On March 20, Björk exploded onto Instagram to cheer on a volcano.
The social-media outburst was quintessential Björk. After all, this is the artist best known to the general public for wearing a swan to the Oscars.
It was 20 years ago this month that the singer swooped into the Academy Awards with a giant bird draped around her neck – and immediately ascended to red-carpet infamy.
The dress, by Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski, ruffled feathers. One critic called it “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen,” and comedian Joan Rivers concluded that Björk – who was nominated for Best Original Song, for I’ve Seen It All from Dancer In The Dark – “should be put into an asylum”. The ensemble inspired endless parodies and earned a spot on nearly every “worst” Oscar gowns list.
Yet two decades later, Björk’s sartorial flight of fancy no longer looks like a faux pas but a fashion masterpiece.
On the anniversary of the 2001 Oscars, insiders recall how the weird and wonderful dress came to be – complete with Björk dropping her own “eggs” on the red carpet.
True story of the iconic swan dress
Designer Marjan Pejoski unveiled his Autumn 2001 collection at London Fashion Week on February 20, 2001. Inspired by carousel animals, the show included a sheer bodysuit festooned with an ostrich head, a crocheted dress adorned with peacock feathers and – the pièce de résistance – a tulle tutu with a feathered bodice and sculpted swan’s head draped over supermodel Alek Wek’s shoulder.
Bronwyn Cosgrave, fashion journalist and author of Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards: “I was there during London Fashion Week, and [the swan] dress was a talking point. It was the showstopper. It closed the show, and Alek Wek wore it. So the dress had a life of its own before Björk came along.
Valerie Steele, director and chief curator, The Museum at FIT: “You have this long history of women and swans, going back to ‘Swan Lake’ in the late 19th century. [Dancer] Anna Pavlova’s ‘The Dying Swan’ exerted a major impact on [fashion] designers.”
Cosgrave: “Björk had selected a number of [Pejoski’s] outfits and wore them while promoting Dancer In The Dark [Lars Von Trier’s musical film, in which Björk starred]. She actually turned up at Cannes wearing one of his dresses, and it was even zanier than the swan dress, which was inspired by Old Hollywood – specifically when Marlene Dietrich dressed as [the Greek myth] Leda and the Swan for a 1930s costume party.”
From Cannes to the Oscars’ red carpet
Bjork wore Pejoski’s poofy pink organza pleated-lantern dress to Cannes and ended up winning the Best Actress prize. But the designer’s team did not know her plans for the swan dress.
Christophe Bop, embroidery designer, Marjan Pejoski (2001): “Marjan was very big in the London fashion scene at the time, and he was good friends with Björk. In 2001, [she] was working on her Vespertine album, and the album was like a winter tale, very atmospheric. So when she saw the swan dress, she loved it because the swan is like a winter animal and it fit the spirit she was in perfectly.”
Sherry Ring, senior vice president of publicity, Elektra Records (1988-2004): “I remember Björk coming into my office with the dress … I loved it. Would I love it for anyone else but Björk? No. But … I can’t ever imagine her showing up with typical designer gowns.”
Cosgrave: “Designers had actually been vying to dress Björk that year [for the Oscars]. She was staying at the Chateau Marmont [in West Hollywood], and a lot of designers’ representatives … were sending clothes to her. One of the designer reps I interviewed for my book said that she encountered [an assistant] at the swimming pool wearing clothes that Björk had been sent.”
Scott Rodger, Bjork’s manager (1996-2010): “I can’t verify that … [but] like every nominee, you get approached by every possible designer for clothing and shoes – as well as jewellery designers. That was never Björk’s style. She would always be the one making the approaches to people she admired and respected.
“There were two dresses [from Pejoski] – the swan and a peacock. None of us on the team had any idea what she was going to wear for the Oscars.”
Joel Amsterdam, VP of publicity, Elektra Records (1990-2004): “Before the actual award show, we went to a rehearsal. Björk was downstairs … in the theatre, and I was upstairs in the dressing room talking to Scott [Rodger], and I said, ‘By the way, what’s Björk going to wear?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s over there on the couch.’
“Normally, it would be hanging up, but it was in this plastic shopping bag like you would get at the supermarket. I was a little sceptical, because when you hold the dress up on its own, it’s just like a bunch of feathers. It was kind of hard to see exactly what this thing would look like, but I could see it was a head of a swan.
