How it started: one of the most instantly ridiculed red carpet dresses of all time. How it’s going: the recent star of a fashion exhibit at America’s preeminent museum. That’s the story of Björk’s infamous swan dress, which she wore 20 years ago at the 2001 Oscars. Greeted immediately as a joke and placed on every “worst dressed list” imaginable, the dress has managed to stand the test of time as a red carpet statement that exists in its own category.
It’s hard to truly convey the exact type of shock the dress caused at the time. While TikTok kids are currently caught up in nostalgia for the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the truth is that the top veneer of respectable culture exemplified by the Oscars at the time was rather, well, boring. Baby Boomers’ youth had since eclipsed, but they were now entering the peak of their institutional power. Gen X, of which Björk is a member, was enjoying their twilight as the hip, young generation, but the earliest of Millennials were already in college and primed to leave their mark. America was at a generational, and hence cultural, crossroads.
The Oscars themselves had fallen into a weird place. Hollywood was clinging desperately to the idea of the “classic studio Oscar film” with big, big stars, even if audiences were starting to let them go (the first X-Men film had just come out that previous fall, signaling the start of the mega-franchise era). Indie films had only just started making headway into the ceremony, and even then they were usually the type produced by men like Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin.
Hollywood fashion was becoming a bit stale, too. Appearances on tabloid’s worst dressed lists really started to shake everyone (why were we all taking fashion advice from the sorts of magazines that would go on to ruin Britney Spears’s life? No idea). Professional stylists had started to take over. Yet, the problem was everyone’s version of glamour started to seem a bit non-descript and generic.
Then along comes Björk—the iconoclast of MTV’s late-night video blocks with the three-octave vocal range—to the ceremony in a dress that quite literally resembles a swan. She carried an egg-shaped purse, but judging by the reaction, she might as well have laid an egg right in the middle of the red carpet. Comedians would milk it for years (Ellen Degeneres wore her own version of the dress when she hosted the Emmys later that year).
The key to understanding Björk’s move is this: she did not come dressed in such a way to make a splash. It wasn’t a stunt. She was dead serious about it. In fact, she’d also wear the dress on the cover of her next album Vespertine without one ounce of irony. She just really liked the Marjan Pejoski-designed dress. That’s what separates it from other “wacky” red carpet moments. And that’s why it somehow managed to stand the test of time and become something of a cultural touchstone.
“I don't watch many Hollywood films, and being from Iceland, it's pretty accidental what gets over there,” she’s since said. “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."
Besides, what else were we to expect? Björk had already made a name for herself as a champion of avant-garde and offbeat designers, walking for Jean-Paul Gaultier and collaborating with Alexander McQueen. Was she supposed to show up in a respectable silk column gown? Would anyone really have wanted that instead? Wouldn’t the world be more boring?
In the years since, the dress has finally found some respect. It was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Notes on Camp” exhibit in 2019, and in 2014, Valentino paid tribute to it during their haute couture presentation that year. Besides, with apologies to Juliette Binoche, it wasn’t even the worst outfit on the red carpet of the night by any standards.
In fact, maybe the biggest shame of the legacy of the dress is that it overshadows a more interesting conversation: Björk was snubbed for a Best Actress nomination that year.
She only showed up because her song “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark was nominated, but she also starred in that film and gave one hell of a performance. In fact, she won Best Actress at both Cannes and the European Film Awards that year and had been nominated for the award at the Golden Globes. But the Oscars weren't quite bold enough to fully recognize her. Like we said, everything was sort of boring back then.