Part of an ongoing series of 29Secrets stories, taking a deep dive into the history of legendary beauty products and iconic fashion and pop culture moments…
By Christopher Turner
Illustration by Michael Hak
When Icelandic pixie pop star Björk arrived at the 73rd annual Academy Awards in 2001, she made the ultimate red carpet statement…one we are still obsessed with, decades later. Originally created by Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski for his London Fashion Week show the month before the Oscars, the memorable swan dress featured a crystal-encrusted body stocking surrounded by a puff of white tulle and feathers, with a long swan-like neck that draped around the wearer’s own, the orange beak resting on the chest.
“With the Oscars, there’s a uniform, like the police. Björk was definitely outside the box,” said Pejoski. “Without people like her, it would be boring. Was I surprised by [the reaction]? Of course.”
The dress earned a spot on nearly every “worst” Oscar gowns list and was initially a punch line in popular culture, inspiring endless parodies – but it is now firmly enshrined in fashion history. Here’s a look back at the history of Björk’s instantly iconic swan dress.
Dancer in the Dark
Dancer in the Dark is a musical drama that was written and directed by Danish film director and screenwriter Lars von Trier as the third film in his “Golden Heart Trilogy,” following Breaking the Waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998). Dancer in the Dark premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to standing ovations and a little bit of controversy, and was awarded the festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or, along with the Best Actress award for Björk. Björk, who had barely acted before starring in the film, also wrote much of the original music for it.
Set in Washington State in 1964, Dancer in the Dark is the tragedy of Selma Jezkova (Björk), a Czechoslovakian immigrant working in a factory with her close friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). Selma secretly suffers from a degenerative eye condition that will eventually leave her blind. Frightened and poor, she saves every penny for an operation for her young son Gene, to prevent him from suffering the same fate. Innocent and well-meaning, she ends up being forced to commit a terrible crime before her life spirals to a tragic, incredibly depressing climax.
During the production of the film there were rumours of clashes between Björk and von Trier, who is often referred to as Denmark’s enfant terrible of indie cinema. Reports claimed that Björk was emotionally exhausted from the role and at one point bolted from the set for four days – a move that didn’t please Deneuve, who had just arrived from France specifically to rehearse scenes with the frustrated musician. After the film, Björk vowed never to act again.
But there was more to the story. In 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Björk came forward with allegations she had been sexually harassed by von Trier during filming. Björk recounted being hugged too long and non-consensually by von Trier, and that he had even attempted to enter her room. The accusations weren’t a surprise to anyone who had been following von Trier’s career; he has long cultivated an image of arrogance and uncompromising dominance in filmmaking. He denied the more serious allegations by Björk, but did not deny that their relationship was fraught, and admitted to hugging her after takes of emotional scenes, which he felt was appropriate.
The swan dress
The so-called swan dress actually made its public debut a few weeks before the Oscars at Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski’s fall/winter 2001 show at London Fashion Week. The collection, which had been inspired by carousel animals, included a sheer bodysuit festooned with an ostrich head, a crocheted dress adorned with peacock feathers and – the pièce de résistance – the swan dress, which was worn by South Sudanese-British model Alek Wek. The dress, with its tulle and feathered bodice and sculpted swan’s head draped over the shoulder, was the same one that Björk would wear weeks later.
“The whole narrative that season was inspired by the motion of a merry-go-round, with all these different animals. The swan was a part of that,” the designer later explained. “Björk loved it.”
Pejoski was big in the London fashion scene at the time and he was good friends with Björk. She had actually selected a number of Pejoski’s outfits and worn them while promoting Dancer in the Dark. In Cannes (where she won the Best Actress award), she wore a poofy pink organza pleated-lantern dress that was inspired by Old Hollywood – specifically when Marlene Dietrich dressed as (the Greek myth) Leda and the Swan for a 1930s costume party. And she later wore a Pejoski design to the 58th annual Golden Globes on January 21, 2001, that featured Michael Jackson’s face in sequins which she accessorized with an owl-shaped handbag. But the designer’s team did not know Björk’s plans for the swan dress.
The big night
At the beginning of 2001, it was announced that while Björk had failed to score a Best Actress nomination, she was nominated for Best Original Song, for “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark. In the days leading up to the 73rd Academy Awards, designers were vying to dress the Icelandic pop star for the ceremony.
“She was staying at the Chateau Marmont [in West Hollywood], and a lot of designers’ representatives…were sending clothes to her,” according to Bronwyn Cosgrave, fashion journalist and author of Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards. “One of the designer reps I interviewed for my book said that she encountered [an assistant] at the swimming pool wearing clothes that Björk had been sent.”
