Bob Mackie is a three-time Oscar-nominated costume designer who has worked on everything from The Carol Burnett Show to Lady Sings the Blues to The Cher Show. Early in his career, though, he was a sketch artist for the legendary costume designers Edith Head and Jean Louis. Read about Bob’s days working at Paramount here.
As a costume designer, I love solving the problem—reading the script and knowing who you’re designing for and how to make them look the way they should look for that film. That’s the fun part. It’s like a puzzle, really.
You can have a character walk into a scene and you know so much about them before they ever say one word of dialogue. You have a feeling about them already, you don’t trust them, or you fall in love with them immediately because they look so beautiful. Very often, a costume designer can make that happen on an actress without her realizing it. Of course, the good actresses know how to make that happen as well.
In [the old] days, there were no computers, and so if you were a good illustrator or a good costume designer, chances are you had a lot of books with pictures from different periods. Today, you go on a computer and you punch in “Napoleonic uniforms of a certain time” or whatever. In 10 minutes, you have several pages full of them to look at and be inspired by. Life’s very different these days. You have more choices now, but you still have to make it creative and make it interesting.
I got to be known for doing really glamorous clothes. But for me, right now, the superhero movies are the most interesting design-wise because they don’t relate to anything, really. They relate to an imaginary civilization. I haven’t really ever done any of those, but boy, if I were younger and going into the business now, that would be fun.
An American in Paris
I was about 10 years old when I would go to the movies and people would be all dressed up and they’d be singing and dancing and riding horses and camels ... and it never occurred to me that somebody actually designed those clothes. I didn’t even think about it. I’d go home and I would draw all my own ideas, but I just didn’t think of that as a regular job. Then I went to see An American in Paris, which has this amazing ballet based on French impressionism at the end of the movie. It lasts almost 20 minutes, which was unheard of at the time. It is so beautiful, and today, when it’s on television, if it comes on, I say, “Just sit down and watch it, because you will anyway.” I remember thinking it had the most gorgeous costumes in a movie I’d ever seen [designed by Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff; Sharaff designed the costumes—and the dance—above]. Then I thought, “I could do that.” I was only 10 years old. That’s how it all started really for me.
[Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff received the Oscar for Best Costume Design for their work on An American in Paris in 1952.]
Gone With the Wind
The movie Gone With the Wind was made the year I was born, but it was such a popular film that it played over and over again. They brought it back when I was in high school, so I read the book and then I went to see the movie and I was quite impressed by the costumes at the time. Then I got to know the designer, Walter Plunkett, quite well.
Remember where she takes down the drapes off of the window and makes a beautiful dress out of it? Well, in the ’70s, I was doing The Carol Burnett Show and she does a whole takeoff on Gone With the Wind called Went With the Wind! She takes the drapes off the window and drags them up the stairs, and then she reappears with the drapes on, but the curtain rod is still in.
The designer of Gone With the Wind called me and he said, “Could I have a sketch of that?” I was so thrilled that Walter Plunkett called, and I was thrilled that he actually wanted a sketch of that funny takeoff on his costume from the movie. That was a very exciting thing for me.
Blood and Sand
It was one of the most beautifully designed films with Rita Hayworth and Tyrone Power. It takes place in Spain after the turn of the century. The scenery, the costumes [by Travis Banton], the way it’s shot is so glorious. If you ever have a chance, go see that for sure. Most of the films, I see on Turner Classics if I’m lucky. That’s a beautiful one, and it made [Hayworth] into a huge star in the 1940s. She did Gilda  after that, which was also a great-looking film that Jean Louis did and it made him into a big star as a designer.
Luchino Visconti made this movie with Burt Lancaster set in 1860s Italy. It is so amazing and so authentic. It’s much more authentic-looking than Gone With the Wind, even though it is the same period. Both of them are beautifully designed. When you make a movie and you design costumes, you can create your own period in time, your own civilization. As long as you’re consistent, it looks right to the audience today.
What I hate is to go to see a film and the stars’ clothes all look like they came from some planet, from somewhere else, and all the people around them are wearing clothes that were rented from Western Costume or something. Nothing goes together. That to me is disaster always, but this movie is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Gorgeous. Piero Tosi was one of the best designers.
Although I have to say, I hate subtitles. But usually, you have to live with the subtitles. I’m so busy looking at things, I always miss what they say.
I just saw My Fair Lady [1964, costumes designer Cecil Beaton] the other night and I watched the ascot number, and it just got so out of control and it didn’t look entirely period. I was working in Hollywood at the time they were shooting that movie, and I remember I couldn’t wait for it to come out because it was my favorite stage show at the time [also designed by Beaton]. Then, when I saw it, I went, “Oh.” It looked like the ’60s to me, even though it was supposed to be 1910.
I just liked the way Gigi looked [with costume design by Beaton] better. Vincente Minnelli was the director on Gigi and he had been a costume designer before. He was an amazingly talented director in that respect. Visually, he was so together and amazing. If you’ve ever seen Minnelli’s Lust for Life [1956, costume designer Walter Plunkett], with Kirk Douglas, it is so beautifully done and so evocative of those paintings of the time. All of that is so important. It becomes part of the entertainment value, especially with Technicolor and all of that.
[Cecil Beaton won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for both My Fair Lady and Gigi.]