— Story by Erin Donnelly and Rewind experience created by Tim Chaffee and Quinn Lemmers
Joel Amsterdam remembers well the moment he caught a glimpse of what would become arguably the most infamous Oscars dress in history. Then a publicist with Elektra Records, Björk's label at the time, Amsterdam was at rehearsals the day before the 2001 ceremony, where the Icelandic singer would be performing "I've Seen it All," a Best Song nominee she'd written for the 2000 Lars von Trier musical melodrama Dancer in the Dark. In addition to writing the film's score, Björk played the lead role of Selma, a factory worker with a degenerative eye condition who is desperate to save money for her son to have surgery for the same condition.
Sitting in the singer's dressing room, he turned to her then-manager, Scott Rodger, and asked, "So what is she going to wear?" Rodger gestured at a "crumpled up" plastic shopping bag sitting on a nearby couch. Amsterdam went over, peered into the bag and saw a fake swan staring back at him. "Are you kidding me?" he asked Rodger.
Amsterdam tells Yahoo Entertainment that Rodger's response remains true, even now. "He said, 'Some people will love it. Some people will hate it. But everybody will talk about it.' And how right he was."
Indeed, what's become known as "the swan dress" remains both memorable and divisive 20 years after Björk stepped onto the red carpet on March 25, 2001. While the star had already established herself as a pixieish provocateur both with her alt-rock band the Sugarcubes and as a genre-defying solo artist on heavy MTV rotation, her decision to eschew the standard designer gowns in favor of a feathered creation with a lengthy swan's neck wrapped around her own broke new ground in terms of daring dressing, despite a series of scathing reviews. Long a punchline parodied by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Kevin James, it's come to gain new appreciation for its visionary, unconventional flair pre-dating Lady Gaga's wild wares. It even has its own Wikipedia entry.
"What dress gets its own Wikipedia page?" marvels Melissa Rivers, who was co-hosting E!'s red carpet coverage that year. Rivers tells Yahoo Entertainment that she first glimpsed Björk from above as she filmed from a bridge set up at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium. One thought instantly came to mind: "Holy s**t."
"Everyone was just like, "What. Is. That." the TV personality and former Fashion Police host remembers of the "instantly iconic" outfit. She adds, "When you think of the pantheon of crazy outfits, the swan dress goes even above Cher. That's impressive."
While red carpet watchers hadn't seen anything like "the swan dress" before Björk's memorable moment, the cygnine design actually made its debut a month prior to the 2001 Oscars. That February, Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski included the buzzworthy beaked creation as part of his Fall 2001 collection at London Fashion Week. And while the singer had worn his designs before — including a bubblegum pink frock for Dancer in the Dark's premiere at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, where she won the Best Actress award — Pejoski didn't know she'd be attending the Oscars in his swan look until the morning after the ceremony. "It was a very nice surprise," he told British Vogue.
The dress itself, with its frothy tiers of white ruffles, swan's head draped over one breast and, according to a 2015 interview Pejoski gave to the New York Post, both goose and swan feathers, turned heads on its own merit. But Björk — reportedly with the help of her then-partner, artist and director Matthew Barney — conceived of an accessory that would up the ante: ostrich eggs. Amsterdam recalls being dispatched to on the morning of the Oscars to buy the large ostrich eggs, something he hadn't previously known existed. Ultimately, an assistant procured the eggs from Chinatown, which the singer playfully "laid" along the red carpet, much to the consternation of Oscars security.
"I was very aware when I went to the Academy Awards that it would probably be my first and last time," she later told the outlet CDNow. "So I thought my input should really be about fertility, and I thought I’d bring some eggs.
"I don’t watch many Hollywood films, and being from Iceland, it’s pretty accidental what gets over there," she added. "Most Hollywood films that I watch are Busby Berkeley musicals and ... what’s that movie called with all the swimming? Esther Williams, that sort of thing, so I thought it’d be very appropriate to wear a swan. I guess they don’t do those things anymore, right But it was a tribute to Busby Berkeley and that sort of elegance."
She was somewhat more circumspect in a 2001 Interview shoot which featured her lounging on a giant hot pink swan, telling the magazine, "It's just a dress. I don't really know why I'm obsessed with swans but as I said, everything about my new album is about winter and they're a white, sort of winter bird. Obviously very romantic, being monogamous. It's one of those things that maybe I'm too much in the middle of to describe. When you're obsessed with something, you can explain it five years later, but in the moment, you don't know exactly why. Right now, swans seem to sort of stand for a lot of things."
Amsterdam says her bold Oscars moment was "par for the course" for the "creative" star: "She put almost as much thought into her visuals and how she wanted to come across publicly through her art as she did the music itself."
He adds, "For the Oscars, people are always so staid and even if they take a risk, it's like a plunging neckline or something — it's not like this kind of risk."
It's little surprise then, that it caused such a commotion upon Björk's arrival to the ceremony. The reaction was "amazing — it did exactly what she had hoped," remembers Amsterdam, adding. 'Some people snickered, some people oohed and ahhed and all the photographers went crazy."
He also recalls observing that Björk was getting "more love" on the red carpet than the woman who would go on to win Best Actress that night: Mega-star Julia Roberts, who opted for a more classic look with her vintage black and white Valentino gown.
As for Björk, who paired her fluffy dress with white strappy heels and long, slightly tousled waves, Amsterdam remembers her as seeming "comfortable" — relishing the attention it was getting.
"She wore it like she'd been wearing it her whole life," he says. "And she loved the buzz that it caused."
Björk later performed "I've Seen it All" in the swan dress during the show — singing the nominated song solo, though it was originally released as a duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, and sung with actor Peter Stormare in the film itself — but ultimately went home empty-handed that night. Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed" from the film Wonder Boys won Best Song, the only Oscar nod Dancer in the Dark received despite critical acclaim and the star's Cannes recognition.
As she predicted, the Icelandic star hasn't returned to the Academy Awards since, and her discord with von Trier — whom she accused in 2017 of sexual harassing her during the making of Dancer in the Dark, which he has denied — put a halt to her acting ambitions. She is, however, currently slated to return to the big screen in the upcoming historical thriller The Northman opposite Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman.
The swan dress, meanwhile, has spent the last 20 years as a muse to both the singer and the world at large. Björk donned it again for the cover of her 2001 album Vespertine, wearing different Pejoski-designed variations on that album's world tour. She donated one such version, featuring beaded and chiffon, to raise money for tsunami relief in 2005, fetching $9,500.
More recently, the swan dress is credited with inspiring a tribute from Valentino's Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri at their Spring 2014 couture show, and has been included in both a 2015 Björk retrospective at New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute exhibit for 2019, "Camp: Notes on Fashion."
Once a fixture on "worst-dressed" lists, the dress has come to be admired for its fearlessness.
"It makes me almost wistful for the days gone by when people could make these kinds of decisions and wear these kinds of things and their publicist wasn't screaming 'no no no' at them and they weren't being paid by a designer to wear the dress," Rivers says. "It was one of the last gasps of individuality and someone's actual personality coming through... This is someone expressing themselves in a way that we are still talking about."
Photos: Getty Images, One Little Independent Records/Elektra Records