Bob Mackie & Carol Burnett – A Fine Collaboration

I’ve worked with many directors, but there is one I have worked with on seventeen productions (and counting), and every collaboration has been a pleasure.  He gives me a great deal of artistic freedom, and I’ve had some of my biggest design challenges and created some of my favorite looks while working with him. Because of these great experiences, I always love hearing about other great collaborations between designers and actors, writers, or directors.  One of my favorites is the relationship between Carol Burnett and legendary designer Bob Mackie on her classic variety show.  They both tell some great stories about the work they did together.  As a designer, it’s inspiring to hear how much a part of the creation of comedy Mackie was.  He and Burnett fed off each other – she asked him to create some iconic and fun costumes, and he helped create some of her most beloved characters and hilarious moments.

The classic curtain dress

Probably the most iconic example of this came from the classic Gone with the Wind spoof.  In the movie, Scarlett O’Hara, in a cash-strapped moment, memorably wears a dress and hat made from old draperies and mostly passes the ensemble off as the height of new fashion.  On The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett’s version of Scarlett has a similar moment where she decides to use the curtains, but Burnett wanted to make it look ridiculous.  It was Mackie’s idea to leave the curtain rod in the curtains, cementing Burnett’s entrance and descent down the stairs in comedy history.  I’ve seen it many times now, and it never fails to make me laugh.

Mackie also helped create a unique character trait for Burnett’s dizzy secretary, Mrs. Wiggins.  One of the many comical things about her was her walk.  The skirt Mackie made for her was a little too tight, but by hiking it up in just the right places, it fit.  And because of the way it fit, Burnett ended up walking with her behind sticking out a bit.  One of the things people remember most about those sketches was the hysterical way Burnett would walk from her desk to her boss’ office, all the result of the costume’s fit.

Burnett as Charo's mother

There were so many more memorable looks.  Burnett’s imitation of Norma Desmond was sequined, feathered, and over-the-top.  And who can forget Charo’s mother, with her spangled bell-bottom pants and low, swinging tennis ball “bosoms”?  The list goes on and on.  And they’re all priceless.

On The Carol Burnett Show, the costumes were always important, which is part of the reason I love watching it.  You can really see how the costumes play a part in the humor, and the stories of Burnett’s and Mackie’s wonderful collaboration back that up, in addition to demonstrating how a strong relationship between actor and designer can create magic.

Downton Abbey: Serious Eye Candy for Costume Lovers

I want to take a few minutes to talk about my favorite costumes currently on television – the stunning Downton Abbey, currently in its second season on PBS here in the States.  Entertainment Weekly called it “costume crack” and I couldn’t agree more.  The series has been absolutely beautiful to watch.

The Dowager Countess in one of her many fascinating hats

What’s great about Downton is the variety we get to see.  The series started in 1912, and so far has taken us up to the end of World War I in 1919.  There are the upstairs residents and the staff, and several generations, as well as civilians and soldiers.  It’s been particularly interesting this season, as the characters have dealt with war, to watch the evolution of their costumes.  Many of the men, of course, have transitioned to uniforms.  Lady Sybil became a nurse, so she wears a uniform more often than her beautiful dinner gowns.  I have noticed, too, that many of the ladies are also recycling their dinner gowns more than they used to, which is good, in a way, because it gives us in the audience more chance to admire them!

Lady Sybil's scandalous dinner pants

And they are admirable.  I love looking at the intricate beadwork and fancy fabrics, plus all the gorgeous jewelry – the dangling earrings and lovely necklaces that always seem to match the gowns so perfectly.  The dress styles have been evolving slightly as well.  The hemlines have gotten a bit shorter, and the silhouettes a bit slimmer, since the beginning of season one.  I enjoyed the memorable scene from the first season when Lady Sybil ventured out and tried the new style of (gasp!) flowy pants for dinner, and of course faced the ire of her conservative grandmother.

Lady Mary in her striking red coat and hat

The daytime clothes are pretty remarkable as well.  In season two, Lady Mary has been wearing a beautiful red coat and matching hat.  As the time period moves closer to the 1920s, we’re seeing a lot more close fitting, cloche style hats.  They’re all in beautiful vibrant colors, and look like they’re so much fun to wear.  And of course, there are still the more traditional hats, mostly on the Dowager Countess, played expertly by Maggie Smith. Hers are always over the top, with big feathers and flowers and other assorted plumage that she just wouldn’t be the same without.

If you haven’t had the chance to watch Downton Abbey yet, be sure to check it out before it finishes its current run in the next few weeks.  It really is a feast for the eyes.

*The costume designer for Downton Abbey’s first and part of its second season was Susannah Buxton, and the remainder of the second season was designed by Rosalind Ebbutt.