The urge to poke fun at Björk’s swan dress was so immediate that by the time the 2001 Academy Awards were underway, the fowl creation had made its way into host Steve Martin’s schtick.
After the Icelandic singer took the stage to perform ‘I’ve Seen it All’, the devastating song about a woman with degenerative eye disease by Lars von Trier A dancer in the night which she was nominated for, Martin joked, “I was going to wear my swan, but to me, they are so last year.” Later that year, Ellen DeGeneres appeared on stage at the Emmys wearing a replica garment designed by Marjan Pejoski. “I guess it’s a casual affair,” she laughed.
The swan dress with its tutu and chest-grazing stuffed animal is arguably the most mocked red carpet look of this century. It was imitated in white chicks and ridiculed 30 Rock.
It’s also a work of art that’s been on display at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but that’s not to say it’s not very funny – to think that Björk wasn’t aware of this fact, it seriously underestimates Björk.
“In fact, I was amazed at how many people thought I was serious. I didn’t mean to cause a riot!”
Asked about the set as she walked through the press line, Björk was wise, but in later interviews she explained how the public had misinterpreted her intent. Hell, she even brought eggs to “lay” on the carpet. “Come on, you don’t bring eggs unless you want to pee, right?” she told the Sunday time in 2004. “I was actually amazed at how many people thought I was serious. I didn’t mean to cause a riot!
What we consider “worst dressed” – codified in countless numbers of People magazine and by talking heads on E! – is skewed by society’s perception of what celebrities, especially female celebrities, should wear to the Oscars. Our image of a star accepting a trophy best supported by Julia Roberts in vintage Valentino or Halle Berry in Elie Saab.
But “worst dressed” leaves no room for a sense of humor over all the pomp and circumstance, and by 2001 Björk was already part of a tradition of Oscar guests using fashion for fun during of a night synonymous with stuffy glamour. These bold and intentionally fun looks predate fashion experiments like Lady Gaga’s meat dress at the 2010 VMAs.
Now these kinds of wacky formal wear games are strictly at the Met Gala where Billy Porter walks in on a platform carried by shirtless men and Katy Perry cosplays Light of The beauty and the Beast. Only these sets are immediately celebrated as Björk was stoned.
When Barbra Streisand received her first nomination in 1969 for playing Fanny Brice in funny girl, she chose her infamous Arnold Scaasi sparkly pantsuit because she just figured she’d be more buttoned up the next time she was nominated. (If you’re Barbra, you can have that kind of confidence.) As she took the stage to accept the Best Actress award she tied with Katharine Hepburn, the bell bottoms turned out to be see-through, showing off her tuchus to the entire Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
She didn’t know the outfit was sheer, but she knew she chose it over a more “conservative” option. Of course, it wasn’t an intentional joke like the swan dress, but she took Scaasi’s advice to “forget that elegant side,” as he once told the Los Angeles Times.
“Elegance” was arguably never on the mind of the underrated queen of Oscar provocation: Edy Williams. Williams has always been an unconventional guest at the Oscars. She was best known for her role as a porn star in the movie Deliciously Trashy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls directed by her former husband Russ Meyer, but for nearly two decades she regularly came to the Oscars in absurd, edgy looks. From time to time, she brought along a dog as a prop.
“I have a good sense of humor.”
— Edy Williams
In 1986, she wore a pearl sheath that barely concealed anything. It’s hard to argue that Williams’ constant appearances in bikinis and animal prints were anything corn a long joke played on the stuffy institution she’s somehow rammed into year after year. After the 1986 ceremony, she appeared on a talk show hosted by conservative commentator Wally George, who said she had dressed “shamefully” for what was supposed to be an “upbeat, chic affair”. She replied, “I have a good sense of humor.”
That same year, Williams wasn’t even the biggest attention-grabber. After all, her status was minor compared to the person with the most outrageous outfit of the night. Cher was pissed that she wasn’t nominated for her work in Peter Bogdanovich Mask despite winning Best Actress at Cannes, she was even angrier that she was then asked to present at the ceremony.
So she called her friend, designer Bob Mackie, and asked him to create what would become an iconic example of over-the-top Oscar-winning fashion. She wore a feathered headdress and a top with jagged edges that looked like teeth covering her entire belly. She told the New York Times in 1987, “I decided, ‘I’m going to remind them what they don’t like about me.'” Two years later, she won Best Actress for Dreamer. It’s expensive. She’s hard not to like.
The best jokes on the red carpet are not obvious jokes. These women come out with a straight face like true provocateurs, confusing people along the way, just like Celine Dion did when she wore a tuxedo inside out at the 1999 Oscars. (A year before she only wears the Heart of the Ocean of Titanic. It was time to get a little funky.) When rebellion seems too obvious, it’s, well, just a little lame.
Take for example, when South Park designers Trey Parker and Matt Stone showed up, under acid, to the 2000 ceremony dressed, respectively, as Jennifer Lopez at the Grammys in her low cut Versace and Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars from previous years in pink Ralph Lauren. Their stunt was not at the expense of the institution of the Oscars, but of the women who take it, and other award shows, seriously.
Like Parker and Stone, Björk and Cher and Edy and Barbra were Oscar intruders. All but Edy had seen their careers blossom outside of the film industry. (Edy, alas, never really saw his career blossom.) Except that, unlike Parker and Stone, they all took their Oscar outfits. incredibly seriously knowing that what they were wearing would raise eyebrows and cause giggles.
Putting them on “worst dressed” lists takes away their agency. The “worst” is only in the eye of the beholder. Without these ladies, the red carpet wouldn’t be fun at all.
Esther Zuckerman is the author of Beyond the Best Dressed: A Cultural History of the Most Glamorous, Radical, and Scandalous Oscar Fashion (Running Press). You can pre-order here.