Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one quick read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now.
Lauren Bacall made a great fashion designer.
In the 1957 film Designing Woman (clip below), Bacall created one of her more memorable and certainly most stylish roles as Marilla Brown, a clever New York designer who spontaneously marries a sportswriter, Mike Hagen, and then gets to know him in the usual romantic comedy form. Hagen, played by Gregory Peck, doesn’t seem to know just what he’s gotten himself into when Bacall changes outfits on the flight home from their elopement, from a gorgeously draped dove gray sleeveless dress into a snug navy dress topped with a fur stole and leather gloves.
“Believe me, this kid changed her clothes nine times a day,” he says.
Bacall, who died Tuesday at 89, was a legend in many ways, but her impact on fashion was especially pronounced, so it was fitting that in 1968 she and Bette Davis were the first stars to appear in the Blackgama fur advertising campaign that introduced the slogan “What Becomes a Legend Most?”
In fact, Bacall knew fashion quite well. She began her career as a model in the 1940s, working for dress manufacturers while she entertained dreams of being on stage. “I was still 16 years old and very immature,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But I was full of bravado, and although I really had nothing in common with the other models, I liked them and I made them laugh.”
She described a meeting with Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, an intimidating moment under the scrutiny of an extraordinary character. “Never thought I was a beauty, so I never really expected too much,” Bacall wrote, though she went on to be featured in the magazine, leading to interest from several Hollywood producers and the offer of the role in To Have and Have Not.
In the 1940s and 1950s, she epitomized the classic image of Hollywood glamour, in gowns by American designers Norman Norell and Mainbocher, and with her hair a sleek coif with a slight wave. While her throaty-voiced delivery of a famous come-on line to her future husband Humphrey Bogart, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?” in To Have and Have Not made an inedible impression of Bacall as a force of seduction, to my mind, there is nothing better than watching her swan through a seemingly limitless wardrobe in Designing Woman.
Though the role was originally offered to Grace Kelly, Bacall as a designer was the most believable thing about the film, “a little chilly and forbidding,” as Bosley Crowther described her character in a review in The New York Times. Removing a chic red coat that tied at the neck with a bow to reveal an even chicer little red dress with a boat neck that plunged deeply in the back, she always reminded me a bit of the great mid-century designer Pauline Trigère, though credit here goes to the costume designer Helen Rose, who is also said to have conceived the idea for the film. (Less convincing, perhaps, was her turn as a fashion doyenne in Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear.)
Off the screen, Bacall was a true individual as well. Isaac Mizrahi, in the April 2001 issue of InStyle, remembered her 1979 appearance at the Oscars as one of his all-time favorites: “Wearing a 50-year-old Fortuny dress proved how smart Lauren Bacall was,” he noted. “A smart Jewish girl from the Bronx who knew Norell as well as Loehmann’s. She’s our reference for what smart looks like. Look up ‘smart’ in the dictionary—you’ll find her picture.”
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Note: Eric Wilson is taking a much-needed vacation next week, so look for his next post on Aug. 27. In the meantime, check out the columns you may have missed.