Ray Aghayan (1928–2011)
Costume Designer | Costume and Wardrobe Department | Producer
Trivia: Naturalized U.S. citizen. See more trivia »
Born: Reymond G. Aghayan
July 28, 1928 in Tehran, Iran
Died: October 10, 2011 (age 83) in Los Angeles, California, USA
Oscar-nominated costume designer who dressed Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand
Ray Aghayan was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Lady Sings the Blues, with Diana Ross, above, as Billie Holiday. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex
Now that television talent contests are gussied up to Vegas standards, it's less easy to appreciate the discreet glamour that was the speciality of Ray Aghayan, who has died aged 83. But for 60 years, he guaranteed that difficult divas would arrive on screens and stages projecting perfection. Glamour was so much his habitat that he supervised over a dozen Oscar shows.
His initial diva, he remembered, was even more terrifying than Barbra Streisand: Princess Fawzia of Egypt, first wife of the last Shah of Iran, a woman of movie appearance and wilfulness. Aghayan came from an Armenian family in Tehran, and his widowed mother, Yasmine, designed clothes for the ruling Pahlavi family; the boy, starstruck by Hollywood, was certain he, too, could create, and the amused Fawzia summoned him via her ladies in waiting. She explained to him that she had to wear mourning dress, but didn't want to be extinguished by it. So he drew her "this big black tulle thing trimmed with droopy red ostrich feathers". It was sewn, defiantly worn, and after that no grand dame scared him.
His mother took his cinema passions seriously enough to send him to California to study. In Los Angeles, he dropped out of architecture and into acting, then: "I was directing a play and found we didn't have enough money to hire a designer. So I designed the costumes."
He went into television in the mid-50s, when most of its costuming was re-used from movie stock, or agency hires. NBC or CBS budgets for original commissions were reserved for big variety specials, and Aghayan was confident that whatever the level of luxe, he could supply it. It was steady work, culminating in 1963-64, when he costumed Judy Garland's regular shows. Edith Head had been commissioned, but exited, fast. Garland was trouble. But Aghayan was a fan ("If you can sing like that it doesn't matter how hard you are", he said), and her demands were minimal: she wanted to wear spike heels. As her legs were long and thin, Aghayan thought this was a great idea, and he was sure of the way she should look. "The lady was like the Statue of Liberty: you know what she wears." He defrumped Garland with slacks under over-blouses, simply cut but surface-decorated at $350 a time, to catch the light in monochrome. Garland wore them on her late tours, including the famous 1964 London Palladium gig.
Aghayan in 2008 in Hollywood. Photograph: Charley Gallay/Getty
Aghayan's success meant he needed assistance. It arrived at his door in the form of Bob Mackie, a young designer who sketched better than anyone and became Aghayan's professional and personal partner for life. They shared an aesthetic based on old Hollywood and burlesque – fearless with feathers and rhinestones, but lightened up and styled for wit. Sometimes as a duo, sometimes solo, they produced costumes for Diana Ross in her Supremes days, Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews and Carol Channing – the latter getting a Broadway gown with 80lb of crystal beading, its scarf so weighted that Channing, flinging it over her shoulder, damaged the scenery.
Aghayan never went as far into parody as Mackie, but he did enjoy pastiche in a short movie career, rebranding Doris Day in a mad mod mode for Caprice (1967). The terrible seriousness, and serious terribleness, of Doctor Dolittle (1967) put him off big films, although he and Mackie rallied to Ross and Streisand, picking up Oscar nominations for Lady Sings the Blues (1972) – the shoulder treatments of Ross's dresses amplifying her slight frame to more closely match Billie Holiday's broader form – and Streisand's Funny Lady (1975), the sequel to Funny Girl, a masterclass in bias cut. Aghayan alone had a nomination for Gaily, Gaily (1969), and among his Broadway productions was nominated for a Tony in 1970 for Applause, the musical of All About Eve: he draped rows of fringe from Lauren Bacall's loping frame, to dance in lieu of her feet.
Aghayan campaigned successfully for an Emmy category for costume, and he and Mackie shared the first award, in 1967, for a television movie of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences still assumed that nothing on the box was purpose-made, however, and a member asked Aghayan what he did that was worth recognition, stating: "You shop for clothes and you bring it in and you put on stars and they wear it." Aghayan replied: "I want you, tomorrow, to go to the May Company [a department store] and buy me, and bring here, the Red Queen's costume."
He and Mackie were aware that the studio workrooms of trained craft hands were closing in LA; New York was a long way to go to get 10,000 sequins applied at speed. So in 1968, along with Elizabeth Courtney, formerly of Columbia Pictures, they set up their own Californian atelier, later exporting its output to Broadway. Many showbiz customers also wanted unique dress-up ensembles, at a time when Paris couture was low on handworked glamour. So the duo obliged, a custom-making venture that turned into retail collections in the 1980s. Mackie had the wow factor, Aghayan supplied the subtle flattery. The Costume Designers Guild executive director, Rachael Stanley, said: "Whenever there was a problem trying to make something work, Ray could come in and take a look at it and say, 'Oh, the problem is ...'" The guild gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2008.
Aghayan was asked to advise on the televising of the Oscar shows from the late 1960s. He didn't have a veto over red-carpet choices, but up until the mid-1980s, when couture houses began to fight to place their designs on stars' backs, his recommendation was heeded. By his last Oscars, in 2001, he felt costume design – the dress as character or an extra asset on a charismatic performer – had been overtaken by fashion advertising.
He won an Emmy and several nominations for the Oscar shows, and designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 LA Olympics, with 50 designs mass-produced into 11,000 outfits of white sportswear: happy, summery, the summation of his fantasy America.
Mackie survives him.
• Ray Aghayan, costume designer, born 28 July 1928; died 10 October 2011