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Bob Mackie’s rise to fame as a designer of memorable costumes for Cher and other celebrities

A dress was one of the year’s top news events in 1988.

Cherilyn Sarkisian, a.k.a. Cher (post-Sonny), wore a dress to the Oscars that was barely covered in black netting, a few feathers, and some extremely well-placed beads.

It was dubbed “the nude Cher dress,” and it would go down in fashion history.

If you don’t consider the gown he designed, stitched to Marilyn Monroe’s curves, when she sang a sexually charged “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy, you could call it designer Bob Mackie’s crowning achievement.

Even at 81, Mackie’s signature look includes sequins, feathers, and a hint of burlesque, with a barely veiled tease of breasts, derrieres, and plenty of leg, making his designs both famous and historically infamous.

“The Art of Bob Mackie,” edited by Laura Ross and published by Simon Schuster, is a celebration of the designer’s outlandish imagination, with hundreds of sketches and essays about the dozens of celebrities who have proudly worn his lustful designs over the past 50 years. Mackie has signed the book, which includes colorful insider commentary, a foreword by Carol Burnett, and an afterword by Cher – a 300-plus page testimony to his distinct talent.

Burnett writes that Mackie designed “as many as 60 to 70 costumes a week for 11 years” for her famous eponymous TV show.

“Do the arithmetic…” says the narrator. “Hiring Bob was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

And, like Burnett and Bernadette Peters, Cher claims that among all the men in her life, Mackie “has been one of the most important, hands down,” noting that she’s known him since she was a “very bashful” 19 or 20 years old in 1967. He promised her in the early days of “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” that her gowns would feature “millions of beads,” and true to his word, “over the past 50 years, there have been GAZILLIONS… sometimes with just a tiny bit of fabric,” she writes. “Bobby, you’re a genius.”

Mackie’s original designs of gowns and outfits for Judy Garland are included in a section titled “Mackie in Judyland.” Another, titled “Lucy in the Sky,” depicts Lucille Ball’s flashy clothes, which she was “keen to out-fly Mary Martin in Peter Pan, with these gigantic butterfly wings to flap,” according to Mackie.

Countless Vegas showgirls, as well as Mitzi Gaynor, Raquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Debbie Reynolds, Ann-Margret, Cheryl Ladd, and Bette Midler, picked Mackie as their designer.

Mackie was born in Monterey Park, California, on March 24, 1939, and was raised by his grandparents when his parents split. Looking back on those days, he credits the formation of a vivid imagination to his “relative seclusion.” His greatest influence was listening to the radio.

“I could imagine the mysteries I listened to,” he adds, “but I also loved movies, particularly musicals.” “I desperately desired to live in a technicolor universe.”

He learned he was “meant to be a costume designer” in his high school theatrical department, where he designed costumes and settings. He obtained a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute at Pasadena Civic College, where his first instructor, a teacher who had performed in movie musicals, found his aptitude. With a fashion show on the horizon, she recommended incorporating a showgirl outfit into the mix. Mackie was chosen after submitting 20 sketches. Years later, Mackie “made sure that teacher was there” when he “launched a show in Las Vegas.”

Mackie’s name initially appeared in credits as an associate costume designer at the end of an episode of “The Judy Garland Show” on television in 1963. “Costumes Designed by Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie,” read the closing credit of a 1965 Danny Thomas TV spectacular two years later.

Both in business and in life, the two became partners.

“When it came to design, Ray taught me that it was always about the stars and making them seem good,” he writes.

Mackie’s barely-there gowns for Cher invariably set off a conflagration. The one she wore to the Met Gala in 1974, when she arrived with her arm entwined with the designer’s, was a sheer beaded piece with feathery sleeves and skirt; her entire body, including her nipples, was on display for all to see, with no pasties. It created such a fuss that Cher was featured on the cover of Time magazine, which is typically reserved for world leaders.

The cover read, “Glad Rags To Riches,” and the issue was a sell-out on newsstands.

Marilyn was standing next to Cher.

“An iconic moment in the annals of pop culture, when politics, show business, and (almost) naked sensuality would come together brazenly under the pretext of American patriotism,” said the writers of Mackie’s drawing of Monroe’s now-famous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” gown.

Monroe sang at JFK’s 45th birthday party at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, in one of her final public appearances.

It had been an odd evening. Because of her well-known tardiness on movie sets, Marilyn was introduced by Rat Pack member and Kennedy brother-in-law Peter Lawford, who dubbed her “the late Marilyn Monroe.” Sadly, she died a few months later at the age of 36.

With 2,500 glistening rhinestones, her flesh-colored gown stole the stage, and the whole thing had been sewed onto her body so that it “suited her like a second skin every bit as wonderful as her first.”

Marilyn had shot a few sequences for George Cukor’s final picture, “Something’s Got to Give,” and she asked the film’s outfit designer, Jean Louis, to assist her in creating a “unforgettable moment.”

At the time, Mackie was Jean Louis’ assistant. It was created by Jean Louis and produced by Mackie.

“She truly wanted to wake people awake,” Mackie told the authors. She requested something that would give the impression that she was naked, yet her body was covered in diamonds.”

Her performance, whisper-singing to the president, lasted less than a minute, yet it has gone down in history with Bob Mackie’s designs.

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