Mary and Rhoda, Fashion Icons

This is from the working manuscript of my forthcoming book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted:

Anyone who wondered where Mary Richards got her chic sense of style—and many young women across the country wanted very much to know—stopped wondering when they saw Leslie Hall. The former beauty queen kept the trunk of her Plymouth stocked with clothing, sewing kits, and other emergency fashion supplies, and she kept herself dressed in the kind of fitted pantsuits, trench coats, flared slacks, and tailored blouses Mary’s character was becoming famous for.

Hall, who was married to an actor, grew up in Chicago and moved west as a young model to seek work as a showgirl. After her divorce in 1953, she went to work in live TV at CBS Television City. Though she’d hoped to be a set designer, she settled for costume design when she found the set world impenetrably sexist. Soon she was working on television shows such as 77 Sunset Strip and in feature films such as Bye Bye Birdie and The Music Man. Her big break came when she dressed Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched, which led to work on the fashionably influential Get Smart.

Hired as the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s costume designer for the female cast members after the pilot episode, Hall constantly refined Mary’s image, dressing Moore like her own life-sized Barbie doll. She would whisper her disapproval of the smallest details about Moore’s outfits whenever she hadn’t dressed the star. As she sat watching the Emmys on television with her young son, Gary, she’d scoff at how horrible she thought Moore’s taste was. No one else did—Moore was a fashion idol dating back to The Dick Van Dyke Show, after all—but Hall had an impeccable eye. She couldn’t tolerate anything outside the bounds of her own refined taste.

Hall felt at home on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was spirited and funny like the main character, and a trailblazer in her own industry. The costumers’ guild awarded “cards” to members, rating them according to experience: 1-3 ratings had been reserved for men and 4-6 had been reserved for women until Hall made the first female 1.

Hall also brought an innovative idea to dressing Mary Richards: She decided to make a deal with one designer to provide all of the character’s clothes for the season’s 20-plus episodes. This approach would expose the clothing to a wide audience and provide the character with a realistic, consistent, and stylish wardrobe. Evan-Picone, known for its ready-to-wear, career-oriented separates, would match Mary’s character perfectly. Before that, costumers had simply gone to department stores and bought clothes that they would tailor to their actors. Hall’s Mary Tyler Moore deal marked TV’s first fashion product placement of sorts. It also marked one of the first instances of a character so realistic that she re-wore the same pieces, mixing and matching from episode to episode. Mary’s mini-skirts and tasteful sweaters, tailored slacks and shirt-dresses, would reappear throughout a season.

During the audience warmup before every Friday-night taping, so many questions came up about the clothes that Hall would routinely come out and answer fashion inquiries for 20 or 30 minutes before the show. And Hall’s ideas made such a splash in the costuming world that the giant William Morris Agency offered to “package” her as they had the similarly talented Rita Riggs, a close friend of Hall’s who handled all of Norman Lear’s shows. Riggs went on to handle several shows at a time with a team of assistants, but Hall declined. She didn’t want to become a corporation.

Moore’s stand-in, Mimi Kirk, made a fashion splash of her own on the show, though she’d never get an official credit from the costuming department. The tall brunette with ice-blue eyes had assisted the star as her lighting double and secretary from the show’s early days and always dressed in elaborate gypsy-style fashion. A widowed mother of four young children, Kirk had gotten heavy into meditation after her husband died in a private-plane crash. And she took on many of the accoutrements of the health-food and self-help culture she’d adopted, including the flowy, hippie wardrobe. She loved clothes made out of scarves and tablecloths and even bedspreads. On a typical day at the set, she wore jeans and Frye boots, floaty tops and huge earrings, and the occasional head scarf.

While Harper spent the first episodes trying to look extra-chunky in baggy, store-bought clothes, she admired Moore’s business-girl wardrobe and wished her character could develop her own distinctive look. One day as she watched Kirk on the set, Harper asked Burns, “What would you think if I went that way?” Rhoda, she reasoned, thought of herself as an artist even though she was a window dresser, and dressing like Kirk would provide a nice contrast with Mary’s tailored look.

Burns encouraged her to experiment with the idea, so she wore a cardigan and had Kirk tie it at the waist for her. She tweezed her eyebrows thinner and at Kirk’s urging tried a headscarf, specially twisted and tied around her head by Kirk. Soon Kirk became Harper’s assistant and Moore hired a new one. Kirk made clothes for Harper—scarf-like tops, a purse made out of an abalone shell. She coordinated with Hall, but brought in more and more clothing for Harper, eventually giving all of her scarves to the actress.

Kirk embroidered constantly, sitting with Moore and Harper as they needlepointed on the set—a common ‘70s hobby—and even embroidered a shirt for Brooks. Harper upgraded her own everyday wardrobe a bit to match her character’s, having lacked any specific sense of style before that. Now, as more young women imitated Rhoda’s headscarves, she, too, became a fashion icon. The headscarf—an idea Kirk had lifted from a photo spread she saw in National Geographic—had become a national trend. So much so that Harper suggested to Kirk, “Why don’t you make these scarves and sell them?” But Kirk preferred helping her friend look great as Rhoda, nothing more.

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for this great info. I have recently discovered MTM reruns on Direct TV and had forgotten how very wonderful the clothes were. Looking for information on who was responsible for the fab outfits I came across your blog. SO interesting!

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