How Mary Tyler Moore Changed TV’s Dress Code for Women … by Wearing Pants

Years before she personified the single working woman, she alarmed advertisers with a symbolic fashion choice

Mary Tyler Moore helped break barriers by playing a single, working woman on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” beginning in 1970. But before that, she helped break another barrier… by wearing pants on TV.

The pants were symbolic of the equality she and writer Carl Reiner gave her character on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in which she played Laura Petrie, the wife of Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, from 1961 to 1966.

Moore told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross in 1995 that her character was originally going to be “a wife, a television wife … and that really had its classical parameters and dimensions.” She added, “all these wives were kind of obedient and, you know, a representative of the vows to love, honor and obey. They hardly varied from that.”

Moore explained: “And with Carl Reiner’s character, the way she was written, Laura actually had opinions of her own. And while she was asserting herself, she also didn’t make Dick Van Dyke look like a dummy. It was a matter of two people.”

“I mean, society’s expectations at that point still said, hey, wait a minute, lady, you only go so far here. But I think we broke new ground, and that was helped by my insistence on wearing pants, you know, jeans and capri pants at the time because I said I’ve seen all the other actresses and they’re always running the vacuum in these little flowered frocks with high heels on, and I don’t do that. And I don’t know any of my friends who do that. So why don’t we try to make this real? And I’ll dress on the show the way I do in real life.”

Gross noted that sponsors were worried she would look “brazen.” Moore said they used the term “cupping under” to refer to their concerns that the seat of her pants had “a little too much definition.”

“But within a few weeks, we were sneaking them into a few other scenes in every episode, and they were definitely cupping under and everyone thought it was great,” Moore added.

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