No one knows how to pay back a snub quite like Cher. In 1986, the Goddess of Pop showed up to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the 58th Academy Awards dressed in what would become one of the most recognizable gowns in Oscars history and stole the show in the process—proving, as she would two years later when she won Best Actress for Moonstruck, that the Academy should not have underestimated her. It was a rock star move.
Cher knew exactly what everyone at the 1986 Oscars would think when she walked into that room; she was counting on it. She’d already shown up on multiple occasions wearing midriff-bearing gowns, and her Met Gala “naked dress” was years behind her. The thing was that by then, she not only didn’t care but was even itching for a fight. As she would tell Film Comment in 1988, Cher knew that her stunt wouldn’t win her any friends in the Academy. “But that’s just always going to be me, it’s going to be the way I do stuff because I just have a hard time with authority.” Honestly? Relatable.
In Mask, Cher plays the mother of a teenager living with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia—a rare genetic disorder that affects the shape of one’s skull. The film received largely positive reviews when it debuted, including for Cher herself, who wound up winning best actress at Cannes. So when the Academy declined to nominate her, the multi-hyphenate got her vengeance through fashion. Her partner in crime? Bob Mackie, the designer of her famous “naked dress,” who on this occasion designed a revenge gown for the books—a translucent beaded garment that once again showed off Cher’s belly button and came with a huge feather headdress to boot.
Speaking with Vogue in 2019, Cher said the get-up remains “one of my favorite, favorite outfits.” She recalled telling Mackie that she wanted to have a mohawk—and that she wanted the look to be “so over-the-top that it’s next week.” The idea came to her, she said, “mostly because the Academy didn’t really like me.”
“I thought they hated the way I dressed, and I had young boyfriends, and they just thought I wasn’t serious,” she continued. “So I came out and said, ‘As you can see, I got my handbook on how to dress like a serious actress.’”
I was not alive in 1986, but the anecdote has always stood out to me regardless. Maybe it’s the head tilt and the smirk she makes in the YouTube videos I’ve watched over and over again. Maybe it’s the way she chews on the words, “… like a serious actress” before flashing a knowing grin. It’s the smile of a woman who does not get mad but instead gets even—who responds to getting stood up by putting on an even louder dress and strutting out the door for an even wilder night. In the face of unjust defeat, Cher decided to be immaculate and throw it in their faces instead. The word “iconic” gets overused these days, but these are the kinds of moves it was invented to describe.
Even Cher’s directive to Bob Mackie says it all. Speaking with journalist and Daily Beast contributing writer Esther Zuckerman for her 2022 book BEYOND THE BEST DRESSED: A Cultural History of the Most Glamorous, Radical, and Scandalous Oscar Fashion, the fashion titan remembered Cher’s directive that above all, “I don’t want to look like a housewife in an evening gown.” Mission accomplished! Instead, she got “spite incarnate—but make it fashion.” Or maybe a better word would be, “make it fabulous.”
“There were a lot of people who said, ‘That’s not fashion!’” Mackie told Zuckerman. “And I said, ‘Of course it’s not fashion. It’s a crazy getup for attention.’ And it did get attention—people talk about it still.”
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