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"Mr. Blackwell" (Richard Sylvan Selzer), 1922 - 2008

Wrote acerbic lists of 'worst dressed' celebs

October 20, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

"Mr. Blackwell," whose annual "worst dressed" list dinged movie stars, music icons and European royalty and helped turn him into a household name from the 1960s through the '80s, has died. He was 86.

Blackwell had been in failing health and died Sunday afternoon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from an intestinal infection, according to publicist Harlan Boll.

A onetime actor and model who turned to fashion design with limited success, Blackwell -- in his rankings of what he considered the most dreadful in design -- helped popularize the sort of dishy commentary that takes notable figures down a notch by poking fun at their personal style.

Actresses Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor made his list in the early 1960s. Taylor's "plump" figure and revealing clothes reminded him of "the rebirth of the zeppelin," he wrote in 1963. Loren, he wrote, dressed like "the Italian shop girls she portrays in movies."

More recently, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, whom he called the "Screamgirls" and compared to "two peas in an overexposed pod," made the list. So did Camilla Parker-Bowles, "The Duchess of Dowdy," in Blackwell's opinion.

This year Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham topped his survey. It was his 48th annual list.

Brigitte Bardot, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton and Madonna took heat from Blackwell more than once. So did Queen Elizabeth. "From her majesty to her travesty," he wrote of her.

Blackwell gave his first annual assessment of celebrities and their tastes in 1960, placing Italian actress Anna Magnani, star of "The Rose Tattoo" and "Wild Is the Wind," at the top of his worst-dressed list. He credited her for being "one of the most distinguished actresses of our generation" but said she dressed in "tramp clothes."

His comments were published in the American Weekly, a syndicated Sunday supplement magazine, after a reporter there called and asked him to name his 10 worst-dressed picks and to comment on them. Every year from then on he teased the famous, using "Mr. Blackwell" as a calling card.

He had launched his clothing business, House of Blackwell, in 1958, teaching himself how to drape fabric on a model. His day and evening outfits recalled the era of the contract movie stars who were dressed top to bottom by staff designers for the major Hollywood studios.

"The clothes were slightly overdone," recalled Sylvia Sheppard, a fashion editor for Women's Wear Daily during Blackwell's heyday. "He wasn't a creative designer."

But to be a fashion designer was never his top priority. As Blackwell recounted in his autobiography, "From Rags to Bitches" (1995), he aimed "to become my most unforgettable creation: king of the caustic quote, arbiter of good taste and bad, the ultimate mix of madness, marketing and media attention."

His finger-wagging fashion reports were a twist on the annual best-dressed lists that were popular in the 1940s and '50s. Fashion expert and author Patty Fox said recently that Blackwell was the first she knew of to take an irreverent approach. Dozens of variations followed.

While Blackwell claimed he was "not unkind," his critiques ranged from merely catty -- "Words fail me!" he wrote in 1963 of screen ingenue Sandra Dee -- to cutting: -- "Do-it-yourself kit with the wrong instructions!" he pronounced about the fashion taste of Hollywood sex kitten Elke Sommer in his 1973 list.

"The list has whimsy," he insisted. "It's camp."

At times he published his choices for the best-dressed women of the year. Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn ranked in the 1960s, Nicole Kidman later on.

He announced his verdicts at an annual news conference in his Hancock Park home. Several times in the early 1970s, he was invited to expand on his choices as a guest on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." In the 1980s and '90s, he commented on Oscar fashions during televised coverage of the Academy Awards.

He included men, particularly if they dressed in drag on screen or stage. Comedian Milton Berle got dinged in 1996 for his "padded brassiere and corseted rear." Boy George, the pop singer who wore lipstick and eye shadow, and Elton John with his feathered capes got caught in Blackwell's radar in the 1980s.

Some of Blackwell's targets fired back. When he took aim at country singer Barbara Mandrell in 1981 ("Yukon Sally playing the Alamo"), she sent him a jeweled lapel pin that spelled out "Big Mouth." He wore it proudly.

Others, including Jayne Mansfield, turned to him for advice. In 1961, after criticizing the actress with the hourglass figure for her "plunging neckline [that] has become a bare midriff problem," he supplied her with a wardrobe for her role in "Promises! Promises!" a 1963 movie best known for Mansfield's nude scenes.

Some of his choices for worst dressed seemed meant to shock -- notably, in 1973, Jacqueline Onassis, whose name regularly appeared on best dressed lists.

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