Doris Day, who died Monday at age 97, appeared on screen as a wide range of characters in an even wider range of costumes from buckskin and bandanas (in 1953’s “Calamity Jane”) to a thigh-grazing, heart-festooned pair of short pajamas (in 1957’s “The Pajama Game”), with a costume warehouse full of clothes including (but far from limited to) elegant, white one-shouldered gowns, exploded houndstooth check jackets and flouncy peignoirs in between. But Day’s lasting fashion influence — beyond the screen — was cemented with a troika of movies that cast her as a powerful woman in the workplace in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
In “Teacher’s Pet” (1958) she played a journalism teacher dressed by eight-time Oscar winner Edith Head; in “Pillow Talk” the following year she was an interior designer clad in costumes by Bill Thomas with gowns by Jean Louis. And in 1961 she portrayed an ad executive dressed by the mononymous Irene in “Lover Come Back.”
In each, a flurry of spectacular costumes seemed to empower Day’s characters, who glided elegantly through every workplace scenario, accessorized with her sunny disposition and can-do attitude. Whether it was in a white column gown accessorized with a white fur shrug and white opera-length gloves, a navy blue, notch-lapel suit dress or a voluminous butter-yellow dressing gown, she was the working girl before “Working Girl” and a Mary Tyler Moore-level striver long before “Mary Tyler Moore.”
It was a legacy that ended up following Day from the big screen to the small one too. From 1968 to 1973, Day starred in the CBS sitcom “The Doris Day Show,” which followed her trials and tribulations as a ladder-climber at Today’s World magazine. According to The Times archives, Day was presented the American Working Girl Award (by Fashion Wagon, a division of the Minnesota Woolen Co.) on the set of the series in 1972. The group’s then-president, Richard Polinsky, noted the honor was “because through her portrayal of a magazine associate editor of ‘The Doris Day Show’ she symbolizes the modern woman in the world of business.”
“Her on-screen personality — her posture, her makeup, her costumes — was the whole package, and what American women of the late 1950s and early 1960s were trying to emulate,” said Christina Johnson, the associate curator for the FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising museum. “In ‘Pillow Talk’ she wore a number of trim suits, with perfect accessories — so I can see professional women would want to emulate her — and she also represented the traditional girl next door.”
Johnson says it was this latter persona that made her look popular — particularly among other women — at the time.
“Today we have so many different versions of femininity to draw on,” she said, “But at that time there was really only one or two that was an option for a woman — no matter her background. One was [the one Day represented] and the other was Marilyn Monroe as her on-screen antithesis. Those were your only two options — at least that’s what the filmmakers and the publicity machine would have you believe.”
Victoria Brynner, a Beverly Hills-based consultant whose Stardust Brands connects fashion and luxury brands with creative talent, was one of the many who noted the actress’ death on Instagram, and she singled out that aspect of Day’s on-screen style as well.
“What was amazing about her, I think, was that she had the singing ability and the comedic capabilities but didn’t show cleavage,” Brynner said. “She was incredibly stylish, she looked fabulous but she wasn’t a sexpot. She knew how to do the body line — the cigarette pants, the skirts. She always had a very nice sort of ankle and leg, but there’s not a single picture of her with cleavage.