To some, Oscar night is more about the fashion than the awards themselves. Much of the audience tunes in to see who looks fabulous, who takes the biggest risks, and–of course–who’s the most egregious fashion disaster. Of the latter, the infamous “swan dress” worn by the Icelandic pop singer Bjork at the 73rd annual Academy Awards on this day in 2001 is among the most notorious.
Born and raised in Rekjavik, Bjork won a radio contest at age 11 and received a contract to record her first album, released in 1977. She first gained international notice as a member of the successful guitar rock band the Sugarcubes, then launched a solo career in the early 1990s. After three acclaimed albums, Debut (1993), Post (1995) and Homogenic (1997), Bjork’s fame had reached cultish proportions by the end of the decade. She was working with the Danish film director Lars von Trier (best known for 1996’s Breaking the Waves) on the score for his next movie, Dancer in the Dark, when von Trier asked her to play the lead character, Selma.
A Czechoslovakian immigrant who works in a factory in Washington State during the 1960s, Selma suffers from a hereditary disorder that is gradually making her go blind. She escapes her daily reality by performing in community theater productions and watching movie musicals with her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), who describes to her what is happening on the screen. Bjork earned critical praise for her portrayal of Selma (writing in the New York Times, A.O. Scott called her performance “miraculous”) as well as the polarizing film’s only Oscar nomination, in the Best Original Song category.
On Oscar night, the ever-quirky Icelandic singer turned heads by showing up on the red carpet in an outfit resembling a dead swan. Over a nude body stocking and above a large white tutu-like skirt, the swan’s neck was draped around Bjork’s shoulders like a shawl, with its head lying on her chest. Bjork took the stage to perform her nominated song, “I’ve Seen It All,” which lost in its category to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” from Wonder Boys.
Other winners at that year’s Academy Awards, which were hosted by Steve Martin, were Russell Crowe (Gladiator) as Best Actor and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) as Best Actress. Steven Soderbergh won the Best Director award for Traffic over Ridley Scott, but Scott’s bloody Roman epic, Gladiator, was the Academy’s choice for Best Picture.