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Fashion|Fashion From Marlo Thomas: ‘That Girl’ Shifts to ‘That Woman’
- Jan. 25, 2017
It was the week before the inauguration, and Marlo Thomas, the actress, author and second-wave feminist activist, was wrestling with whether or not to join her old friend and collaborator, Gloria Steinem, at the Women’s March on Washington. The timing was complicated: Ms. Thomas was about to unveil a clothing line for the Home Shopping Network called “That Woman,” which meant a trip to Tampa, Fla., for an on-air selling marathon, along with a couple of mall appearances, in the days leading up to the march.
“That Woman,” of course, had been named to evoke “That Girl,” Ms. Thomas’s television show from the late 1960s that was a feminist touchstone. Airing from 1966 to 1971, “That Girl” was Ann Marie: a young, single working woman, living alone in New York City, and a proxy for Ms. Thomas.
As part of her pitch to ABC, whose executives warned that the concept just wouldn’t sell, Ms. Thomas gave the head of programming a copy of Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique.” When those same network executives pushed for the series to conclude with Ann and her boyfriend, Donald, a magazine writer played by Ted Bessell, getting married, Ms. Thomas pushed back. Their engagement during the fifth and final season was the compromise, though the last episode found them stuck on an elevator, arguing about who had the most power in the relationship.
Ms. Thomas used her considerable comedic chops to defang the cultural threat posed by Ann’s implicit power as an unmarried woman. (As she learned from her father, comedy can be a Trojan Horse for all sorts of subversions.)
And she used fashion to distinguish herself from her television forebears. She shed the housewife gear, the demure shifts, Peter Pan collars and aprons sported by Lucille Ball, Donna Reed and even Elizabeth Montgomery, for the uniform of the ’60s youthquake — graphic, eye-popping designs from Andre Courreges and Mary Quant — to be followed by the more bohemian accouterments of the early ’70s, like the styles of Halston, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo and Yves St. Laurent.
“That Woman” — a collection of 15 pieces and a tote — is not going to make fashion history. But it is the first commercial product that Ms. Thomas, now 79, has put her name on in decades, and she is proud of it, even though it might surprise those who know her as a founder in 1973 of the Ms. Foundation, with Ms. Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Patricia Carbine, to fund social justice efforts; or as the mistress-mind behind “Free to Be … You and Me,” an album, best-selling book and TV show upending gender stereotypes.
“David Geffen once told me that the problem with having too many options is that if you don’t play one, you might as well not have any,” Ms. Thomas said of her more recent project. “So I decided to play an option. But my way, so I’m in control of everything.”
On this mild Thursday morning, she wore a “That Woman” ensemble: a form-fitting black-cotton sweater that laced at the neck, black jersey pants and her own black ankle boots. The casual clothes might seem to appeal to a younger crowd than the HSN demographic. (The network’s median customer age is 59, according to the company.) But the fabrics were sturdy, not flimsy, and Ms. Thomas, her figure still girlish, made the outfit look wonderful.
That’s the spandex, she said.
“People make decisions about how they should look at a given age,” Ms. Thomas continued. “But I think you should keep in mind how you move and how you sit. I like things that show a little skin somewhere, something that makes you feel, as you’re standing in a room full of men, that you’re not just one of the guys.”
Ms. Thomas sat astride paisley floor pillows in the glassy living room of the Fifth Avenue penthouse she shares with her husband, Phil Donahue, long America’s favorite male feminist and talk-show host. You could see Central Park stretched out in its entirety beyond the terrace walls.
The two fell in love, on the air, in 1977, when she was a guest on “The Phil Donahue Show.” Ms. Thomas has the video that proves it. (You can find the clip on; their fumbling, instant rapport is deeply adorable.) “We flirted for the whole hour, to an embarrassing degree,” she said. “He asked me if I would ever get married, and I said, ‘Never.’ I talked about feminism and why marriage was not a good institution for women, how marriages were only good for one and a half people.”
Ms. Thomas’s traditionally married parents were an example she was not eager to emulate. Her Italian mother, Rose Marie, was a singer with a radio program when she met the comedian Danny Thomas, whose Lebanese background was as patriarchal as her own, so there was no question whose career would come first.
