A small portion of the Bob Mackie legacy went up for auction Tuesday afternoon at Christie's. An informal estimate of the 150 lots of costumes and one-of-a-kind gowns had the designer selling about a thousand pounds of sequins, bugle beads and crystals, and a hundred yards -- give or take -- of illusion netting, and several hundred pounds of turkey feathers, most in the form of Native American headdresses.
Mackie, 65, is best known as the costumer for "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour." There he helped Cher establish her public persona as a half-naked showgirl with a penchant for kitsch, Indians and sailors. During his longtime association with Burnett, he created one of the most enduring costumes in sketch comedy, the Scarlett O'Hara gown made from draperies and incorporating the rod and finials. "I saw it in the window and I just couldn't resist it!" Burnett proclaimed as she made her spectacular entrance.
Mackie did not divest himself of the curtain rod gown Tuesday, but he did offer up the Queen Elizabeth I costume -- with its bell-shaped skirt, ear-skimming ruff and pinball display of baubles and gewgaws -- that was worn by Whoopi Goldberg during the 1999 Academy Awards.
Unlike the 197 lots of rock-and-roll paraphernalia that filled the adjoining main floor galleries (and sold for more than $660,000), the Mackie auction did not give one the uncomfortable sense that someone's personal belongings had been raided for profit. There were no private letters, no intimate photographs, no detritus of a normal life. (Because Mackie is still alive and well, no estate custodian could ransack his closets and desk drawers for bits of profitable garbage.) Mackie sold a bit of celebrity magic without losing any of the mystery. The auction raised $440,820, a portion of which will benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Mackie, who began his career in 1962 as an illustrator for designer Jean Louis, created gowns and costumes worn by such celebrities as Anjelica Huston, Sharon Stone, Bernadette Peters and Elton John. In the display and sale of those pieces, one never got a peek at the interior construction of a dress or a coat, and so the public was none the wiser about any feats of design engineering that might have made a waist smaller, breasts more erect, hips slimmer or legs longer.
Mackie was never in the business of revealing his clients' secrets. His creations enhanced their stage magic and transformed them into pop-culture fantasies. Before Jean Paul Gaultier and Dolce & Gabbana dressed Madonna in cone bras and corsets, Mackie was dressing Judy Garland and Diana Ross. Mackie's garments, which are just as prodigiously ornamented in the back as they are in the front, speak of old Hollywood. They create an aloof distance between the performer and the fan. They emphasize star status. Even the pieces that were never meant for the stage have a Las Vegas glitz to them that suggests that a celebrity, in Mackie's estimation, should never be caught by photographers in something as banal as Seven jeans or a Juicy Couture sweat suit.
Mackie is nothing less than an icon within the design industry. The Council of Fashion Designers of America gave him a special award in 2001 for his costumes and for the flash and sizzle that he bequeathed to the industry. Without Mackie's disco Native American phantasmas rendered as a working wardrobe for Cher, there could never have been a Tom Ford for Gucci collection of embroidered and beaded Southwestern jeans.
Ross presented the CFDA award to Mackie, and she was dressed in one of his designs: a purple sequined mermaid dress with a matching marabou boa. Her voluminous cloud of black hair had been streaked purple in the front. She spent a significant portion of her congratulatory remarks thanking Mackie for helping to create her public image, that of a larger-than-life diva who prefers to be called Miss Ross.
In thinking back to that June evening, one also recalls that Ross went on at some length discussing the violent pushing in of flesh and sucking in of gut that were necessary to squeeze her into the form-fitting dress. It was a startling monologue because she came so close to tearing down the very wall of glamour that Mackie had so painstakingly helped her create. For a moment, talk-show truth-telling threatened to destroy a lifetime of work. Thankfully, Ross ended her confession before turning to the subject of supportive undergarments.
Mackie founded his ready-to-wear collection in 1982, and it had the same flamboyance as his costumes. He was not hesitant to mount a runway show with models wearing floral turbans or hiding behind Swarovski crystal-encrusted masks. The fashion industry never embraced his work. (Although he continues to do a fine business on QVC.) In part, his ready-to-wear was too much like a costume; there was too much showmanship and not enough attention to trends.
Extravagance has rarely worked against a designer, but Mackie's work was too earnest. It evoked the mainstream sparkle of Las Vegas, rather than something more exclusive and snobbish. His ready-to-wear, with its bugle beads and bright colors, suggested that a typical woman could wardrobe herself like a matinee idol. She could be a star with as much individual panache as a Broadway actress. Fashion abhors democracy.
Yet it is that broad appeal that made his work so perfect for television. He telegraphed fabulousness in a way that every viewer could understand. Sequins, feathers and bold colors. Those are the fundamentals of mass market glamour. Mackie kept his message simple, and it came through loud and clear.
A feather headdress and gown that Mackie designed for Cher. Among the Bob Mackie creations auctioned by Christie's were the Queen Elizabeth I costume, top, worn by Whoopi Goldberg during the 1999 Academy Awards; a tunic made for Carol Burnett; and an outfit worthy of -- although not modeled by -- Elton John.