She had us at the hat toss.
Mary Richards was a modest Midwestern girl, to be sure, but she had style, and she had spunk, as her new boss, Lou Grant, pointed out the day she walked into the WJM-TV newsroom in her white go-go boots, a pleated miniskirt and those impeccable manners.
When she threw her tam in the air during the show’s opening credits, we knew she was thrilled to be single and on her own in the big city of Minneapolis. But as the series unfolded, and we watched Mary Tyler Moore’s most famous character dress for work in the uniform of career women all over the country – the clingy knit dresses, the matching color-block pantsuits, the Evan Picone separates – she showed us her heart was in that newsroom.
Moore died Wednesday in Greenwich, Conn.
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There was a cultural sweet spot in the 1970s, as the old social mores unraveled (along with the “sweater girl”) and women flexed new muscles as working women, divorced women, women committed to the single life, newly conscious women – to use the parlance of the second-wave feminist playbook – and fashion reflected the fluidity of that time.
As women were reinventing themselves, fashion helped them along. Clothing, even in the office, was colorful and personal; those jersey dresses and knit pantsuits moved with the body. And they were womanly. Mary’s inherent authority – that moral compass – was never compromised by the fact that she dressed in the basic idiom of her gender. (By the next decade, that freedom would be snuffed out, and working girls would ape the rigid suits of their male competitors, but that’s another story.) And like all working women, she wore the same outfit more than once, and so her wardrobe became as familiar as our own.
Her predecessor, Ann Marie of “That Girl,” played by Marlo Thomas, was our first television singleton but paired from the get-go with her boyfriend, Donald. She made her debut in the 1960s, a period that for women on the small screen was still the dark ages.
Mary Richards had boyfriends, but they were ancillary to her real life, which played out at work.
Looking back at both shows, the clothing displayed the maturation, or the evolution, of the female television avatar. Ann Marie dressed almost like a child in the show’s early episodes, in the cartoonish, youthquake fashions of Mary Quant and others, which Thomas brought with her from London. The bunny hat notwithstanding, Mary Richards looked like a grown-up.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” always embraced the real world, and as it unfurled, that world grew a little darker, as did Mary Richards’ clothes. In the final episode, the newsroom is under assault: Ratings are low, and Mary and the gang are fired. But Mary is armored. Clad in a navy blue jumpsuit, like a fighter pilot, her hair cropped to her shoulders, she is strong enough to say goodbye and turn out those lights.