The Story Behind Valerie Harper's Signature Head Scarves

CBS/Getty Images

Carrie Bradshaw had shoes, Rhoda had scarves — The Hollywood Reporter talks to the woman who gave Rhoda Morgenstern her signature style.

Few TV characters have ever been as legitimately stylish as Rhoda Morgenstern, the authentic, witty, insecure best friend of Mary Tyler Moore who moved to Minneapolis and worked as a window dresser at Hempel's Department Store. Of course, Rhoda came to life courtesy of actress Valerie Harper, who on Wednesday announced she has terminal brain cancer and, doctors predict, roughly three months to live. 

As the spirited 73-year-old actress told People in her announcement: "I'm not thinking of dying. I'm thinking of being here now."

Although 35 years have passed since Rhoda — Harper's Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff — finished its CBS run in 1978, her character's bohemian caftans, signature head scarves and layers of chunky costume jewels feel as "now" as can be. And the story of how Rhoda found her look is as quirky as the character herself. 

"It really came from this woman who was Mary’s stand-in, named Mimi Kirk," explains author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, whose book Mary & Lou & Rhoda & Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic will be released by Simon & Schuster in May. 

"Valerie saw Mimi hanging out one day on set, and she was wearing some drapey, crazy thing with a head scarf. And Valerie turned to Allen Burns (co-creator of Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda) and said, 'What would you think if I did that with Rhoda instead of wearing the schlumpy stuff?'" 

The "schlumpy" stuff — plain sweaters, skirts and vests without much pizzazz — kept Harper's character cornered as the "overweight" friend. But as soon as Harper was ready to kick her small-screen persona's clothes up a notch (losing 30 pounds on Weight Watchers helped, too), Kirk became her assistant and unofficial stylist.

"I made a lot of her jewelry," says Kirk, now 74 and a noted raw foods chef. "I'd also go to her house and get rid of a lot of the wardrobe that didn't feel like Rhoda. She played a creative person, and we had to make her look zippy." 

Although Kirk worked with show costumer Leslie Hill, it was Kirk who scoured swap meets for vintage goods and had them retooled by a designer in Northern California. Even Rhoda's iconic head scarves mostly were made from found fabrics including table cloths and bedspreads that Kirk would cut and tie just so. 

"Not every scarf could tie like that," says Kirk, who never was formally trained in fashion or costuming. "It's about finding the right shape." The scarves caused such a craze that Harper actually approached her friend about going into business. 

"But I was only interested in working on the show," she says. 

A self-professed "late-blooming hippie" who started wearing scarves after reading a story about African dress in National Geographic, the style maker says she never gave much real-time thought to the looks she was creating. 

"It was my style at the time. I'd wear them to work, especially on a bad hair day," she laughs. She's remained close with Harper since the show ended and is mentioned in I, Rhoda, the actress' memoir that was released in January.

Some might even compare Rhoda's scarves to Carrie Bradshaw's shoes. Kirk agrees. 

"A lot of the clothes were just vintage pieces that we put together. But that built the character for her — like she actually was a window dresser."