Still, Ms. Thomas and Mr. Donahue started dating the day after the show. At the time, he was living with four sons from his first marriage, to Margaret Cooney (their daughter was living with her mother), frat-house style, as Ms. Thomas recalled. Not only was Ms. Thomas, then in her early 40s, used to living alone, but, she said, “I wasn’t used to that many towels and jock straps; I had never been with a man before who had ‘Dad’ written on his underwear.”
In 1966, when “That Girl” went on the air, the birth control pill was still illegal in many states. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled that contraception in any form could be distributed to single people. As these cases churned through the judicial system, “That Girl” remained so chaste that Donald’s bare ankles were a plot device.
Musing on how culture evolves in fits and starts, Ms. Thomas said, “When I played Jennifer Aniston’s mother on ‘Friends,’ and they talked about the wet spot on the bed, I thought, ‘Oh my God, wouldn’t Donald turn over?’”
How women are depicted on television reached a high point, Ms. Thomas said, with “Roseanne” — Roseanne Barr’s irascible character on the ABC sitcom that ran for nearly a decade starting in 1988. “She was the first woman who dared to be unlikable,” Ms. Thomas said. “Me and Mary were good girls. But Roseanne was a woman who hated her children, who ever says that? She was the Jackie Gleason” of female role models. Like Lena Dunham, Ms. Thomas said, Ms. Barr showed that you can be a role model without being perfect.
Ms. Thomas and Ms. Steinem were introduced by a (male) agent, who proposed a film project in which Ms. Thomas would portray Ms. Steinem when she went undercover as a Playboy bunny. “Boy, I don’t know which one of you I’d like to sleep with first,” he told them in his office, she recalled in her 2010 memoir, “Growing Up Laughing” — except he used a different verb. “Boy, did he pick the wrong two women to say that to,” Ms. Thomas wrote.
Ms. Steinem said later, “Two friends have different memories, but I probably still owe her a script.” Nonetheless, she added: “We recognized in each other two women who were trying to forge a life that was different from what we’d been brought up to do. I can’t express how terrible the 1950s were. You really were brought up to believe your life would be shaped by your husband’s needs and your children’s needs. This made marriage seem a lot like death.”
When Ms. Thomas and Mr. Donahue married in 1980, Ms. Thomas said she felt as though she was abandoning Ms. Steinem. “I wrote her a letter,” she recalled, “saying that this may be the challenge of sisterhood, that we can take different paths.”
Ms. Steinem, whose speech at the Women’s March this month noted the upside of a long life — “You remember,” she said, “when things were much worse” — recalled how for a long time Ms. Thomas, being an actor, had fudged her age. “But when she turned 60, someone reported it. So Marlo said, ‘You can imagine how hard it is to be 60 when you’ve never been 40 or 50.’”
In 2014, Ms. Thomas was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the same year Meryl Streep received hers, as it happens — for her social justice advocacy and her work with the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the free pediatric cancer research and treatment center in Memphis founded by her father.
“I got a flash of my grandparents who were immigrants from Lebanon and came here with their belongings in sacks,” she said. “What would they think of my standing here at the White House? I choked up. I am a second-generation Italian and Lebanese person. Both sets of grandparents were in arranged marriages. I’ve often thought, ‘What would they think of me who took my own sweet time to get married to the man I chose?’ They didn’t have that freedom.”
Though Ms. Thomas had campaigned heavily for Hillary Clinton, she declined to talk politics. (And she had to sit out the Women’s March, it turned out, because of a bug she caught in Florida. “I hated to miss it,” she said. “I marched all over the country for the E.R.A. I’ve marched for pro-choice. Phil and I march together in the Gay Pride Parade. It was hard not being there.”)
“Let me turn this into a comedic bit,” Ms. Thomas said of the election. “I love that people are discovering there’s fake news. If you’re a public person, you’ve been living with fake news your entire life, only you’ve been clawing the walls, asking yourself, ‘Why are they saying that?’”
An article last Thursday about the actress Marlo Thomas applied an erroneous distinction to Ms. Thomas’s fashion line. It is not the first commercial product to bear her name; her given name appeared on a sewing pattern sometime in the 1970s.
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