Working Women in Desk Set 1957

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The 1957 film Desk Set used the costume designs of Charles LeMaire. For Katharine Hepburn, this was an unusual choice, since she worked with scores of costume designers but not LeMaire. Maybe this is why Bunny Watson’s (the character played by Hepburn) wardrobe is a bit retro and twee for Hepburn.

The above image lays out the costuming for the women: darling, of course, but tame. We have types here: the gamine newbie, with her red dress, black cardigan and belt; Dina Merrill is a proper women’s “suit” of cropped jacket and front-pleated skirt in brown tweed; Joan Blondell’s blousy Peg Costello in her frisky round-necked dress and pink cardigan, Neve Patterson’s hard-ass in her uptight dark green suit, and Hepburn’s Bunny Watson, in her dashing and very tight black vest and skirt, with blazing white shirt underneath.

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Here’s another view of their respective outfits, carefully displayed from a different angle. The computer in the background is the machine putting these lady researchers out of business. It’s the competition.

In 1957, about 1/3 of all women in the U.S. worked full time, and within that number, about 1/2 of African American women worked full time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 1957 was a recession year. So these gals, aside from the young ‘un in her red dress, are “career women” with steady jobs. Peg and Bunny are nearing their middle years, having worked at “Federal Broadcasting” long enough to enjoy great reputations as literal know-it-alls.

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The costuming in this film has always bugged me. On one hand, it’s textbook late 1950s, with tiny waists, dramatic necklines, brooches and large earrings. On the other hand, how does anyone move in their clothes? Every item of clothing, aside from Bunny’s loose jacket, is a shade too tight. The older ladies have their business-like men’s wardrobe gestures of white collars and cuffs, but the younger women are all soft in their sweater and blouse with cardigan. Even Hepburn’s clothing in the film is ratcheted up; she wears skirts throughout — a touch of realism, perhaps, but also a sign that her Bunny Watson is in the end under supervision as an employee — she does not run her own show in this film.

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This montage, created by The Blonde at the Film and located on zilredloh’s blog, shows the fabulous Christmas party dress Bunny wears. It’s a long evening, as you can see, and Bunny takes up a variety of “wraps” to wear as she gets progressively inebriated (that’s Spencer Tracy’s Richard Summer, looking up at Hepburn in the left pic). Now this — this dress is a bit more Hepburnesque, with its upturned collar and bold lame fabric, and the sheer bounty of yardage! I’ve always loved that touch of gold in the bracelet and brooch.

But if you are looking for realistic career women’s wear, this film just doesn’t have it. If anything, it marks a return to how “career women” characters were dressed in 1930s films: exaggerated, almost silly clothes. I often think, how could anyone afford such clothes? Nothing goes with anything — nothing is mix and match, garanimal style (or in today’s parlance, “capsule wardrobe”. At least in this film Hepburn wears the same style white blouse for two outfits, but none of her colleagues do so: every one is a new fashion plate, day after work day. They would have ground to a penniless halt in two months, if working women had dressed like this in 1957 for real.

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