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AN APPRECIATION

Mr. Blackwell was first but not the cruelest

October 21, 2008|Monica Corcoran

Mr. Blackwell, the man who launched a thousand snippy fashion critics with his infamous worst-dressed list, died Sunday. What to wear to his funeral? That's a question. After all, Blackwell was known for serrated haikus that skewered an actress' red carpet look in short order. He started penning the roster in 1960, and women as diverse as Sophia Loren, Jackie Onassis and Glenn Close were fingered at some point.

He called Mariah Carey "shrink-wrapped cheesecake" and deemed Madonna "the bare-bottomed bore of Babylon." Mary-Kate Olsen was summed up as "a tattered toothpick trapped in a hurricane." His take on Ann-Margaret? "Marlon Brando in a G-string." Never mind that his victims have pushed the needle of style in new directions and inspired designers.

Yes, Mr. Blackwell made us laugh -- in that same guilty way we titter at someone tripping at a wedding. And sure, the ribbing of insanely overpaid celebrities swanning about in yards of tulle and dozens of diamonds seems just. It was the spoonful of sugar that helped our schadenfreude go down.

But Blackwell, a man who had more careers than many ex-cons, didn't turn to red carpet criticism because of a love of duchesse satin. He started as a child actor and later modeled. When his prospects on the screen dwindled in the late 1950s, he decided to learn how to drape and design women's clothes. (A few vintage looks from his House of Blackwell label, such as a mirrored lime sherbet green gown and a brocade jumpsuit, are currently for sale on EBay. Neither is causing a bidding frenzy.) He also dabbled as an artist.

His true calling, according to his 1995 autobiography, was to be crowned the "king of the caustic quote." Unfortunately, he didn't realize that his royal court of imitators would grow exponentially as the craving for all things celebrity grew. Today, everyone is a merciless critic, including comedians such as Joan Rivers and drag queens for Us Weekly. Oh and never mind the legions of bloggers who watch the Oscars in their underwear and sass every outfit with enough venom to fell an ox. In fact, Blackwell's annual list lost much of its influence, thanks to the crowding of the genre he created. He was unseated by gossipmongers like Perez Hilton, who take caustic to a new level in their critiques.

And it's Blackwell's successors who have bloodied the red carpet with the most cruel and personal critiques -- and led to the siphoning of personal style. Every year, we see more actresses choosing safe sartorial bets that make us yawn and yearn for originality. But if an actress takes a chance, she's skewered in real time. Nowadays, many critics post their red carpet coverage before an award show even begins.

For the last decade, critics have blamed stylists for dressing their movie star clients in anything but risque gowns. Over-the-top looks like Cher's famous spangly transparent gown by Bob Mackie in 1988 are unheard-of. But really, it's critics like Blackwell who have made the red carpet a land mine. Who wants to be accused, as Cameron Diaz was, of looking "like she was dressed by a colorblind circus clown"?

Movie critics laud actresses for taking chances on-screen. Fashion critics should do the same. May Mr. Blackwell rest in peace and may his followers try a little tolerance.

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Corcoran is a Times staff writer.

monica.corcoran @latimes.com

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