DESIGNING WOMAN ( 1957 )
Ever since her movie debut in “To Have And Have Not” in 1944, at the age of nineteen, and winning the heart of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall has been captivating audiences for many years with her husky voice, sultry beauty and her prevailing cultism, which has made her the epitome of fashion.
When the subject of fashion in film is discussed, Lauren Bacall often stands as one of the main focal points for the topic, especially since she has starred in an array of motion pictures during the years that really illustrate modish and genteel clothing. One of these films is “Designing Woman”, which is considered to be one of the greatest fashion movies in cinema history, and I can understand why it is. The whole film is like an exhibition of stylish outfits and regalia as Lauren parades around sporting a multitude of different trends throughout her many wardrobe changes in the movie.
Shooting for “Designing Woman” commenced in August 1956, and at the time, Lauren Bacall was dealing with Humphrey Bogart’s exacerbating illness, that would eventually take his life in January 1957. During the months leading up to August, Lauren’s career was having a quiet patch with no film offers coming her way, that even Bogart realized that Lauren was taking a long hiatus away from making movies, and implored her to go out and explore the outside world, which she hadn’t seen much of with Bogart’s ailing condition. Sadly Humphrey Bogart passed away on January 14th, 1957, four months before the films release.
When it was announced that a proposed film titled “Designing Woman” was in the works, and Gregory Peck was to play Grace Kelly’s love interest, but because Grace Kelly was away in Europe preparing for her marriage and becoming Princess Grace of Monaco, Lauren seen this as the perfect opportunity for her to work alongside her close friend Gregory Peck. She immediately called Dore Schary, who was producing the picture, and heavily campaigned for the role, even going as far as cutting her salary in half. Dore Schary agreed, and Lauren was cast in the picture.
The original concept of the film supposedly came from Helen Rose, the creator of Bacall’s wardrobe in the picture, but in truth the story is largely based on “Woman Of The Year”, the first of the nine Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn collaborations. Both films closely resemble each other and have many similarities, apart from a few changes in the storyline. As of the case with “Designing Woman”, Helen Rose was impressed with “Woman Of The Year”, and wanted to adapt it into a fashion extravaganza, so instead she slightly remodelled the plot using her artistic flair by giving it a background dealing with garments.
Vincente Minnelli, who was known for his prestige musicals and grandiose melodramas, placed his directorial efforts into “Designing Woman”, by making it a sumptuous treat for fans of classic cinema. On it’s initial release the film opened to critical acclaim, and it is since considered to be one of Lauren Bacall’s and Gregory Peck’s finest works.
The film revolves around the lives of Marilla Brown and Mike Hagen ( Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck ) a fashion designer, who designs clothes for an array of artistic personalities and a sportswriter, with working class friends, who enthuses in Poker.
During a vacation in California, Mike Hagen meets Marilla Brown. After a whirlwind romance they instantly get married, and endure a brief honeymoon before returning to the East Coast. On their arrival back in New York, they discover that they are not compatible with each other. Mike lives in a cramped and basic flat, while Marilla resides in a Lavish commodious apartment.
Suspicions arise when Marilla encounters a picture of Mike’s former girlfriend, Lori Shannon in his apartment. At first she dismisses the idea that Mike may be involved with another woman, but after a series of altercations, the idea arouses in her head, causing pandemonium in their marriage.
Designing Woman is the true definition of a fashion spectacle that really highlights the contemporary trend of the day, and there is no better star to wear them other than Lauren Bacall, one of the worlds most celebrated actresses, who defined beauty and glamour in every sense of the word.
Making the movie was a dream come true for Helen Rose, the mastermind behind the many different costumes in the film, and as legend has it, Lauren Bacall was one of Helen’s favorite stars to dress. She considered her to have the perfect figure for clothes and a genuine feeling for them, and for someone so versed in fashion like Lauren was, the film gave her the opportunity to really display her artistry for dressing by spotlighting about thirty different wardrobe changes, showcasing a plethora of different styles from casual to formal wear such as a yellow bathing suit to a glamorous mink dress and a striped long skirt paired with a billowy sleeved sheer blouse.
The film also gives you a good glimpse into what fifties fashion was like, and it actually serves as an educational lesson into what they wore back in the era that was known as ‘The Happy Days’. In the movie, Lauren’s character Marilla wore entirely different clothes when she was on vacation than what she wore to work in New York. This statement was noted by Mike on the plane on the way home when Marilla changed into her career wear. From the moment she walked down the aisle in her new wardrobe, Mike said, “The first one in a series of wardrobe changes that never failed to amaze me”. Polished and impeccably tailored, with a clean, classic line and in a wide range of colours.
One of the most hellacious features in the film is the fashion show, which takes place half way through the picture. This particular scene adds that sparkling touch to an already lush production, and in my opinion, it’s one of the most memorable parts of the movie. Firstly Lori Shannon goes to pour Mike a drink, but fearing that she may repeat the same episode as in the restaurant scene where Lori knocks the plate of Ravioli on Mike’s lap after he tells her about her marriage, Mike backs away. Marilla notices this, and develops the instincts that it was her that was the cause of the Ravioli incident. It’s also in this scene where Mike gives the description of his wife’s presentation to a friend and annunciates ” Have you ever been to a fashion show? It’s a sort of a pagan ritual, a ceremonial dance where the faithful sit around sipping tee and worshipping clothes. There is a sacrifice involved too: $1,500 for a dress, $350 for a nightie. So help me! The high priestess of this slaughter was my Marilla.”
