How Bjork's swan dress redefined Oscars red carpet style

Bjork on the red carpet at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards in 2001  - FIlmMagic
Bjork on the red carpet at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards in 2001 - FIlmMagic

For those of a certain age, it’s an outfit etched onto our collective consciousness. Close your eyes and you can conjure up the image: that shower puff of white tulle; the nude, crystal-studded bodystocking; the stuffed bird, like a renegade souvenir from the Alton Towers gift shop. More committed fans might even be able to picture its wearer ‘laying’ six prop eggs on the red carpet. When people said the Oscars were worth shelling out for, it probably wasn’t what they had in mind.

Still, it became the stuff of pop culture legend. A 2008 poll by Debenhams found that it was the ninth most iconic red-carpet dress of all time. But as Björk’s infamous flight of fancy turns 20 this week, it’s time to pay our respects – and ask, what’s the real story behind the swan dress?

Having risen to fame in the Eighties and Nineties, first as part of rock group The Sugarcubes and then with her acclaimed solo albums, the 2001 Academy Awards marked a pivotal moment for Björk both professionally and sartorially. The elfin star was nominated for Best Original Song for ‘I've Seen It All’, from the soundtrack to Lars Von Trier’s phenomenally depressing film Dancer In The Dark, in which she also starred. Gone were her trademark mini buns and hiking boots, and in their place a fledgling style icon.

The swan, meanwhile, began life in the hands of little-known Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski, co-owner of London fashion and homewares boutique Kokon To Zai. Björk had worn one of his designs, a sculptural pink puffball, to the Cannes Festival the previous year. But by choosing the swan dress for the famously fusty Academy Awards, the singer was really sticking her neck out.

Bjork in her famous swan dress on the Oscars red carpet - Getty
Bjork in her famous swan dress on the Oscars red carpet - Getty

“First and foremost, the swan dress clashed with all the dress code understandings of the Oscars red-carpet. It looked more like a costume than fashion,” notes Dr Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén, a Senior Lecturer at Stockholm University and author of the forthcoming book Fashion on the Red Carpet: A History of the Oscars, Fashion and Globalisation. It was, she tells me, all about context. “This dress was disruptive, but it would not have had the same impact if worn at the MTV Music Awards or even today at the MET Gala.”

As well as being short – a rarity for the Oscars, where even Cher’s bare midriff tended to come balanced out by a maxi skirt – the dress also broke with the tacit understanding that celebrities should showcase the most globally renowned designers. “I find it admirable that she decided to stick with Pejoski for the Oscars when she had access to more established designers who were also considered avant-garde, such as Alexander McQueen or Hussein Chalayan,” says Castaldo Lundén.

Why a swan? Was it, as highbrow types speculated, a reference to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? An homage to Marle Dietrich, who attended a costume party in 1935 as ‘Leda and the swan’ from Greek mythology? Was it a political statement about avian welfare, or was the singer fresh off the back of her grade three ballet exam?

Bjork lays an egg - AP
Bjork lays an egg - AP

“I was very aware when I went to the Awards that it would probably be my first and last time. So I thought my input should really be about fertility, and I thought I’d bring some eggs,” Björk later revealed. Sure.

The singer also saw the dress as a tribute to the same kind of old Hollywood glamour that Spike Jonze had captured in her award-winning video for ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’. “Being from Iceland, it's pretty accidental what gets over there,” she explained later that year. “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?"

They don’t, more’s the pity. The fashion press was divided, some praising her originality while others gleefully branded it the biggest faux-pas in years.

TV style critic Steven Cojocaru called the dress “probably one of the dumbest things I've ever seen”, while Joan Rivers quipped: “Later I saw her in the ladies room spreading papers on the floor.” As biographer Mark Pytlik summed up in 2003’s Björk: Wow and Flutter: “The perceived gaudiness of her outfit sent America’s self-appointed doom patrol of fashion-watchers into breathless convulsions; where Bjork was concerned, Oscar night’s most oft-repeated question (‘Who are you wearing?’) had morphed into a derisive ‘What are you wearing?’”

