Mr. Blackwell, a designer of over-the-top fashions and originator of the outlandishly satiric, but globally ballyhooed worst-dressed list, which likened Elizabeth Taylor, a frequent honoree, to a dirigible and called Julia Roberts “Godfather III in drag,” died on Sunday in Los Angeles.
In his extravagantly solipsistic way, Mr. Blackwell (as Richard Blackwell chose to be known) said for years that he was somewhere between 39 and 100 years old, and looked even younger if you squinted. But the fact is that he died at 86 of complications of an intestinal infection, his publicist, Harlan Boll, announced.
Understatement, of course, was unknown to Mr. Blackwell, who once designed bejeweled toilet seats, which failed to sell because they were uncomfortable to sit on. His autobiography began: “Multifaceted as a Cartier diamond, razor-tongued as Noel Coward, volcanic as Vesuvius erupting, wickedly controversial as Paris in the ’20s.”
In fact Mr. Blackwell really did marshal grit, ambition and his fabulous, completely unselfconscious, ultimately charming immodesty to climb from poor Brooklyn boy to stage and movie performer to radio and television personality to talent manager to fashion designer to author. In an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1991, he described this persona as “planned” and “programmed” — right down to four or five face-lifts, depending on the telling.
In the 1995 autobiography “From Rags to Bitches,” he wrote that he aimed “to become my most unforgettable creation; king of the caustic quote, arbiter of good taste and bad, the ultimate mix of madness, marketing and media attention.”
Mr. Blackwell could not have cared less that almost nobody, particularly in the fashion industry, took his annual lists, 48 in all, very seriously — as long as everybody read them. And how could they not? Diana Ross, he said, was “a Martian meter maid”; Martha Stewart dressed like a “centerfold from the Farmer’s Almanac”; and Ann-Margret was “Marlon Brando in a G-string.”
Poor Miss Taylor, in another version of his list, “looks like two small boys fighting under a mink blanket.”
The name Blackwell was given to him by Howard Hughes, the mogul-cum-producer who at one time signed Mr. Blackwell to a movie contract. The use of Mr. as a first name came in the late 1950s to go with Mr. Blackwell’s new ultraglamorous clothing line.
But he had real ideas and accomplishments to back up this lovingly sculptured identity. He claimed to be the first to present a line of superfeminine women’s clothing on television, an assertion that seems to have provoked little argument, as well as the first to make designer jeans for women, a more controversial statement.
If Mr. Blackwell was not the first designer to make his line available to plus-size women, he certainly was among the most noticed. He made dresses up to size 46 and shaped them to accent the curves of the feminine figure.
The New York Times in 1963 quoted a buyer from San Antonio as saying, “When he designs a dress, he keeps in mind how a woman wants to look across a table.”
Richard Sylvan Selzer was born on Aug. 29, 1922, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, where he was reared. He so feared his stepfather that he slept in the alley with a broken bottle to protect himself. He wrote that he was a child prostitute in Central Park, but told his mother that he made money by walking rich people’s dogs.
He also made hats for wealthy socialites in his attic and took on small acting jobs. He, his mother and brother took the streamlined Super Chief train to Los Angeles, where he continued his career as a child actor, sporadically going to school with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. His part in the movie for which he changed his name, “Vendetta” (1950), landed on the cutting-room floor.
Mr. Blackwell eventually left acting to be a Hollywood agent and began to design clothes for his clients to emphasize their sexy figures. He started the House of Blackwell in 1958. By the early 1960s he was making clothes for Jayne Mansfield, Jane Russell and Nancy Reagan, among others.
Mr. Blackwell’s partner in both the talent and fashion businesses was Robert L. Spencer, who was also his personal partner for many years. Mr. Spencer survives him.
Mr. Blackwell’s popular success as a designer prompted interest in his first worst-dressed list in 1960, and his acid wit long sustained it. But another list, one in which he sincerely praised the best-dressed women, provoked only yawns. “Who’s going to print anything sweet?” he asked.
In the 2008 list, Victoria Beckham placed first among what Mr. Blackwell called “10 Titans of Taste-Free Terrors.” Presumably referring to skirts, he bitingly noted her “skinny-mini monstrosities.”