Björk’s Swan Dress: An Iconic Fashion Moment, Explained – Glam
Some Oscars looks are forgotten within a week of the event, while others live rent-free in the mind of the collective for decades to come. One of the most famous examples of the latter category is Icelandic musician Björk’s iconic swan dress in 2001. While everyone else walked the red carpet in traditional luxury designer gowns, Björk showed up in a nude, crystal encrusted body stocking similar to those worn by figure skaters. Draped over the artist’s shoulders was the head and neck of a swan — complete with beak — that cascaded down to a tulle skirt.
As if the outfit wasn’t enough of a shock to the masses, Björk carried large eggs with her as she walked the carpet, laying them as she went. At the time, the red carpet look and her performance were widely mocked, ridiculed, and relegated to “worst dressed” lists. Over time, however, the dress has been given the respect and place in fashion history that it always deserved. Join us for a closer look at the era of Björk’s infamous Oscars swan dress.
The inspiration behind Björk’s swan dress
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The swan dress — created by Marjan Pejoski — was not actually designed specifically for Björk. It appeared in a show during London Fashion Week earlier in 2001 and caught the musician’s eye. The dress reminded her of two of her favorite interests: Busby Berkeley musicals and Esther Williams. “It was a tribute to Busby Berkeley and that sort of elegance,” the artist explained (via W). That was reasoning enough for Björk to wear it to one of the most prestigious awards shows of all time, and that’s exactly what she did.
The morning before the event, Björk had the idea to make a statement about fertility by dropping eggs from the swan dress as she walked the red carpet. Her then-partner, Mathew Barney, decorated the ostrich eggs in time for the show. Of course, once Björk arrived at the Academy Awards red carpet, it quickly became clear that this look and its desired sentiments were not going to be received like just another quirky take on a ball gown.
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Björk’s swan dress was the talk of the town (and much of the world) both during the Oscars ceremony and also in the days that followed. Mostly, attendees, home viewers, commentators, and fashion columnists alike were left scratching their heads in confusion. What did it all mean? The legendary Joan Rivers herself called for Björk to be committed to a mental hospital for wearing the ensemble. The musician and her dress were immediately skewered by basically every fashion column in existence.
The dress would then go on to be mocked and parodied countless times in the decades that followed its 2001 Oscars premiere, including by Ellen DeGeneres showing up to host the Emmys in a replica dress later that year. Copycat versions also appeared on comedic actor Kevin James at the 2002 People’s Choice Awards, in the 2004 movie “White Chicks,” and even on an episode of “Hannah Montana.”
While there was comedic aftermath, as Björk told The New York Times in 2007, “People didn’t find it very funny. They wrote about it like I was trying to wear a black Armani and got it wrong, like I was trying to fit in. Of course I wasn’t trying to fit in!”
The end of an era
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Björk wasn’t the first celebrity to take a huge fashion risk at a major awards ceremony. Throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, these events had served as opportunities for actors and musicians to express their unfiltered creativity and personality through their wardrobe choices. Cher was known for her over-the-top Oscars outfits, including a completely sheer gown with strategic diamonds and sequins in 1988. Demi Moore was raked across the coals in 1989 for showing up in a self-designed ensemble that included a corset, an open floor-length coat, and spandex bike shorts.
In 1992, Geena Davis made “worst dressed” lists everywhere when she appeared on the red carpet in a white ruffled high-low dress with black straps, black stockings, and white opera gloves. By the time Björk showed up in her swan dress in 2001, the Oscars were becoming less of a place for creative expression and rebellion and more of a marketing opportunity for designers. With celebs being paid large sums of money to wear a particular designer’s gown, there was little room for actual fashion statements.
While awards ceremonies have largely become advertisements for luxury designers, there have been a few celebrities who have kept Björk’s rebellious spirit alive with their own outlandish fashion choices. Lady Gaga famously showed up to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards wearing a dress, shoes, handbag, and hat constructed out of raw beef to protest the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The next year, she arrived at the Grammy Awards inside a giant egg carried by latex-clad assistants.
At the 2019 Academy Awards, Billy Porter wore an outfit that featured a classic tuxedo top and a formal gown bottom to challenge the entertainment industry’s adherence to gender norms. While these sartorial rebels are few and far between in the 21st century, each one of them feels like a nod to Björk and her egg-laying swan dress that came to represent quiet rebellion through fashion.