Barbra Streisand wore this stunning, slinky Bob Mackie/Ray Aghayan costume in Funny Lady (1975.) This look first appears at one hour and six minutes into the film, when Fanny is sitting in her dressing room recovering from the shock of finding out Nicky Arnstein has remarried. For the first scene it is worn, the majority of the gown is covered by a black fur stole which is draped over Fanny’s left shoulder. The fur is still on when she exits her dressing room, however when the camera cuts to a stage long shot it is draped over her left arm. This made for an incredible surprise reveal of this dramatic and sexy gown, which is my favorite costume in the film.
Barbra’s rage fueled performance while singing How Lucky Can You Get is nothing short of a masterclass in musical theatre song delivery. This is some of her most outstanding and electric acting work in Funny Lady.
This gown was incredibly flattering on Barbra. Cut from fluid black silk-satin, it draped on her frame to perfection. The front of the gown has a center seam and princess seams run from the bust darts through the waist line. There are halter style straps and an extremely dramatic, plunging V bust line. Trimming this are large, close chain crystals, set between two dainty rows of glass bugle beads. This trim detaches at the waist and hangs loosely to the floor, where it ends in two tassels. This sandwich style of beading ensured that there was sparkle and depth from any angle the camera captured this gown. The dangling tassels added a lovely bit of motion to the dress throughout the scene. Their movement reflects the swinging motion of the overhead light.
This shimmering trim continued around the neckline, which has hook and eye closures, as well as down the four delicate back straps. The back of the gown is cut on the bias and has multiple geometric panels. These allow the garment to maintain its perfect figure-hugging fit while providing some stretch. The plunging V-back cutout touches at the very low back, and there is a zipper closure.
Accessorizing this gown is a jet black fox stole with tails. The pelts are attached at the fox noses, and there is a stunning statement art deco brooch at the center. In ancient times, people believed furs had “contagious magic” and that the wearer would inherit the best traits of the animal worn, who would guide them on their life path. Wearing fur eventually evolved into a status symbol. In 1929 Vogue magazine stated “The fur you wear will reveal to everyone the kind of woman you are and the kind of life you lead.” Fur sales dwindled during the Great Depression, but came back in a major way in the 1950’s and 60’s. PETA was created in 1980 and helped to dwindle the amount of fur used in fashion.
Plunging and open back gowns were a signature style of the 1930’s. These first came into popularity in 1929 and were extremely trendy by the early part of the decade. Since the 1920’s fashion had mostly consisted of shapeless drop-waist dresses, women welcomed the return of the natural waist and freedom to bare skin on more than just their arms and ankles. Evening gowns became more figure hugging, and day wear took on an extremely romantic and feminine vibe. Fanny’s gown is very authentic to the period, especially in the way it is body-skimming and elegantly flares to the floor.
Mackie told press that he thought Barbra had one of the most gorgeous chests in show business, therefore designed many of her costumes to flatter her bustline, which explains the multiple plunging necklines seen in the costumes for the film.
Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie created forty looks for Barbra in Funny Lady. The parade of stunning period costumes in this film is jaw-dropping. Every look was executed to perfection and flattered Barbra extremely well. Her fashion instinct and input no doubt played a part in the end results.
Mackie and Aghayan were nominated for an Academy Award for their work in 1976, but lost to the impressive historic costume design by Ulla-Britt Soderlund and Milena Canonero for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The award show that year featured a segment with brief showcases of the fashion from each nominated film, which can be seen in full below.
After Aghayan passed in 2011, Mackie noted “What he taught me about designing, was that it was always about the stars, about making them look good — making the audience excited to see them even before the star opens her mouth.”
Bob Mackie discussed the differences in working as a couturier vs a costume design in a March 2020 interview with Elyssa Goodman for CR Fashion Book. He stated “When you’re designing costumes, you’re designing for a particular person or character. It has to be right for that character. It also has to telegraph where she is, who she is, and what’s going to happen. You can’t just put anything lovely on her. If it’s a performer who’s going to sing and dance, people have to look at her and say, ‘Yes, that’s her!’ when she walks out on that stage. That’s what she stands for, that’s who she is! ‘Doesn’t she look amazing?’ A fashion designer will do a beautiful dress and 20 different, 30 different, 50 different women could have that dress. I always like it when I know who’s wearing the clothes. It’s a couture attitude where you make it right for that woman. In real couture, you may put sleeves on clothes, shorten things, lower or raise necklines so it’s absolutely made for that woman. A lot of fashion designers just do clothes, they do things they love, and they have a style. As a costume designer, you have to change. I’ve designed for women who’ve had vastly different personalities and bodies and it’s important that they not lose that vision because they have an image with their public.” When asked what costume design taught him about the ways clothes tell stories, Mackie responded “The minute you have a script—whether it be a drama or a comedy or whatever—you know what you have to do to make it work. It has to work for the performer and it has to look like it belongs to them, nobody else. It has to work for what the actresses are doing in the scene and the emotions they’re trying to create. If you get the right reaction and it pushes the play or the musical in the right direction.”
Jennifer Aniston paid tribute to this iconic look when she transformed into Streisand in the September, 2010 issue of Harpers Bazaar.
To the best of my knowledge the How Lucky Can You Get costume has never been displayed in a fashion exhibition or sold at auction. If you have ever seen it in person, or know information on its whereabouts please reach out and let me know!