Jill Clayburgh died yesterday. I loved her and so did many of you. I know this because people land here all the time after googling "Jill Clayburgh in her underwear."
She was a star of one of my favorite genres of film: the sprawling nineteen-seventies divorce epic. Here's something I wrote about Jill, those movies, and the clothes in them, a while back. If you don't know what to wear right now, scroll down for a prescribed wardrobe.
(originally published June 30, 2008)
I love the New York of 1970s film, a 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.
Jill Clayburgh's character, Erica, in 1978's An Unmarried Woman, is a great example of The Seventies Adult, and that lost New York.
The movie begins with Jill dancing around in just her underpants and sets the fashion tone of the film for me. Her underwear is just that: plain white cotton underwear. Jill is quite lovely, but she is not overly sexualized in this scene, or in the film, though her character is a sexy woman and there is plenty of sex in the movie. There is a difference.
If the same movie was made now, thirty years later, the star would have been in racier underthings, and the camera would have lingered on her breasts, toned abs, etc. Jill's body doesn't looked worked out worked on, or implanted. The sex scenes aren't lit or posed to look like perfume ads.
The wardrobe for Jill's character is brilliant in its normalcy. She wears things more than once and that almost never happens in current American films. A royal-blue, floofy, silk blouse makes a couple of appearances, but mainly she wears neutrals. Throughout the film, she wears a creamy-beige, cashmere, wide-collar, trench, accessorized with a leather shoulder bag and matching gloves in a shade of tan then referred to 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 always puts effort into planning a sensible work wardrobe. When Erica goes to work as a journalist, she wears wide, A-line, mid-calf beige dress, brown boots and a loose, open, brown-plaid, overshirt.
One of my favorite style guides from that 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. This outfit is almost identical to an outfit Jill wears in the film.
As Jill traipses through Manhattan, newly single in Fair Aisle sweaters, beige capes and neutral slacks, I enjoyed the set design almost as much as the fashion. The bachelor pad-loft of one of her suitors is decorated with hanging spider plants; the sunny office of her hippie therapist is furnished with floor-level couches covered in tapestry.
Best of all 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 the 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."