“I can’t verify that…[but] like every nominee, you get approached by every possible designer for clothing and shoes – as well as jewellery designers. That was never Björk’s style. She would always be the one making the approaches to people she admired and respected,” according to Scott Rodger, who was Björk’s manager at the time. “There were two dresses [from Pejoski] – the swan and a peacock. None of us on the team had any idea what she was going to wear for the Oscars.”
On Sunday, March 25, 2001, Björk walked onto the Oscar red carpet and into fashion history. Decked out in Pejoski’s swan dress, she wore the dress as it had been presented on the runway and carried a matching egg purse. At various points, she coyly lifted the chiffon skirt and dropped an egg onto the ground (various security guards kept trying to return them to her). She later told British GQ she “laid” as many as six during her walk down the Oscar red carpet.
“I was very aware when I went to the Awards that it would probably be my first and last time,” said Björk years later. “So I thought my input should really be about fertility, and I thought I’d bring some eggs.”
“I will never forget that moment when she walked up the red carpet. I wasn’t sure if it was a political statement or she was promoting a movie,” said Michael Caulfield, an Associated Press photographer at the time. “After she passed by, I don’t think there was a single photographer who talked about anything else.”
“People were just staring at her. I think they were kind of in awe. Everyone was frozen, almost like in slow motion,” said Steve Granitz, a photographer with WireImage.
Björk said the look was a tribute to the Busby Berkeley musicals, as well as swimmer and actress Esther Williams. “I thought it’d be very appropriate to wear a swan. I guess they don’t do those things anymore, right?” she said afterwards, trying to understand the reaction.
The unfashionable aftermath
That night Björk gave a tender performance of “I’ve Seen It All” at the ceremony, although she lost Best Song to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” from Curtis Hanson’s film Wonder Boys. But the next day, the press largely skewered her whimsical ensemble and Björk found herself at the top of every worst dressed list on the planet, including Richard Blackwell’s notoriously vicious Worst Dressed list.
One critic called it “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen,” while another critic said she looked “like a refugee from the more dog-eared precincts of provincial ballet.” Comedian Joan Rivers concluded that Björk “should be put into an asylum,” while TV fashion pundit Steven Cojocaru sniped that the dress was “probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen.”
Shortly after the Oscars, while she was in Los Angeles, Björk posed in the same dress for the cover of her upcoming album, Vespertine, perhaps subtly giving a middle finger to her critics. She later told Interview Magazine, “I don’t really know why I’m obsessed with swans,” but added that they were “very romantic, being monogamous.… Right now, swans seem to sort of stand for a lot of things.”
Towards the end of 2001, when she was ready to head out to promote the Vespertine album, she asked Pejoski if she could use the swan dress for the tour. Instead, the designer created two new dresses: a peacock dress and a new swan dress that was completely embellished with pearls, beads and real ostrich feathers for her to wear on stage.
But the original dress continued to captivate pop culture; it appeared on nearly every “worst” Oscar gowns list for years and inspired endless parodies. Later that year, Ellen DeGeneres wore a parody of the dress while hosting the Emmys; then Kevin James did the same at the 2002 People’s Choice Awards. Throughout the years, the dress has been spoofed in movies like White Chicks (2004), My Big Fat Independent Movie (2005), as well as TV shows like Hannah Montana, Sonny with a Chance, MADtv, Archer, RuPaul’s Drag Race and more.
Despite being endlessly mocked, the swan dress received a couture endorsement in January 2014, when Valentino designers Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri paid tribute to Pejoski’s feathery swan dress in their spring/summer 2014 couture collection. The collection was inspired by opera, bringing in quite a few animals, including a peacock, a lion, a snake, a tiger and a swan. The swan, in romantic nude tulle with a feathered swan neck wrapping around the model’s neck – just as in Pejoski’s original piece – was an unmistakable reference to the Macedonian designer’s work and Björk’s moment.
In 2005 Björk auctioned her Oscar dress for the charity Oxfam, but Pejoski still has a version, which most recently was included in the fashion mega-exhibit in 2019 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, “Camp: Notes on Fashion” in New York.
Despite all of the press, good and bad, Björk remained unfazed about the commentary on her swan dress. “They wrote about it like I was trying to wear a black Armani and got it wrong, like I was trying to fit in,” she told The New York Times in 2007. “Of course I wasn’t trying to fit in.”
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