There are a handful of women who consistently send the internet into a tizzy every time they set foot on the red carpet. Among the more recent instances are Katy Perry in a post-apocalyptic gown by Margiela’s John Galliano at the Met Gala; Beyonce in a regal pastel-feathered Francesco Scognamiglio gown at the VMAs; and Lady Gaga in the hardcore leathery Alex Ulichny two-piece that exposed a hefty dose of under-boob at the Grammy Awards this year. But while all of the women in these jaw-dropping looks exert meticulous control over their artistic identity, it’s nearly impossible not to recognize Cher in every one of them.
Over the course of her more than 50 year-long career that has spanned television, film and music, Cher’s skin-baring, sequin-drenched ensembles have left a trail of glittering breadcrumbs across the mood boards of designers and musicians who have since emerged. “She was the original red carpet renegade. From her 1974 Academy Awards silk handkerchief dress and ornate flower crown, to her 1986 spider headdress and super exposed midriff at the Oscars, she broke all the rules. She set the stage for the Beyonces and Katy Perrys and Rihannas of today,” says designer Michael Kors. Vogue Contributing Editor and fashion authority, André Leon Talley, echoes the same sentiment: “Cher created an individual style that has lasted; a style that is fierce, forward and fueled with passion.”
The Bob Mackie-designed feather and crystal encrusted gown she wore to the 1974 Met Gala, for example, remains one of the most recreated and monumental looks of all time. “With her long black silken hair, the illusion of nude and sequins–it was pioneering and has influenced looks that continue to permeate the carpet at The Met Gala,” says Talley, who was present when Cher arrived that night. Kors, who was 15 years old at the time, says “it was really the first time a Hollywood celebrity attended, and it changed everything. We are still seeing versions of that look on The Met red carpet 40 years later.”
Cher also revolutionized the idea of what a pop star could visually accomplish, the way they could create multiple personas that live on and off-stage. “There are plenty of performers that we date to a certain era, but Cher and only a select few others transcend time,” says Kevin Jones, curator of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “For Cher to have survived as long as she has, and to be still well known to a young generation today proves she is a phenomenon.”
But to comprehend the enormity of Cher’s impact, it’s important to look back at the icons who preceded her. Josephine Baker, the French cabaret singer who got her start in the 1920’s, is often regarded as one of the first women to develop specific personas over multiple decades. Marlene Dietrich, the German-born 1930’s film sensation who later became a singer and performer, stands out as another boundary-pushing icon who developed a carefully thought-out identity through her fashion choices.
Paramount to the longevity of these women were the close partnerships they developed with individual designers. Travis Banton famously went to great lengths to execute the Dietrich’s pioneering androgynous style; Cher’s elixir has been Mackie, now 77, who most recently designed the looks for her new Vegas Residency. Having begun his career sketching designs for couturier Jean Louis (who also worked with Dietrich), Mackie’s old-school Hollywood training helped shaped his brilliant ability to create a sense of flawlessness through under-structures of garments, and his deep understanding of creating character through proportions. “Rather than stylists, the personal relationships these women developed with the designer is what makes it all work,” says Jones. “I’m sure Bob can be completely honest with Cher and Cher is certainly going to be real with him. He’s not just a ‘yes’ person.”
When the duo met in 1967 on the set of the Carol Burnett Show, for which Mackie designed dozens of costumes each week, Cher recognized his immense talent, and he saw her potential. From 1971 until 1974 he designed nearly everything she wore on The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour. He also created every look she and the musical guests donned on the 1975 variety show, Cher. “In the old days,” Mackie tells Billboard, “I could put anything on her. She didn’t know about period clothes — she didn’t know about glamour, really. She could be anything. In those days, they didn’t feature Middle Eastern or Hispanic women, and she could be any ethnic persuasion.”
But if timing is everything, the stars aligned for Cher and Mackie when it came to the red carpet. Up until the 1980’s, the spectacle of the carpet as we now know it, did not exist. As the carpet became a cultural fixture that people paid attention to, Cher became one of its leaders. “Because of the extravagance of her wardrobe, you almost couldn’t have a major event without her,” says Jones. “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, it was a gamble. The worst and best dressed list was right around the corner.”
What Mackie and Cher did together, though, was never about those lists, and that’s precisely one of the reasons why their collaborations were so magical. “Cher never wanted to be like the lady next door and she never cared if people didn’t approve,” Mackie says. “Her approach to red carpets was always ‘Let’s give them something to look at.’ It was about fun.”