No doubt Mary Richards’ clothes make a huge impact. Costumer Leslie Hall often hogged a good portion of the audience warm-up time at weekly tapings just answering questions about Mary’s gorgeous working-girl-but still-feminine duds. This couldn’t be clearer than in the third-season episode “What’s Mary Richards Really Like?,” about a vitriolic male newspaper columnist wanting to interview Mary about being the only woman in the newsroom at WJM. (You can watch the whole episode on Hulu here.)
This script was written by bombshell Susan Silver, who, just to give you some context, was interviewed for a similar article at the time about being a female comedy writer, and it ran under the headline “The Writer Wears Hot Pants.” And yes, she posed for the photo next to her typewriter, in hot pants, and looked great. Hilariously, the first third of this entire episode is essentially about Mary’s clothes. She starts out in her apartment trying on a gorgeous fire-engine red dress and scarf when Rhoda brings her a matching purse to borrow. “When I want to wear my purse, can I borrow your dress?” Rhoda cracks. “And your figure?” Mary wonders if she should wear something more conservative for the interview and pulls out a suit, though Rhoda says that will make her look like an usher. (She is correct.) Rhoda asks if the interviewer is a man, and when Mary says yes, Rhoda pulls out a silky purple number, suggesting Mary wear just that. “It’s a blouse,” Mary chides her.
Mary shows up at the office in the next scene wearing an Annie Hall-style, men’s wear outfit: a checkered blazer, collared shirt and tie, and black pants. I think she looks chic: It’s tailored right to her considerable curves, so it has a particular impact. Most of the guys at the office, however, don’t get it: Murray tells her it’s “cute” because it’s like a suit he just bought his son, and Lou orders her not to wear pants to the office anymore (!). Incidentally, our dimwitted hero, Ted Knight, actually compliments it without irony.
And for the record, the interview goes well anyway — and by well, I mean the interviewer asks her out, so he doesn’t seem to mind the suit. There’s also this sequence that would twist the mind of any modern feminist into knots (I’m still getting over it) wherein Mary ends up transcribing her own interview for the guy because his tape-recorder breaks and she knows shorthand but he doesn’t. She has to type it up for him, of course, because he can’t read her notes — “Can you get it to me by 3?” he asks. “I have a deadline.” But, of course, that’s exactly why I love this show — the contradictions and complications of being a liberated woman are endless, and, alas, timeless.