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Appreciation

The Pins and Needles of Outrageous Fashion

Mr. Blackwell, pictured in 2003, ridiculed the
Mr. Blackwell, pictured in 2003, ridiculed the "worst-dressed" for nearly 50 years. (By Giulio Marcocchi -- Getty Images)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's a terrible thing to wonder and yet one can't help entertaining the question: What was Mr. Blackwell wearing in the last hours before his death on Sunday? Was he swaddled in an elegant silk dressing gown as he said his goodbyes to this world? Or was he warm and cuddly in his favorite flannel pj's?

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Mr. Blackwell, who long ago jettisoned his first name -- Richard -- will forever be remembered for the worst-dressed list he issued each year, to ever declining fanfare, and for his regular assaults on celebrities and their attire. Long before there was a Joan Rivers demanding to know "Who made your dress?" there was Mr. Blackwell, keen on letting the world know just how wretched that dress was. God bless, Mr. Blackwell. May you find a heaven filled with angels appropriately and tastefully robed.

Mr. Blackwell, who was 86 when he died of complications from an intestinal infection, said his public musings were meant to be satirical and were simply a reflection of the sort of catty commentary that everyone engages in privately. But there was always something about his remarks that seemed more piercing than the slings and arrows of his successors. Perhaps it was because his all-you-can-eat buffet of negativity so overwhelmed his crumbs of flattery. He made it his mission to spotlight the worst, the disappointments, the failures. Could anything ever truly be good enough for Mr. Blackwell?

The relentless fashion naysayer left a legacy of celebrities who feel incapable of dressing themselves and a metropolis of people who profit from that insecurity.

Mr. Blackwell was not one to come across as slightly loopy, like Rivers. She often projects the image of a somewhat scatterbrained aunt who can never remember anyone's name, is periodically embarrassing but quite often hysterically funny. He did not gush -- even if he happened to like what someone was wearing. And so he had nothing in common with the celebrity reporters of "Access Hollywood," "Inside Edition" or "Entertainment Tonight." And he never seemed to be searching for high fashion, in the manner of Women's Wear Daily or Style.com. Mr. Blackwell was not a man who would have appreciated an actress with the guts to wear a Balenciaga android cocktail dress with matching riveted leggings to the Golden Globes.

He was old school. He wasn't focused on labels and brands, only on the celebrities who wore them. He wanted the famous to dazzle but also to leave something to the imagination. And so he did not suffer ostentation, hyperbole, frumpiness, Madonna, Britney Spears or Barbra Streisand quietly.

In his self-appointed role as fashion critic, he often came across as a mean, mean man with no appreciation for the fabulousness of kitsch and the joy of eccentric style. He criticized Bjork -- a woman who wore a faux swan twisted around her torso to the Oscars. "She dances in the dark -- and dresses there, too," he said, according to the Associated Press. But if wearing feathered fowl is not a spectacular and admirable display of fashion chutzpah and passion, then what is? A Valentino goddess gown might be beautiful, but a red carpet filled with them would be awfully boring and without personality.

Mr. Blackwell didn't hone his fashion observation skills shouting questions from the sidelines of the red carpet. And he was not especially swayed by changes in trends or contemporary tastes. He had been a designer and, for a while, an actor, and his pronouncements were rooted in his personal aesthetics and his belief in what was appropriate and required of the famous.

He didn't take a celebrity's personality into consideration when judging an ensemble. He dismissed Christina Aguilera, for instance, as trashy -- even though that was the image she was actively cultivating. Mr. Blackwell didn't seem to care why celebrities dressed a certain way. As judge, jury and fashion executioner, he was uninterested in explanations.

He observed from arm's distance, and he spoke as if from on high. He was Mister Blackwell, don't forget. He didn't come across as the devilishly wicked intimate with whom one felt a kinship. He purposefully maintained a shield of formality around himself. He could have issued "Dick's List of Fashion Don'ts." But no. He preferred sounding like a headmaster publicly boxing the ears of the naughty students.

Mr. Blackwell began his list in the 1960s, just when the rules of fashion were beginning to loosen. In his heyday, he used to call a news conference to make his pronouncements. And the media would come, lured by an opportunity to witness someone chip away at the carefully constructed public facade of celebrities. But as his competition grew and everyone became a fashion kibitzer, it became harder for him to draw an audience. It was easier to issue his list by e-mail. In the past decade, however, those e-mails were mostly greeted with click-delete.

As fashion marched through asceticism, grunge, visible bra straps, hooker chic, hip-hop street style and so on, Mr. Blackwell had a wealth of celebrities to choose from who were happily violating decorum. He led the way in embarrassing them into being more mindful of their appearance. In that regard, he helped to make the public stage a more attractive place.

But he also succeeded in exacerbating the paranoia in our culture. Yes, he reminded us that we are being watched and we are being judged. But in his disapproving eyes, there was no reward in getting fashion right. There was only disgrace in getting it wrong.


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