Why Fashion Icon Doris Day Was The Carrie Bradshaw Of Her Time

With Monroe, Kelly and Hepburn to contend with, Day’s style was often overlooked... but it still inspires fashion today, says Julia Robson


Doris Day, circa 1960. Photo / Getty Images

She may never have had a Hermès bag named after her like Grace Kelly did, but Doris Day, who died last Monday aged 97, had a fashion “look”, co-created by some of Hollywood’s legendary costumiers, that has never required mothballs.

Every summer, women reach for the kind of starched cotton shirts, cropped pedal pushers, bucket hats, trapeze jackets and twirling Fifties skirts that we associate with the Hollywood star who understood the power of clothes far better than we ever gave her credit for.

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Standing 5ft 7in on her all-American tan dancer’s legs, with a tiny waist, blonde curls and bright sapphire blue eyes, her enviable figure was part and parcel of the package. No wonder matinee idols — Howard Keel, Rex Harrison, James Stewart, Frank Sinatra, James Garner, you name them, and Rock Hudson most famously — queued up to be Ken to her Barbie. She made them all look so good.

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As tributes to Day’s acting, dancing and pitch-perfect voice roll in, now feels like a good time to elevate this girl-next-door — who was anything but — to the rank of fashion icon.

A box office magnate, and a mother at age 19, by 1945 her song Sentimental Journey would stay at the number one spot in the US for over two months (a feat only beaten by Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You from The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992).

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Borrowing the quote that Frank Sinatra once used about her voice — which was that apart from himself, Day was the only singer who made lyrics sound believable — we can easily translate this into clothes.

Day was the Carrie Bradshaw of her time. Always looking for the best in people while looking fabulous herself. James Garner once said: “I’d rather have Doris Day than Liz Taylor.” “Everything Doris does turns to box-office gold... I think Doris is a very sexy lady who doesn’t know how sexy she is.”

Interestingly, her unique kind of tomboy sexuality is key to her fashion persona. Like Audrey Hepburn, who used clothes to differentiate herself from blonde bombshell rivals, Day pulled on some of Hollywood’s finest to be as much a clothes horse as any leading lady of her time.

Tasked with drawing up a top 10 list of fashion moments from her 136 films, it’s no coincidence that the work of so many notable costumiers features: from Day’s 1956 debut as a Hitchcock blonde in The Man Who Knew Too Much, with costumes designed by legendary Edith Head (behind the clothes of Sunset Boulevard and Roman Holiday), to 1959‘s Pillow Talk, where she played a Mad Men-style advertising career girl in pastel-toned suits created by Jean Louis (who made Rita Hayworth’s dress in Gilda, and the one Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to JFK).

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Head also created the tight pencil skirts and corduroy trapeze jackets for Day to act out her role as a journalism teacher in Teacher’s Pet (1958). The stilettos, the lacquered bottle blonde hairdo and Pat Butcher earrings perhaps hint at campness, and you can trace a thread running through her three decades of film.

Designer Howard Shoup (Oceans 11, Cool Hand Luke) camped it up better than any guest at the recent Met Gala by styling Day in suede men’s gear in Calamity Jane (1953) and pinafore dresses in Young At Heart (1954) opposite Frank Sinatra.

Helen Rose (High Society, BUtterfield 8, Ziegfeld Follies), who created Grace Kelly’s wedding dress, made Day’s black tasselled hourglass strappy dress for Love Me or Leave Me in 1955.

By the mid-Fifties, Day had rooted her all-American girl style in the vein of an all-American designer: Claire McCardell, who was putting a sporty spin on Chanel’s little black dress and championing American sportswear. In her films, Day wore versions of the very latest “bathing suit” for an emerging generation of “career girls”, who were finally able to ditch the elastic-pinging girdles and pointy bras that went under workwear suits.

Today, if you were asked to channel your inner Doris Day, it would mean dressing in Fifties kitsch like Sandy in Grease, with her white collar, yellow cardigan, prom skirts and pumps, prior to when she stubs out her cigarette in black skintight trousers and jumps on John Travolta.

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Designers from Miuccia Prada to Jenny Packham continue to riff on Doris’s Sunday Best looks which allowed a frisson of sexuality.

“My generation loved her!” my 80-year-old mother shrieks down the phone at the thought of Doris Day being sexy. An animal saver long before it became fashionable, Day wore a tight slogan T-shirt to defend her furry friends decades ago. She supported Rock Hudson (although not as much as Elizabeth Taylor) before he would die of an Aids-related condition.

“She was a fashion icon in her own way,” believes fashion historian Tony Glenville. “It’s interesting that Renee Zellweger in the Doris Day spoof Down With Love was given such a great pastiche wardrobe.”

“Day’s style is sometimes looked back on as prim,” agrees designer Anne-Sofie Lucan. “But I prefer to describe her fashion as composed, assured and confident — feminine but disciplined. She exudes strength of persona of her gender. This is a woman dressing for herself, so it is sexier in a more interesting way. I use that freedom of movement for my tweed skirts then chase it up with some tightly buttoned-up Doris Day composure.”

“I have a soft spot for Doris,” reveals designer Jenny Packham, a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge. “As a child, my mum would sing me to sleep with Que Sera Sera and I loved Calamity Jane and her whip-crack-away ways — she had me with ‘howdy’. Doris Day represented the wholesome all-American girl. She was vibrant, clean cut and elegant and with her nipped-in waist and ample pointy bosom. She was the perfect Fifties sweetheart.”

And yet Day is said to have been constantly insecure about her squeaky-clean image.

After having a hysterectomy aged 32, she turned down the role Anne Bancroft would play in The Graduate because she felt it too sexy. She dodged the role Angela Lansbury would secure as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote because of age worries. We can only dream of outfits she might have worn in Dallas: yes, she turned that down, too.

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“I would have liked to have dressed her,” confesses Packham, “perhaps in something sequinned with tassels in pale pink, or mint green with a matching clutch, or a Fifties frock with a scooped out neckline and swishy skirt in layers of rainbowed tulle.”

David Downton, the fashion illustrator, would draw her thus: “The eyes, smile and that Sixties bouncy bob. And she would be wearing white.”

“She was innocent but most American girls were back then,” says Tony Glenville. “She wasn’t the Monroe blonde but didn’t ever pretend to be. Whether she was a nightclub singer or career girl, Doris Day was herself and wore clothes well.”

So, was she sexy? Maybe it’s because she wasn’t that she was.

— The Daily Telegraph

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