As for the gowns, I love all the costumes worn in the picture, but I think my favorite would have to be the part where Mike takes her to a boxing match, and Marilla is wearing the dark ranch mink dress with the black broadcloth, which is very full skirted and worn over a black taffeta bell shaped petticoat. To accompany this outfit, Lauren is embellishing the style by adorning her hair with a dressy headband type hat, which fits comfortably across half of her head. Another one of my favorite gowns is the taffeta full skirt and V-neckline chiffon top accompanied with sparkling jewellery, that Lauren wears when she visits Lori’s dressing room towards the end of the movie.
Helen Rose was one of Hollywood’s most distinguished costume designers from the golden age, who worked with a lot of the worlds most eminent stars. She had spent a large bulk of her career with MGM, and garnered two Academy Awards for her work in “The Bad And The Beautiful” and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow”. She was also prolific at designing famous wedding gowns, and had designed the gowns for Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier, and Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding when she married Conrad Nicky Hilton.
Helen Rose knew very well that each and every actress was different in personality and figure and she knew how to bring out the very best in everyone, but by emphasizing the woman, not the clothes. She once said “I don’t think clothes make the woman. I’m a firm believer that women make the clothes. To me a woman should be like a beautiful jewel and the clothes just a setting, our background. Chic, styled, flattering, but basically simple.”
Fifty eight years since it’s release, Designing Woman stands as a tableau into the world of fifties fashion, and what better star is there to model around in fifties attire other than Lauren Bacall? She was one actress, who no matter what decade it was, she was still able to pull off any style and always did it justice.
It’s also interesting to note that even outside of Hollywood, Lauren Bacall was known for her elegant and formal dress sense, even as she got older. She was not one to venture out in the streets of New York very poorly dressed, wearing dowdy clothes. While she may not have appeared formal all the time, she was still casually dressed in mainstream wear, and she always retained that certain star quality.
Back in 1979, my Mum and Grandma were fortunate enough to see Lauren being interviewed live on the Mike Walsh Show in Sydney. This event was being held by my Uncle’s school, and anybody that were attending that day had a bus provided for them that would commute them to and from the studios, which were in Cremorne. From the start the day appeared to be propitious, and that proved to be correct when on their arrival, Mum was able to push in front of the assembled crowd and obtain front row seats for her and Grandma. They both have great recollections of the day, and growing up they have shared all their memories with me. Mum will never forget how close to the stage she was, and being only inches away she was able to witness Lauren Bacall’s clothing, and she has always said that her dress sense was very formal, and Lauren herself displayed a very eloquent aura. My Grandma remembers that day as if it was only yesterday, and she said that her outfits on the day were very fashionable and very grand.
Being an ardent supporter of Lauren Bacall, I have always been jealous about them having this opportunity, but sadly I was born in 1987, eight years after the occasion. However, I didn’t entirely miss out. Back in November 2011, I wrote Lauren a letter and sent it to her home address, not expecting to hear anything, because Mum after seeing her in person and witnessing her attitude highly doubted that I would receive a reply. To my surprise, four weeks later, I was elated when I came home to discover mail from Lauren Bacall. I instantly opened the envelope to see a plethora of signed and personalized photographs from her. I couldn’t believe it, and I was in a state of shock for a long time, especially with the amount of photos that were personalized. She was very generous to me, and truly went out of her way. Not long after, I wrote to her again, and within a few weeks, she replied back and signed another myriad of photos. For that, I will always be in debt to Lauren Bacall, and I will cherish those autographs for as long as I live.
Below is a tribute that my Grandma amassed on the week of Lauren’s passing last year on August 12th.
This week we lost another of our screen icons, Lauren Bacall. Lauren was an elegant and charming actress. She provided us with many hours of entertainment through her long resume of films, four of them being with her husband Humphrey Bogart. Apart from being headstrong, she knew what she wanted to achieve in life, and went on to accomplish those goals that she set for herself.
My daughter Linda and I were lucky enough to see Lauren being interviewed live on the “Mike Walsh Show” back in 1979. We were even more fortunate to attain front row seats for both of us, so we had a good view as we were right up the front, and we were able to witness Lauren’s beauty and intelligence in the flesh. It was an interesting interview. Lauren was ostentatious, but quite adamant in her beliefs. She had that certain aura about her which left us all intrigued by her. Seeing Lauren was an opportunity in a lifetime and we are both glad that we were present that day.
Lauren will be sadly missed, not only by those who knew her, but by her large plethora of fans world wide. Even though she is gone, her memory will live on through her large spate of films that she has starred in, and through her numerous interviews and guest appearances. Rest In Peace Lauren Bacall.
By Audrey Mayor.
James Stewart and Grace Kelly were intended to be the co-stars of this movie, but when Kelly became betrothed to Prince Rainier of Monaco, Stewart decided not to do it (a decision he later said he regretted), and the leading roles went to Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall.
MGM costume designer Helen Rose came up with the idea for this movie about a fashion designer.
Marilla Hagen: [Seeing the mess in Mike’s lap] What’s that?
Mike Hagen: Ravioli.
Marilla Hagen: Didn’t you care for it?
Mike Hagen: Oh, no. It’s very good here.
Marilla Hagen: I’ll never understand what my husband was doing shoeless in your apartment.
Mike Hagen: So, what’s for dinner?
Marilla Hagen: [realizing] Lori Shannon.
Mike Hagen: For dinner?
Mike Hagen: You’re not crying…?
Marilla Hagen: I’m considering it very seriously.
Lauren Bacall: Born Betty Joan Perske on September 16th, 1924 in The Bronx, New York. Died: August 12th, 2014 in New York. Aged 89.
Gregory Peck: Born Eldred Gregory Peck on April 5th, 1916 in San Diego, California. Died: June 12th, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 87.