It’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of Bob Mackie. While his legacy is intractable from that of Cher (being responsible for her most iconic looks), his work spans from his sketch work for Edith Head and Jean Louis in the early ‘60s (including the dress that Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in), to assisting his future lifetime partner, Ray Aghayan, on “The Judy Garland Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” to his work with Cher and just about every celebrity of note over the course of the mid-to-late 20th century. His career spans almost 60 years, but his eponymous ready-to-wear line, Bob Mackie Originals, was comparatively short-lived and failed to fuel him in the same way as the work he’s done designing for studios, Broadway shows and world tours. Unlike other designers considered to be a household name, Mackie didn’t build a brand that was marketable to the public ― he’s never stepped out and done the creative direction for a massive conglomerate, designed an it-bag or even thrown his name upon a storefront. Even during his years doing a ready-to-wear line, he has never been that guy. Bob Mackie has spent his years in pursuit of the costume, stitching together an endless sea of paillettes and Marabous, creating marvelous and fleeting moments that live on in history through photographs.
Part of what draws people to special events is their temporality. There’s a special brand of allure that comes with only being able to wear or see something once, and one of the central tenets of the costume is that it’s meant to be frivolous. The visual arts have historically been discredited due to their political feminization ― high fashion is often viewed as wasteful and gluttonous, with little regard given to its greater societal impact or its role in the economy. Red carpet looks and garments used for tours and on sets for TV shows are at the most unlucky intersection of perceived inaccessibility, wastefulness and feminized discreditation. This may be why Bob Mackie never had the opportunity to brand himself the way that, say, a longstanding leather goods company with a high fashion line already has built into it. He never fought to turn his name into a behemoth. He didn’t capitalize on the media frenzy that his work has created time and time again. There were perfumes, sure. There was a ready-to-wear line and a QVC collaboration. There’s even a limited collection of Barbies. But Bob Mackie is a tried and true dressmaker. He is a costumer who has undoubtedly helped shape how the world considers what is possible in fashion.
To commit oneself to the costume, either through embodying it over the course of a night or, in Mackie’s case, a lifetime, is to commit oneself completely to a fantasy and throw caution to the wind. Excess and unadulterated flair have external validity in a capitalist marketplace (if that’s your thing) when they become a source of inspiration, but the point is that cannot happen if any mind is given to whether or not bits and bobs can be reinterpreted into something consumable. Bob Mackie may have (mainly) worked for pop stars and production studios, thus needing in some way to interact with the notion of acceptability in his work, but he has spent the majority of his career unbeholden to retail sales. References to Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” have reached their saturation point, but she refers to the concept of visual camp in this way, arguing that camp turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer art (and life) a different ― and supplementary ― set of standards.
To realize a concept with the purest intention possible, as Mackie often did, is not to concern oneself with what’s considered to be in good taste, or possessing the proper ingredients to achieve a certain level of popularity. It is to pursue a vision to its fullest extent, communicating an idea with the greatest level of efficacy that can be achieved. Bob Mackie took the absurd and brought it to the eyes of the mainstream, and we’ll be forever grateful for it.