Cher and Bob Mackie at the Met Gala in 1974.
At the moment, Bob Mackie is bored. “Nothing is very interesting anymore,” the legendary designer told Vogue over the phone yesterday. “You just keep seeing the same thing over and over again and there are no surprises. Unfortunately, you don’t see much fashion anymore.” He’s talking about the resurgence of the so-called “naked dress” that he originated back in the early 1970s. It was a look once worn exclusively by his muse, Cher, to the awe and delight of her fans; these days it has been co-opted by just about every It girl, from Kendall Jenner to Bella Hadid. On Sunday night, the inimitable Cher showed the world once again that boring is not in her vocabulary and cemented her status as the O.G. queen bee of tantalizing stage style. At a stunning 71, the diva knocked the lights out at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards dressed in two Bob Mackie specials—one a Swarovski crystal–embellished fringed number and the other her famous glittery black sheer bodysuit and moto jacket plucked straight from the custom wardrobe the designer made for her current residency at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas.
Before accepting the Icon Award, Cher sang her classics “If I Could Turn Back Time” and “Believe” and, naturally, social media jumped all over her see-through garb. “Everyone thought she was wearing a pastie during the performance at the awards show, and she wasn’t,” Mackie clarifies with a laugh. “It was a single crystal heart hand-sewn right over its proper spot on her body. The whole thing was one of the most expensive costumes she’s ever worn, with thousands of crystals.” For Mackie, sheer isn’t about shock value or getting a perfect selfie. In fact, he doesn’t even look at social media. To him, it’s about the craftsmanship that goes into making a woman’s body look flawless and creating that nude “illusion,” as he calls it. Truth be told, it was never a challenge to make Cher look flawless—he says she never did a sit-up in her 20s and 30s and had a six-pack anyway—but he did give her the power to enthrall the public with his designs.
Considering the Billboard Music Awards, that’s as true now as it was back then. Mackie attended the 1974 Met Gala with Cher on his arm dressed in what is perhaps one of the most famous naked dresses of all time: a sheer beaded gown with white feathered sleeves and a white feathered skirt. Nearly everything was visible, including Cher’s nipples—no pasties then either. She later wore the dress in a photograph that appeared on the cover of Time magazine. “It created a lot of hubbub,” Mackie says of the dress. “In those days, Time reserved its covers for world leaders or someone who invented something important, like a vaccine. Then there was Cher on the cover in that incredible piece of clothing, and newsstands sold out of it almost immediately. Some cities even banned it from being sold—it’s funny considering how some stars can barely keep their clothes on today.”
In 2015 at the Met Gala, Kim Kardashian West told everyone—including Cher herself—that her sultry Roberto Cavalli dress was inspired by the one that the singer wore to the same event in 1974. “Cher just thought it was funny,” Mackie says of the interaction. “She didn’t really say one thing or the other when Kim came running up to her to tell her.” Flattered or not, Cher is surely confident that she and Mackie set the tone for today’s Instagram generation and their infatuation with showing skin on the red carpet. But according to Mackie, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. “Not everything I made for Cher was provocative,” he says. “She never looked vulgar in anything because she had such an incredible body and she carried it well—she wore it like she was wearing a T-shirt and jeans.”
Mackie has a hard time with the fact that many young stars today are choosing the wrong underwear for their see-through ensembles. “When they wear these dresses, for some reason they decide to put on big-girl panties that go right up to your waist like your grandmother’s do—that just makes me laugh; it has to stop,” he says. Nude thongs, he explains, are okay under a sheer look, but for him it’s always about being strategic as a designer. “I’m a big proponent of not being able to figure anything out when you look at a dress,” he says. “I was trained in making film costumes in the ’60s, and in the old days, outfits were shadowed with sheer nude fabrics and they’d just cut it in gradations so you’d never see a hard line.” His advice for the granny panty–clad chicks out there? “Think about your underwear before you go out.”
While there may be a new generation of thong-strapped naked dressers entering the spotlight at the moment, Mackie continues to praise Cher’s fearlessness when it comes to fashion. “I first met her in 1967, and she could wear anything then,” he says. “She was never intimidated to wear something daring and still isn’t—at 71, it’s not easy to pull something like the Billboard costumes off, but if anyone can, Cher can.” As far as Mackie is concerned, in matters of style as they exist today, being bold is more exciting than being naked.
Cher performing at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards.