because they are basically clapping for what I do, you know. 

27. What do you do to unwind?

I love to go out for dinner with friends and sit and talk. You know, a little gossip maybe. 

28. If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? 

Living or dead... I would love to have dinner with the man that I lived with for 49 years, again. Because that was the happiest times, us having dinner, and just talking – he was in the same business, so we always had plenty to say and plenty to talk about, and bitch about.

29. What would you eat?

I usually cook for myself – I don’t always like everything they have in a restaurant. They get the proportions wrong, too much of this or that, too rich, too creamy... It’s knowing the perfect amount to put in, like making a dress!

30. How do you feel about the saying ‘less is more’?

Nobody will believe my answer here, but yeah, I have been trying for years to get Cher to wear just a beautiful, just a solid red, wool crepe gown, without a thing on it... Just something that has an incredible cut, and moves when she walks, that kind of thing makes me happy. It doesn’t have to be red, but she absolutely looks good in red. But she won’t, she wants all the crystals and the embroidery and the rhinestones; it’s what the fans want. And I can’t say it isn’t fun to do!

31. What is your favourite memory of Cher?

Early on, when she split up with Sonny and she became a hot number, and she was on the cover of Time magazine – we talked about that particular dress – but then it was in Vogue and Richard Avedon photographed it, and it was a very special time. And actually they showed me some outtakes recently – it was like, well, here we are in Vogue magazine, and here’s my picture, in my tuxedo, looking like somebody I don’t even know today [laughs].

32. What makes a diva?

Most divas I know are kind and appreciative. But you can’t say that those kinds of women, don’t have huge egos. They wouldn’t be able to do what they do otherwise. A little ego is a good thing!

33. What’s some good advice?

When I’m walking on the street, my best advice I can give any woman – get a three-way mirror so you can get a good look at your backside. 

34. What’s the greatest compliment you’ve received? 

When I was 12 or so I would do drawings, which probably weren’t that good, but I got praised for it. All of a sudden I felt, oh that’s good, I like that. It’s nice when people like what you are doing, I’m sure if you write a story, and people compliment you on that, you like that... Otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it, and that’s important I think.

35. If you could go back in time and say something to your 13-year-old self, what would it be?

Discover the thing you love to do. I never gave up, you know, that’s the thing.

36. If you were president for the day, what would you do?

[Laughs] If I were this president that we have in this country right now I would put a gun to my head and end it all.

37. What’s your greatest fear?

Just a fear that I am not doing a very good job on something, that’s always been a fear, but that’s never been a new thing.

38. What is your greatest pleasure in life?

I love to put on the movie channel, and see something that I haven’t seen before. That makes me really happy. It’s like resting, and still soaking up things at the same time.

39. Do you have an ultimate muse?

It’s really just been whoever I’ve worked with. You know, really often, these sex symbols, aren’t like that at all in real life, it’s how the audience wants to see them. 

40. If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?

I mean anything that has to do with colour and line, and making things pretty and making them pleasant, and lovely. Doing something like that, I would have been very happy I’m sure – I don’t think I would want to be a hairdresser, however.

41. Can you imagine a life without work?

I just keep doing the things I like... otherwise, what would you do, sit in a rocking chair, and watch that same TV? Those terrible game shows, or whatever.

42. What’s the biggest risk that you’ve taken?

When I said I want to be a costume designer growing up people’s eyes would roll back, and their heads, trying to go the other direction, thinking, ‘what a weird child that is’. That was kind of taking a chance, but I didn’t care. 

43. How would you define bad taste?

Diana Vreeland [the late, former editor-in-chief of American Vogue] said: “A good dose of bad taste is a good thing.” If everything was always so tasteful it would be so boring. 

44. Where is your favourite place to be?

California is my favourite place to be – at this point in time I have been stuck in Chicago and New York for almost a year now with very few little quick trips to LA. I am thinking about possibly moving to Palm Springs, you know, I’ll be out there with all the old folks!

45. What makes you laugh? 

Just walking on the street makes me laugh, just looking at people, people on the streets, people in restaurants, people waiting, people on the train – you just look at them and it’s like a show in itself. 

46. What makes you cry? 

I love to cry in a happy way. I remember when I first saw the opening scene The Lion King, of all things, I cried, I thought it was so beautiful. I’ve had lots of sad moments in my life, where I spend a year crying, there were times when I lost half my friends. Crying is very important.

47. Are you a nostalgic?

I try to look at what’s happening next. But I do like looking back at, say, an old MGM film – it’s so gorgeous you just go, ‘shit that looks amazing’.

48. What’s your career high?

I’d have to think about that. I don’t think about the past too much – except when I go through my huge files of costume sketches! I always wonder why I’ve kept them but I’m glad I did. 

49. What is it that keeps you doing what you do?

It’s something I always say: this is what I do. I always feel sorry for people that, that grow up hating their jobs. And then they retire... I just couldn’t do it.

50. What are you most thankful for?

At this point I’m grateful I’m still here and kicking, and working!

Julien’s Auctions, Property from the Collection of Bob Mackie will take place Saturday, November 17, 2018 live at The Standard Oil Building, Beverly Hills and online at

The Cher Show opens at Neil Simon Theatre, New York on December 2, 2018.