I’m a firm believer in the power of sparkle and shine to brighten up the short, dark, chilly days of winter, especially those after the holidays. It doesn’t have to be much — just a little something to perk up the doldrums before spring appears on the horizon.
Today’s book meets those criteria for me, presenting an amusing diversion to the post-holiday “blahs.”
“The Art of Bob Mackie” by Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross absolutely brings the bling to the realm of coffee table books. Its deep blue front cover is framed by shimmery, turquoise flames and sprinkled with tiny silver bubbles. Title and authors are printed front and center in shiny silver Art Deco font.
The effect resembles so many Mackie creations — cut outs wreathed by wavy strips of opulent fabric suspended in crystal-sprinkled illusion. Just looking at the sumptuous cover injects a little shot of fabulous into my day.
Known to some today as a clothing merchant on QVC, Mackie is a veteran costume and fashion designer with a career spanning six decades. He made his mark in television with stints designing for film, Broadway, pop stars and Las Vegas shows. His signature style blends daring and humor and sparkle for looks that range from campy to dazzling.
A native of Southern California, Mackie briefly attended college then art school before leaving to work in Hollywood. He started his career in 1961 as a freelance sketch artist at Paramount Studios under the famous costume designer, Edith Head.
The next year he moved to 20th Century Fox, sketching for its costumer, Jean Louis. While there, Mackie created sketches for the designer dress worn by Marilyn Monroe at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party (the same dress worn by Kim Kardashian to the 2022 Met Gala).
In 1963, Mackie began working as an assistant under costume designer Ray Aghayan on “The Judy Garland Show.” From there the TV work grew to a full partnership with Aghayan focusing on variety shows and musicals and setting up Mackie for his solo career and best-known successes, weekly variety shows for Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher.
Mackie’s career exploded while working with Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher in the late 1960s and 1970s. He created everything from spangled, feathered, over-the-top concoctions for Cher’s musical numbers to the infamous “curtain rod dress” (now in the Smithsonian) for Burnett’s parody sketch of “Gone With the Wind.” For Burnett’s variety show alone, he designed 60-70 costumes each week for 11 years roughly totaling 17,000 outfits — an amazing feat of imagination and stamina.
His weekly television work expanded to include other media and performers. Mackie’s work has been nominated for over 30 Emmys (winning nine), three Oscars, and he has won a Tony. In 2019, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He continues to work today.
“The Art of Bob Mackie” is a chronological journey of Mackie’s career loosely divided by sections for each performance type he designed for: film, TV, stage, music. The book claims to be “the first ever comprehensive and authorized showcase of the legendary designer’s life and work, featuring more than 1,560 photos and sketches — many from Mackie’s personal collection.”
It’s large although not overwhelmingly thick, and every inch is packed with drawings and photographs (often of the same costume, showing its evolution) in an eye-catching layout. Both types of illustrations, large and small, are tucked around the text or arranged in larger spreads. While Mackie’s more well-known works — such as his creations for TV variety shows and for pop icons Cher, Diana Ross and Elton John — receive more space in the book, there is good coverage of interesting (and sometimes surprising) work throughout his career.
There is plenty to see in this book; the authors don’t skimp on Mackie’s visual contributions. It’s a great title for anyone interested in costume design or fashion illustration as it provides a window into the designer’s process and artistic skill.
For example, it’s easy to follow the course of Mackie’s collaboration with Cher and its subsequent effect on her career as she moved from ’70s-influenced streetwear to his beaded, feathered and sometimes shocking attire.
Regrettably, the brief text’s quality doesn’t match that of the illustrations. The written content is cloying with dated, cheesy, overly chatty asides and descriptors that sound like they come from a midcentury Hollywood gossip magazine. Read it for the factual basics and ignore the rest. That’s OK: This book ultimately is all about the amazing art. Take a deep dive or come back to it for smaller bits — it works either way.
Whatever you think of his work, “The Art of Bob Mackie” offers a look at the career of one of America’s influential costume designers. You can find more information on this topic and so many more at the library where there’s something for everyone. Happy reading!