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Fashioning Mary—and friends

by Sandy McLendon

WHETHER or not clothes make the man, they do play a large part in making a sitcom. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is perhaps the ultimate example of what costuming can do for a show. The excellence of the wardrobe work made the actors look great, of course, but more than on most shows, TMTMS's costumes help to tell the story.
   When TMTMS was in the planning stages, the first focus was on Mary Tyler Moore. It was a given that such an attractive actress would be fashionably dressed, but Moore's wardrobe took a lot more doing than that. First, the clothes had to reflect the character. Mary Richards was 30, midwestern, earning decent money but by no means affluent, and was working in an office. This meant that clothing couldn't be too expensive-looking or too trendy. Second, CBS specifically asked that Mary Richards not look like Laura Petrie; there was concern that the new show would be seen as riding the coattails of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Third, Mary Tyler Moore has some fashion preferences of her own, mostly ones born of professional experience.
   The character question was solved early on by having Evan–Picone, a maker of better ready-to-wear separates, supply Moore's wardrobe. The Evan–Picone “look” was exactly right for Mary Richards; the line was affordable, well-made, and available everywhere. Each year, the Wardrobe Department at MTM Enterprises met with Evan–Picone and made selections from the upcoming fall season's clothing.
   The choices were mostly separates, with a few dresses thrown in. If you'll watch an entire season's episodes back-to-back, you'll make a startling discovery: the separates were mixed and matched to create different outfits for each episode. Some pieces even carried over from year to year. This realism is especially impressive when you stop to consider that virtually no one would notice it during the show's first run; who remembers a blouse or a skirt from week to week? Later, the Judy's chain supplied Mary's clothing, replacing the Evan–Picone connection.
   There were some technical considerations to be worked out. Patterns couldn't be too small, because small ones create weird “herringbone” effects on television. Colours had to be very well matched and coordinated, because TV lighting shows up the smallest mismatch or clash. And sparkly, glittery stuff was avoided almost entirely—lighting problems again.
   Fortunately for the wardrobe people, Mary Tyler Moore is a star who does not have figure problems. She's tall, perfectly proportioned, and trim as can be. She can wear ribbed knits on-camera, which most actresses cannot, because they accentuate figure flaws. She can even wear the ultimate bane of TV performers: horizontal stripes. In fact, she can wear horizontally striped ribbed knits, and on TMTMS, she did—to the despair of many a less-svelte star.
   Just choosing clothing wasn't enough, either. Fit is everything on TV—a wrinkle or sag that would go unnoticed in real life looks like a disaster on-camera. The mass-produced clothing chosen for Moore was taken apart as soon as it arrived in Wardrobe and fitted to her as precisely as anything in the French couture. And there may have been a little “enhancement”. When movies and TV use off-the-rack clothing, it's not uncommon for some details to be upgraded to make things look better to the camera. A skirt may get a lining so it hangs and moves better. A lapel might be narrowed so it won't overpower the star's face. No one has yet confessed to this tactic on TMTMS, but it happens all the time in movies and TV.
   Mary Tyler Moore used one fashion trick on the show constantly; in fact, she was still using it on 2000's Mary and Rhoda movie. It's the shoes. Moore has extensive training as a dancer, and dancers have a horror of having their feet look large on-camera. The solution is shoes in a light beige colour called ‘nude’. With nude shoes, the feet are the same colour as the legs, so they look smaller.
   CBS's concern with differentiating Mary Richards and Laura Petrie extended to Mary's hair; they wanted a style very different from Petrie's chin-length flip. They got it, courtesy of something Mary Tyler Moore disliked; a long hairpiece called a 'fall'. The fall was a half-wig, covering the fact that Moore's hair was still the same length it had been in the DVD days. Moore's own bangs were used in front, brushed over the fall to conceal where the hairpiece began. It was different—and it had to have been warm wearing under TV lights. Moore got rid of it as soon as the show was established as a hit, going back to the pageboy-length she liked best.
   Next on Wardrobe's list was Rhoda, and Valerie Harper presented a completely different set of challenges. First, Rhoda was sometimes referred to as having a weight problem in early episodes, and Harper didn't really have one. The solution was loose, baggy clothing like sweatshirts. Rhoda's hair was purposely kept just a tiny bit messy to add to the illusion. When Rhoda was found to be just as popular a character as Mary herself, storylines had her lose the “weight”, and Valerie Harper was given an entirely new and attractive look with offbeat tops and skirts and scarves. Rhoda's jewellery helped express the character, too—it was always “artistic” stuff like pottery beads and silver wire, never traditional pieces with gems.
   For Phyllis, Cloris Leachman was dressed in clothing she found very comfortable and easy to live with, which was no surprise, because much of what she wore on TMTMS was her own in real life. Since Phyllis is many times more intense and nutty than Leachman, the clothing was worn differently on the show than it was in its real-life outings. Wardrobe gave Phyllis huge earrings, and patterned hose, and other things the actress playing her seldom wore off-camera. The crowning touch for the Phyllis look was a hairdo featuring a mass of loose ringlets in back; all those fluttering, floating tendrils of hair made Phyllis look even more zany—especially when Cloris Leachman moved her head to react to someone else's lines.
   When Georgette and Sue Ann were added to the cast, they got the full MTM Enterprises treatment, too. Georgia Engel was dressed mostly in pastels, to accentuate Georgette's naïvete. Over the years, Georgette's clothing went from almost juvenile to being nearly as classic as Mary Tyler Moore's, but the colours were always light and young. For Sue Ann, someone in Wardrobe came up with an approach that can only be called wickedly funny—the clothes for Betty White were always larger versions of a sweet-sixteen dress—way too young for the 50-ish Sue Ann. The Happy Homemaker was never going to admit she was over the hill, but her clothes nailed her.
   For the rest of it? The talented costumers on TMTMS had their hands full creating the illusion of a slice of Minneapolis in the sunshine of Studio City. They created or bought or borrowed or rented thousands of items ranging from parkas to chase a Midwestern snow storm, to blue polyester blazers for Ted (with custom-made WJM patches that cost a fortune), to Edie Grant's serviceable suits, to uniforms for mechanics and waitresses, and even vestments for Rev Burns, the pastor who officiated at Chuckles' funeral.
   There were beautiful things like the evening dresses Mary wore on her fancier dates. There were silly things like the cutout dress that Sherry, Mary's hooker cellmate in ‘Mary Richards Goes to Jail’, designed for her. There were outlandish things like the wedding-veil-and-plaid-shirt combo Georgette sported at her wedding.
   In any movie or TV studio, working for the Wardrobe Department is a gruelling task. There's never enough time. There's never enough money. Sometimes the script asks the impossible. And there are rips and stains and weight gained, and shoes lost, and yet the show must go on. To all of you—whomever and wherever you are—who worked on wardrobe for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, go our thanks, because you did such a great job. The instant we saw a new character on the show, we knew a lot about them, because you dressed them so carefully and well. We felt the characters more deeply, because you gave us such great clues outside to what they were like inside. And we believed in the show so much, because you always started with the idea that it should look like real life.
   And it did. Only better. And we appreciate that, every time we tune in. • Sandy McLendon

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  Article copyright ©2001–2 by Sandy McLendon. Site copyright ©1998–2001 by JY&A Media. All rights reserved. This site is not connected with ABC, News Corp., Twentieth Century-Fox and MTM Enterprises Inc. or their divisions. Site broadcast from San Antonio, Tx.