In the 1995 documentary "Unzipped," fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi is asked why he admires Mary Tyler Moore. He quickly replies, “Because I’m American.” “Basically, between her and Jackie Kennedy, they shaped this country,” he elaborates. “It’s what shaped America’s whole taste level.” The Fall 1994 collection he creates in the film is, in part, an homage to Moore’s onscreen wardrobe on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and included a house remix of the show’s iconic theme song in its soundtrack. Here the designer reflects on what Mary Tyler Moore and Mary Richards meant to America and to him personally:
Usually, the death of a loved one is sad for a number of reasons but mostly for how it points out the passage of time. I watched episodes of The Dick Van Dyke show in reruns when I was a little boy, I was nine when The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted and by the last season I was a teenager. By that time I felt like Mary was a member of my family. Watching her all those years educated me and filled me with wishes about the future.
One of the most important things I noticed is that in every way, whether as Laura Petrie or Mary Richards, there was a kind of integral and positive feminist message. Neither show ever gave way to rancor or anger. There were a few times her character was tested, and her reactions were always pitch-perfect. She never gave in. In a world of angry feminists (I am an angry feminist) the characters she played were not. She was fiercely protective of her space as a woman and any sort of negativity was countered by stories about women with happy, self-realized endings. They were stories about how great it is to be a woman. A woman. W-O-M-A-N.
The greatest thing that we got from her was a kind of American democratic ideal. Her characters represented something that every woman could achieve, whether through her life choices or just through her wardrobe, and we hadn’t quite seen that on television before. Mary Richards had no privileges, very little money, but she was still extremely stylish. It was TV realism. You could tell that the character knew how to shop. It wasn’t about finding bargains or wholesale clothes. She picked out five or six available dresses and two or three smart pantsuits every season and wore them continuously. On TV now there are no characters I can think of who wear the same clothes twice. It’s disturbing to me. I always hope people love their clothes enough to actually own them. To be passionate about them. At least enough to wear them more than once.
She was the mistress of her clothes. She wore them well. The clothes she had were solid, okay? At times lovely. But they looked sensational on her, which was the most important part. She had a great body and a good eye—no one could do more for a white shirt and black Capri pants than Laura Petri. And no one better than Mary Richards in a Glen plaid pantsuit. It was a big part of my fashion education. Watching her and other women around me, it wasn’t necessarily about what they were wearing but how they were wearing it. People were taught how clothes were supposed to fit, to flatter their own bodies. Now, heaping on layers of irony seems to be what it's all about, which is not a bad thing, it’s just becoming a bit of a bore.
I miss Mary’s sense of restraint. I miss her excellent shoes the most. Her shoes were always chic and functional. They made her look smarter. I’m as much a lover of Limo shoes as the next guy but mostly I believe people need to walk in shoes—sometimes run in them. Mary was never prey—symbolically I mean. If you can’t run in your shoes, you’ll eventually be caught.
These days style seems to be defined not by how well you wear your clothes but how many clothes you have—or can borrow. It’s less about collecting clothes you love and more about acquiring stuff, wearing it once and throwing it away. Wearing the same thing twice means you're giving up. On TV today, you’re either Erika Jayne of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, or you’re Rainbow on blackish. Both very stylish women—Erika Jayne, usually wearing something crotch-length with thigh high boots and followed around day and night by a team of hair and makeup people. Or Rainbow Johnson, who’s style seems a bit more down to earth, but I don’t think I’ve seen either of them wear the same thing twice.
So many of these TV characters and even real women today are caught up and driven by pop culture. Mary Richards wasn’t about that. She moved to Minneapolis to escape all of that.
In The Mary Tyler Moore Show, there’s usually a MacGuffin in the plot—something horrible that has happened to Mary before the show. Like a bad break-up or the death of a loved one. The open of the show portrays her progress to her new life. Every week we watch her drive in her chic Mustang to Minnesota on her way to a second chance. One gets the sense that she’s picked the most far-away place she can think of. It’s cold there. The show acknowledges a kind of melancholy. Life is maybe a bit of a bore. But she proved to us again and again that if you put yourself into your world in the right way, if you pay attention to your own story, you can find the right people and the right place and be happy. And it doesn’t take great talent or even an above average intellect. It’s there for the taking, for all of us. She’s happy not because she’s living a cosmopolitan dream but because she’s finally surrounded herself with people for whom she really cares for and who really care for her. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the first examples of someone choosing her own family that we saw on television.
When the show went off the air I realized as soon as it was gone how valuable it was. There was never a bad episode of that show, and there’s really been nothing quite like it since.
I didn’t know Mary personally too well. We met a few times and I knew she liked Unzipped a lot. I found out Mary passed away when a friend texted me a picture of her wearing one of my coats in a fashion spread, and I didn’t understand at first. Then I Googled. I literally gasped and began to cry.
I thought about the passage of time, who we were in 1970 when The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. The promises about the future, and how we’ve fallen short. But then I thought of Mary and her positive outlook. It is a better world now.
And Mary had a big hand in shaping it.
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