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
Cher is a true fashion icon. In her six-decade-long career as a singer and actress, she has delivered countless sequin-drenched, cutout, naval-grazing, boundary-breaking ensembles that have essentially paved the way for today’s most talked about red carpet moments.
Cher’s iconic costumes and memorable red carpet looks are an essential part of her history as an entertainer, and some of the most memorable looks of her career happened on Hollywood’s biggest night of the year…Oscar night. Cher has attended the annual Academy Award festivities in five different decades and managed to wear a memorable look every single time. Of course, her most memorable Oscar look (and arguably the most memorable look of her entire career) is the showgirl-inspired ‘Mohawk’ dress that American couturier Bob Mackie created for her appearance at the 1986 Academy Awards. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly seen the dress and the over-the-top headpiece…but you may not know the tantalizing history behind it.
Here’s the real story of Cher’s most iconic look.
In the beginning
Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian on May 20, 1946. From a young age, she dreamed of becoming a star: in fact, she’d often entertain children at lunch singing songs in midriff-baring tops. She met Sonny Bono in November 1962 at Aldo’s Coffee Shop on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, Los Angeles, when she was just 16 years old. The two immediately hit it off, quickly becoming best friends and, eventually, lovers. Bono, who was 11 years her senior, was working for famed record producer Phil Spector.
During the mid ’60s, Sonny and Cher began building their music career – a sound that blended folk, disco, pop and rock – and with the hippie movement in full swing, the two began creating their iconic ’60s style. They released their first single in 1964 and before they knew it, they were selling millions of records together, thanks to their 1965 hit “I Got You, Babe.”
“We were weird hippies before there was a name for it, when the Beatles were wearing sweet little haircuts and round-collared suits,” Cher once said of her stylish arrival on the scene with Sonny.
Meeting Bob Mackie
Bob Mackie met Cher in 1967 when Sonny and Cher were guest stars on The Carol Burnett Show, where Mackie was the costume designer. “They came in and I thought, ‘Oh no, what am I going to do with that girl?’” Mackie recalled in 2018 in an interview with The New Yorker. “In all the pictures of her, she’s kind of sullen. And she looks like she’s two heads taller than him – which she wasn’t. So, she came in to the fitting, and I was blown away. She was the most adorable Audrey Hepburn little sprite of a girl, with her black hair in pigtails. I thought, ‘She’s cute!’”
When Sonny and Cher – who married in 1969 and divorced in 1975 – began The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in 1971, Cher turned to Mackie to design the outfits she would wear for the performances on the show. Through that partnership, Mackie became Cher’s personal designer and the two would become lifelong friends.
“Forty years ago, everyone thought, ‘Oh, she’s so strange, so weird, so big and gawky.’ Well, I saw a beautiful little girl and thought, ‘I can work with that.’ That became part of the attraction of the television show: how naked was she going to be?” said Mackie of his muse.
In 1985, Cher starred in Mask, the Peter Bogdanovich-directed film that followed the real life and early death of Rocky Dennis, a teen suffering with severe facial deformities known as craniodiaphyseal dysplasia. Cher played Rocky’s protective mother, Florence “Rusty” Dennis, and gave a searingly emotive performance as she fought for Rocky’s right to be respected while grappling with her own battle against drug addiction.
Critics (and audiences) loved the performance, which earned Cher the Best Actress award at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival (she tied with Norma Aleandro for The Official Story) and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. But when the nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards were announced on February 5, 1986, Cher (and the rest of the world) was left shocked when she did not receive a nomination. She had been snubbed.
So Cher enlisted Mackie’s help to give the finger (sartorially speaking) to the Academy with a scantily clad and equally scandalous look.
The big night
The 58th annual Academy Awards took place on March 24, 1986, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Mask was up for one award (Michael Westmore and Zoltan Elek took home an Oscar that night for Best Makeup) and Cher was there to present the award for Best Supporting Actor, but she ended up stealing everyone’s thunder with her shocking ensemble.
Cher entered wearing a showgirl-inspired black jewel-encrusted bralette, a matching low-rise skirt with a side slit, thigh-high black boots and an embroidered shawl. The risqué look was completed with a voluminous feather Mohawk headpiece.
“I came to Bob with an idea. I said I want to have a Mohawk, [but] that is not actually Indian,” Cher told Vogue in 2019. “I want it to be so over-the-top that it’s next week. The beautiful shawl was cashmere. I loved the whole thing.”
She added, “I had the idea mostly because the Academy didn’t really like me. They hated the way I dressed and I had young boyfriends, so they thought I wasn’t serious. So I came out and said, ‘As you can see, I got my handbook on how to dress like a serious actress.’”
Touché, Cher. Touché.
Mackie explained that the genesis of the look followed a meeting at the New York apartment of Tom Cruise (Cher’s then-boyfriend).
“She’d been in a lot of movies where she was wearing jeans and T-shirts, and hadn’t worn a getup in a long time,” Mackie recalled to Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “I said, ‘But you can’t wear that to the Academy Awards.’ She said, ‘I don’t care. I don’t want to look like a housewife in an evening gown.’ She was in every newspaper the next day; she’s not so dumb.”
“You don’t have to like it – I liked it,” Cher told Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “I didn’t get a nomination for Mask, and everyone said it was because I didn’t dress like a serious actress. Well, I did not get that pamphlet! I wanted to be a member of the Academy, but I could not be a member of the Academy and not belong to myself. I was more interested in just having a good time. You have to be voted in by someone, and after Silkwood and Mask, eventually I was…. The hair may have been distracting, but the dress was all cashmere. It was a piece of art, a truly beautiful thing. Another thing about that night: I had one blue eye and one brown eye – one contact lens. I’ve never told anyone that before. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Cher and her risqué Bob Mackie ‘Mohawk’ gown were in every newspaper the following day. And the look has famously landed both Cher and Bob Mackie on copious Worst Dressed Oscars lists every year since that night, although few mention the statement that she was trying to make.
Love it or hate it, the look is cemented in fashion history. And while the one-of-a-kind gown hasn’t made any reappearances, it is bound to be the centrepiece in the inevitable Cher costume retrospective.
As for Cher’s real revenge…she got it. In 1987, she starred in the romantic comedy Moonstruck (directed by Norman Jewison), playing Loretta Castorini, a widowed, 37-year-old, Italian-American woman who falls in love with her fiancé’s estranged, hot-tempered younger brother. The film received six nominations at the 60th Academy Awards, and on April 11, 1988, Cher walked away with the Best Actress statuette…wearing another Bob Mackie creation. This time, it was a jewel-encrusted sheer mesh gown, with a sparkling sequined bra and matching shawl. The dress was completely transparent and looked like a veil of black netting with some very well-placed beading.
“We look back now and those designs seem amazing and fantastic, but it’s important to remember that the moment Cher stepped out of the limousine and into the spotlight, it wasn’t instantly known that what she was going to wear was going to be acceptable and not laughed at,” Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising curator Kevin Jones once said.
Years after her win, Cher is considered a true icon of film and music. And, even though she is now in her 70s, she still rocks daring looks designed by Mackie. Once a fashion pioneer, always a fashion pioneer.
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