Monday, June 30, 2008

Old Movie Beauty: Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman


In 1978's sprawling divorce epic, An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh plays Erica, a woman betrayed, attempting singles bars and self-discovery in Manhattan.

I love the New York of 1970s film, that grownup city populated by adults with bad hair and brown sweaters. The Seventies Adult is a style character in my mind, a mostly imaginary person that I often reference when talking about fashion.

The movie begins with Jill Clayburgh dancing around in just her underpants, and this sets the fashion tone of the film for me. Her underwear is just that: plain white cotton underwear (okay, a hint of lace). Jill is quite lovely, but she is not overly sexualized in this scene, or in the film, though there is plenty of sex.

If the same movie was made now, thirty years later, the star would be in racier underthings, and the camera would linger on her breasts, toned abs, and thong.  Jill's body is not worked out, worked on, or implanted. Her sex scenes are awkward, at times tearful, and far sexier than anything recent I have seen.

The wardrobe for Jill's character is brilliant in its normalcy. Erica repeats outfits, and that almost never happens in current American films. One royal-blue, floofy, silk blouse makes a couple of appearances, but mainly, Erica favors neutrals. Throughout the film, she wears a creamy-beige, cashmere, wide-collar trench, often accessorized with a tan shoulder bag and matching gloves. At the time, this shade of leather was often referred by the pleasingly utilitarian name luggage.

In one fantastic scene, Erica goes to lunch with friends. All are in full Modern Career Gal regalia: blazers, brushed-out roller sets and lavender eye shadow. (By the way, I actually do think lavender is an almost universally flattering color for lids when done with subtlety.) The Seventies Adult put effort into planning a sensible work wardrobe; when Erica goes to work as a journalist, she wears a wide, A-line, mid-calf beige dress, brown boots and an open, loose, brown-plaid overshirt.

One of my favorite style guides of this era is Looking Terrific, by image consultant Emily Cho and soap writer Linda Grover. The excellent illustrations by Catherine Clayton Purnell perfectly reflect The Seventies Adult aesthetic. The outfit in this illustration is almost identical to the workday outfit Jill wears in the film.

As Erica traipses through Manhattan, newly single in Fair Aisle sweaters, beige capes and neutral slacks, I enjoy the set design almost as much as the fashion. Hanging spider plants decorate the bachelor-pad loft of a suitor. Tapestry-covered, floor-level couches furnish the sunny office of Erica's therapist, a maternal hippy.

One of my very favorite parts of the movie is what Jill wears to jog (and run into her ex-husband) by the East River: a beige sweater. Sure, she has on simple running shorts, but I love that people used to exercise in regular clothes. It wasn't to be that way for long. Just two years after this film was made, Cheryl Tiegs crowed over the arrival of high-tech workout wear in her book, The Natural Way to Beauty:

"Leotards and tights are now available in shimmery, synthetic fabrics (Lycra and nylon) and cheerful colors. I have a drawerful, and just looking at them inspires me. Jogging suits also come in a variety of attractive fabrics and designs, and even jogging shoes are now full of life."

Albert Wolsky designed the costumes for An Unmarried Woman. He won Oscars for his work on Bugsby and on All That Jazz, and was also nominated four other times including for Sophie's Choice and last year's Across the Universe.

Just like me, the ladies in the movie are nostalgic for the style that they missed. Lounging on Erica's bed, she and her depressed friend, Elaine talk about old movie stars and the self-confidence they exuded. After a good cry, Elaine looks up from under her Dorothy Hamill cut, and says wistfully,

"I liked Rita Hayworth. She was pretty."