The funny thing about Bjork’s swan dress is: I will never, ever forget it, EVER, but I have never been able to remember exactly when she wore it. I was astonished to see that 2021 happened to be a nice round birthday number, because I would have guessed anywhere from the late ’90s to 2002, maybe 2003; I can’t hold the date as readily as I can the image of the dress itself. It was SUCH a moment — a surprise even somehow from Bjork. Nowadays, Lady Gaga has somewhat inured us to the weird and the wild on the red carpet, but it took a while and a LOT of Internet omnipresence those calluses to build up. Bjork didn’t have either of those things, so she was a shock to the system every time. I often wonder how differently Bjork’s swan would have been received if she’d worn it to the Met Gala. Then again, even the Met hadn’t really grown into itself by 2001, so even Anna might not have known what to do with it, unless she’d randomly chosen E.B. White as the exhibit’s theme. Come to think of it, she needed a bodyguard with her carrying a trumpet and a chalkboard. Really lean in to Louis and Serena, Bjork.

The dress, designed by Marjan Pejoski, appeared in a runway collection rife with other avian references — there is some lovely peacock stuff in there — and actually looked rather better on the runway. It’s fuller somehow, and of course benefits from the kind of dramatic lighting that obscures (or at least renders irrelevant) the support structures behind it. On Bjork, the grim bra becomes a bit front-and-center, and the bird looks more like something she stuffed at home — like something Trey Parker or Matt Stone would have made, a la their replicas of J.Lo and Gwyneth, which it turns out they apparently wore while also on acid (that’s just a brief salacious detail; the essay itself is a really interesting long-read about censorship, Columbine, and the cultural landscape framing the premiere of the South Park movie and the nomination of “Blame Canada”). In fact, it comes across as so semi-homemade that the joke Ellen DeGeneres replica of a few years later somehow resembles Bjork’s more than Bjork’s resembles the actual runway dress. And Bjork’s may even BE the original runway dress. (Two copies were eventually made, because it couldn’t be dry-cleaned.)

Bjork added her own spin to it by dropping six little eggs about the red carpet, which security apparently kept trying to return to her (my lady, even in pre-9/11 airports you weren’t supposed to leave your baggage unattended). As for why she wore it, Bjork has cited a variety of reasons over the years: from wanting what she assumed would be her first and last Oscars appearance to be rooted in fertility; to the fact that she was in the midst of a white-winter-themed album and the snowy swan spoke to her; to fascination with the romance and monogamy of swan love; to wanting to pay homage to the Hollywood musicals she saw growing up in Iceland, a la Esther Williams (swimming!) and Busby Berkeley. They may all be true. It might also be the case that Bjork just has super weird taste and wanted to wear a stuffed swan, or that she knew — despite her later protestations that it was “just a dress” — it would cause a stir. My favorite line on the dress’s Wikipedia page is not the quotes from the likes of Joan Rivers or Steven Cojocaru; it’s the throwaway line that while the New York Observer loved it, “Melissa Etheridge was also reported to have praised the dress.” Well! If The Etheridge has spoken, then so it shall be.

All teasing aside, I appreciate Bjork so much for giving us this moment in fashion history. It took guts. The red carpet just wasn’t as avant-garde or playful a place, and there’s something stunning in Bjork’s refusal to compromise who she is, and what she likes, just for a staid and stuffy old stage. She came to the Oscars as a bird, yes, but also entirely as herself. You don’t have to love the swan to admire that.

[Photos: Shutterstock, Getty]