Before his death in 2008, Mr. Blackwell; formerly known as Richard Sylvan Selzer, or Richard Blackwell was a jack of all trades. He was also a self-made celebrity, but it wasn’t his time on Broadway, or his career as a fashion designer that made him famous. He gained most of his fame and notoriety as Tinseltown’s first, self-appointed fashion critic. And by writing annual lists about the best and worst-dressed women in Hollywood.
From Rags to Bitches: An Autobiography
Richard didn’t always drive a white Rolls Royce or live a posh life in Hollywood. According to his autobiography, From Rags to Bitches (1995), he grew up in the slums of Brooklyn, New York, and experienced a childhood full of poverty, neglect, abuse, crime, and prostitution. Then once a teenager, he moved to California to pursue a career in acting, but since he had no formal education past the third grade, he had a difficult time landing his first role.
Then Richard met Howard Hughes; an elite Hollywood film producer and his luck on Broadway started to improve. He changed his last name to Blackwell, received a contract to work with RKO Pictures, and began training alongside some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, such as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
House of Blackwell Dresses to Impress
In 1958, Richard left Broadway and opened a talent agency for aspiring cabaret singers with his life partner, Robert Spencer. Then he launched his own clothing line known as House of Blackwell, which became his saving grace. His exquisite dresses caught the attention of famous celebrities, politicians, television programs, radio stations, and magazine publications alike. His business grew, and once he started dressing famous people, such as actress Jayne Mansfield, and first lady, Nancy Reagan, nothing could stop him. He loved all the publicity and began referring to himself as Mr. Blackwell.
“Mr…because it was very dramatic. He tried to create a character.”Lisa Santandrea | Parsons School of Design, New York
He then worked with Lane Bryant to create some of the fashion industry’s first plus-size fashions and earned his own television show; The Blackwell Show.
“The fashion designers have said that fashion ends at a size 12, but I don’t believe so.”Mr. Blackwell | The Blackwell Show
“The Mother of Negativity”
During a television interview with host Skip E. Lowe, Mr. Blackwell referred to himself as, “The mother of negativity” because his lists “gave birth to negativity.”
In the 1960s, American Weekly contacted Mr. Blackwell to write an article about fashion in Hollywood. He agreed, but then he began creating his own best and worst-dressed women lists.
At first, the lists caused a lot of tension, but then some women started looking forward to seeing their name listed. Some even resented Mr. Blackwell if they weren’t on the list because it meant free publicity and worldwide press coverage.
“Why is it rude to critique fashion? It’s one of the arts. We critique painters, dancers, singers, musicals, plays, directors.”Mr. Blackwell | Television interview (1991)
Mr. Blackwell: 30 Years of Fashion Fiascos
In 1991, Richard Blackwell published Mr. Blackwell: 30 Years of Fashion Fiascos, which is a compilation of what he calls, “fashion faux pas committed by some of the world’s most famous women.”
“You gotta read this book without being defensive. Enjoy this realizing that I’m only critiquing the clothes they’re wearing. I’m not pulling down the stars.” NBA Finals | Half-time commentary with Brent Musburger
Mr. Blackwell didn’t professionally critique men’s fashion; however, men weren’t immune from his criticism. When male NBA coaches started wearing designer suits onto the court, he didn’t bite his tongue.
“If I were to pick one man who probably makes the boldest international statement for good taste, I’d say it’s Pat Riley. The award for the worst of all of them goes to Mr. Frank Layden.”
Was Mr. Blackwell a Feminist, of sorts?
Mr. Blackwell’s fashion faux pas lists seem to cut down women, but his true personality was the opposite. He wanted to empower women and help them wear clothes that match their beautiful image.
“These women are intimidated. Fashion comes out with a statement…and they (women) will wear it even if they know it’s ugly…”
“They’re so afraid that their peer group – the other women, who doesn’t give a damn – isn’t going to approve of her. So, she’s gotta wear what’s in all the fashion Bibles.”
“I resent the intimidation by the industry. I don’t resent the women.”
A Legacy of Self-Awareness and Truth
In 1997, Mr. Blackwell received a Golden Palm Star for his contributions to the fashion industry. He rarely bit his tongue, and he took pride in delivering his honest opinion about women’s fashion in Hollywood. However, he still had his own insecurities.
One of Mr. Blackwell’s biggest fears was being forgotten. So, despite all his years as a Broadway actor, a Hollywood fashion designer, and Tinseltown’s first, self-appointed fashion police, he never thought he did enough to leave a lasting impression. He was a perfectionist, of sorts, and always strived to be better and do better in life.
“You spend your first half of your life proving something. You spend the last half of your life defending what you just proved.”
Will Broadway See More of Mr. Blackwell?
In January 2008, Mr. Blackwell released his 48th annual worst-dressed women list, then died later that same year. But before his passing, he gifted 100 of his elegant dresses to his good friend and publicist, Harlan Boll. Harlan has donated some of Mr. Blackwell’s infamous lists and drawings to the Hollywood Museum, but he doesn’t want to part with any of the dresses just yet. He says he wants to get the dresses back on Hollywood’s red carpet, but he’s still trying to figure out the best way to do that.
“I want to go back to Broadway. I want to do cabaret. I want to see the biography done, made into a movie; hopefully a play, and then I’d like to go back to Broadway and do a cameo part.”
Mr. Blackwell’s movies, dresses, and lists created a legacy for himself in the fashion industry. But now that he’s gone, it’s up to all his fans and friends to help remember him. Some famous people, such as Roger Stone and Joan Rivers have become a new generation of fashion police, but perhaps recalling Mr. Blackwell’s own words and last wishes is the best way to honor him.