How Mary Tyler Moore Shaped American Working Women's Style

The Mary Tyler Moore Show ONE TIME USE - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

Michael Kors, Isaac Mizrahi and other designers remember the actress, who died Wednesday at 80, as a model for the working woman with her looks on the the 'Mary Tyler Moor'e show.

It may have been the original Pussyhat. The beret toss in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, wasn't just a style flourish, it was a call to action for a generation who looked to the lead character, Mary Richards, as a role model.

"She could turn the world on with her smile," is how the theme song goes. Moore, who died Wednesday, could do that for sure, just as her character Mary Richards could navigate her way through a newsroom full of sharks. She was a single, independent-minded career woman decades before HBO's Sex and the City was a glint in Darren Star's eye.

Part of it was the crisp and hilarious writing on the show (at the hands of several female television writers), and the lovable cast of "The Six O'Clock News," where Richards was a producer.

It was also her wardrobe, created by costume designer Leslie Hall, who moved from Midwestern Chicago to Hollywood with the hopes of becoming a set designer in the 1950s, only to find that career too sexist, according to Jennifer Keishan Armstrong's 2013 book about the show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic. Landing in costume design, Hall worked on other fashionable shows, Bewitched and Get Smart, before designing costumes for the pilot episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show. She was hired for the full run soon after.

Mary Tyler Moore "set the paradigm for the working woman in the best possible way," Armstrong told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. "Until her show, single women were often portrayed as sad, pathetic or evil. And Mary's personality was key here: She made singlehood glamorous, but in an accessible way: She was the woman we all wanted to be, instead of the woman we all felt sorry for. I would love for younger women to discover this show." (SundanceTV will host a tribute marathon of the show's final season all day on Saturday.)

When Richards arrives in Minneapolis, she's still dressed in the uniform of a college girl — go-go boots, miniskirts and all. But as her character matures, so does her wardrobe, which became a blueprint for women entering the workplace.

"Hall constantly refined Mary's image, dressing Moore like her own life-sized Barbie doll," Armstrong writes in her book, describing the costume designer, a former beauty queen, as a trailblazer. She was responsible for the look of three iconic female figures on TV: Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched, Barbara Feldon in Get Smart, and Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and at one point had several shows going at once. Hall also supervised Rhoda, Phyllis and The Bob Newhart Show, and went on to do Lou Grant. She died in 2016.

The Mary Tyler Moore show also may have marked TV's first fashion product placement deal, says Armstrong. Hall tapped leading '70s career-wear designer Evan Picone to provide all of Mary Richard's clothes. Before that, TV costume designers typically shopped at department stores for their characters' looks.

"Mary's clothing in particular really evolved with her character. She started out wearing miniskirts and boots and ended up wearing some real power suits by the end. Another wonderful detail is that the costume designer would allow mixing and matching, just like a regular woman would do. So you'd see repeats," explains Armstrong. 

The costumes were so popular with women, Hall would answer questions for live audiences before tapings of the show.

America's would-be fashion designers were watching the Mary Tyler Moore show, too, either the first time around, or in reruns on cable TV. Her signature '70s collars, sweater vests, pea coats, flared pants and graphic print shirt dresses helped shape American style, including visions of modern women's work wear in the collections of Tory Burch and others that reverberated in the forthcoming spring 2017 collections. 

Isaac Mizrahi has cited Moore as an inspiration for the colorful, classic clothing he designed for the runway, and for his more accessible collections for Liz Claiborne and Target. On Wednesday, Mizrahi called her "the great democratic symbol of style in my time. It wasn't money or special privilege that gave her style. She made all women feel like they, too, could be stylish and have happy stories." 

Zac Posen, the popular red carpet designer, Project Runway judge and creative director of Brooks Brothers, name-checked both Mary Richards and her best pal on the show, Rhoda, as inspirations for his first women's collection of updated preppy professional wear for the 200-year-old American heritage brand, which debuted for spring 2016.

Michael Kors also has long been a Mary Tyler Moore fan. "She showed us all what a modern woman looked like — smart, talented, funny, stylish at work and at home," he told THR on Wednesday. "When I was growing up, there was nobody else like her."