In the year that followed, the swan dress became a pet punchline for comedians on both sides of the pond (I’m sorry, the puns just keep coming). Ellen DeGeneres even hosted the 2001 Emmy Awards in her own version, riffing on the American rule about not wearing white after Labour Day. “I know it’s duck after October, goose before November… I have no idea.”

Ellen DeGeneres, host of the 53rd annual primetime Emmy Awards, appears on stage in a costume similar to that worn by pop singer Bjork at the Oscar Awards the year before - AP
Ellen DeGeneres, host of the 53rd annual primetime Emmy Awards, appears on stage in a costume similar to that worn by pop singer Bjork at the Oscar Awards the year before - AP

But just like the proverbial, Björk remained a vision of calm. “I was actually amazed at how many people thought I was serious,” she said three years later. “C’mon, you don’t bring eggs unless you want to take the piss, right?” John Prescott would probably agree.

The singer even doubled down on the motif, wearing the swan dress on the cover of her album Vespertine and donning it for half of her live tour shows. One version of the dress (two had been made, because every fashionista knows it’s wise to stock up on the most versatile, practical items) was auctioned off for $9,500 in aid of Oxfam in 2005.

The Swan has proved an unsinkable gag. "Björk couldn't be here tonight,” Jon Stewart, host of the 78th Academy Awards, announced five years later. “She was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her." Jokes about the swan dress even became their own punchline, with the sitcom 30 Rock eventually trying to draw a line under the whole affair. “I’m like the following joke about Björk’s swan dress,” announced character Tracy Jordan in 2012. “Tired.”

But below the froth and fun, there was a darker side to the story. In 2017 Björk released a statement about being sexually harassed while working with “a Danish director”, later confirmed to be Von Trier. In that context, her Oscars outfit choice – be it a profound statement on women’s fertility, or just a joyful step into the sartorially absurd – looks all the braver. Until joining the cast of Viking epic The Northman last year, she hadn't made another film.

Pejoski, who only found out that the singer had worn his dress to the Oscars when the photos emerged the next morning, was equally unruffled by the swan-baiting. “Not everybody understands my style," he told Vogue in 2001. "But I don't care about bad publicity. If you are an artist you don't expect everyone to love what you do. And anyway, I love that there has been such an issue. How awful if nobody had noticed the dresses, or made any comment about them.”

Now, two decades on, the 55-year-old singer has 40 million record sales, nine acclaimed albums, five BRIT Awards and countless other accolades under her belt. In 2017 she was awarded the Order of the Falcon, Iceland’s prestigious medal for chivalry and humanity. But to the rest of the world, her name is still synonymous with another noble bird.

Bjork performing in Finland in 2018 - Getty
Bjork performing in Finland in 2018 - Getty

Pejoski, meanwhile, launched his label KTZ in 2003. These days the brand aesthetic is more gothic streetwear than ethereal frocks – but with 272,000 Instagram followers and flagship stores in London and Paris, the association doesn’t seem to have done any harm. In 2014 Valentino even paid tribute, with a swan dress appearing in the house’s Spring/Summer couture collection.

On the red carpet, it’s safe to say that avant-garde style is having a resurgence that even Covid can’t curtail – and this time round, social media is giving each outrageous ensemble more oxygen. But according to Castaldo Lundén, the Academy won’t be welcoming eggs on its red carpet any time soon.

“During the past 20 years, the Oscars red carpet has consolidated a business model of endorsement and branding practices,” she says, pointing to Billie Eilish last year in her baggy, monogrammed Chanel. “This is what I foresee as the near future of the red-carpet, rather than an over-the-top extravaganza.”

Which is a shame, because we love an over-the-top extravaganza. But perhaps it’s better to keep the swan moments rare, so that it still means something when a star deigns to flip the bird at the establishment.

“It's just a dress,” Björk shrugged at the time. Oh, but it was so much more.