“And then, of course, it happened, and the rest is history.”
Hunting LA for ostrich eggs
Björk arrived at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium on Oscar night and stepped onto the red carpet. At various points, she coyly lifted her chiffon skirt and dropped an egg onto the ground – she later told British GQ she “laid” as many as six.
Amsterdam: “The morning of the Oscars, I had gotten a call from someone from her camp saying, ‘Björk wants to augment her outfit with these oversized ostrich eggs. And she wants to [drop] them as she’s going down the red carpet to leave like a trail.’ So I tasked my then-girlfriend – my future wife – to [help me] find these ostrich eggs … but someone in Björk’s camp found them before we did, downtown, somewhere in Chinatown.”
Rodger: “The eggs were decorated by Björk’s [then-romantic] partner, artist Matthew Barney … [with] something resembling whatever matter could be perhaps attached to a very large egg that had just been laid! The concept was to try and ‘lay’ eggs as she went down the red carpet. But security kept picking them up.”
Amsterdam: “We tried to play dumb because I don’t think that they really wanted us to do that!”
Michael Caulfield, photographer, Associated Press (1992-2001): “I will never forget that moment when she walked up the red carpet. I wasn’t sure if it was a political statement or she was promoting a movie … After she passed by, I don’t think there was a single photographer who talked about anything else.”
Steve Granitz, photographer, WireImage (2001-present): “People were just staring at her. I think they were kind of in awe. Everyone was frozen, almost like in slow motion.”
Amsterdam: “Julia Roberts won Best Actress that year … and I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, Björk is actually getting more from these photographers than Julia!’”
Caulfield: “There are two iconic red carpet dresses [I’ve photographed] that I will never forget: Jennifer Lopez’s green dress [that she wore to the Grammys in 2000] and Björk’s swan dress … Back then, people were wearing, like, Calvin Klein. Now when I think about it, [wearing a swan dress] is like wearing a Warhol!”
The swan dress that will go down in history
The singer gave a tender performance of I’ve Seen It All at the ceremony, although she lost Best Song to Bob Dylan. But the next day, the press largely skewered her whimsical ensemble. One critic said she looked “like a refugee from the more dog-eared precincts of provincial ballet.” Richard Blackwell swiftly put Björk on his notorious Worst Dressed List.
Later that year, Ellen DeGeneres donned a parody of the dress while hosting the Emmys, then Kevin James did the same at the 2002 People’s Choice Awards. Throughout the years, the outfit became a pop-culture punchline, spoofed in White Chicks, Hannah Montana and elsewhere.
Björk remained unfazed.
While she was in Los Angeles, she posed for the cover of her upcoming album, Vespertine, in the same dress. She later told Interview magazine, “I don’t really know why I’m obsessed with swans,” but added that they were “very romantic, being monogamous … Right now, swans seem to sort of stand for a lot of things.”
Bop: “While I was working on the Spring 2002 collection for [Marjan], Björk asked him if she could use the swan dress for the tour. But Marjan said, ‘Let’s try to do something a bit more elevated.’ So we created two dresses. There was a swan dress that was completely embellished with pearls and beads and real ostrich feathers. And there was also a peacock dress.”
From worst dressed list to museum piece
Björk later auctioned her Oscar dress for the charity Oxfam, but Pejoski still has a version, which in recent years has been exhibited at MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2014, Valentino designers Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri paid tribute to the swan dress in their spring couture collection.
Steele: “It’s one of the most famous dresses that was ever worn on the red carpet. [Around that time], actors had started being hyper careful . . . and somehow, [the red carpet] became about everyone being on-brand and on-message. There was much less of the kind of wild creativity that threatened to go off the deep end into total insane fabulousness.
“Look at pictures of Björk on the red carpet – it’s so cool and funny and weird and wonderful. People mocked it then, but we are starting to see the fabulousness of it now.”
Rodger: “Naturally, [the dress] was made fun of. But doesn’t the fact that people remember it more than pretty much any other Oscar dress ever mean that it was a standout? A local store where I live called me before [this past] Christmas, as they got me a glass Christmas tree ornament of Björk in the swan dress. It has become iconic and will be part of pop culture forever – and rightly so.”
This story originally appeared on Page Six and is republished here with permission