By: Megan McGurk
A fitting room seems an unlikely backdrop to stage a display of female power, except the one in Take a Letter, Darling (1942) will blow your socks off. Rosalind Russell looks as powerful half-dressed as Louis B. Mayer was in a suit seated at his gigantic white desk at MGM. Since a changing room represents gender-divided space as much as the powder room, it serves as the perfect setting to rattle Fred MacMurray, whose character works in a subordinate position as Rosalind Russell’s secretary. Society dictates that men are not allowed, unless they wear a measuring tape around their neck and pin cushion on their arm. Perhaps the director, Mitchell Leisen, recognised the dramatic potential fitting rooms held after years of experience in fashion design; he created gowns for Gloria Swanson, Natacha Rambova and Mary Pickford to wear onscreen. He continued to design (often uncredited) throughout his tenure as director, making clothes for Marlene Dietrich in The Lady Is Willing (1942), Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), Paulette Goddard in Bride of Vengeance (1949) as well as Rosalind Russell for Take a Letter, Darling. Leisen’s proximity to women in fitting rooms behind the scenes informed his perspective behind the camera, which helped cultivate a sensitivity toward what it was like for women to try and get ahead in a man’s world. Leisen knew how women reveal themselves during intimate moments between costume changes. He also understood that an imperious woman maintains her aura, even when starkers in front of a mirror.
If male bosses repair to the steam room, golf course or club to mix business, a lady boss multitasks as she chooses frocks to entertain clientele. Rosalind Russell’s A.M. MacGregor runs a crack advertising firm while her partner (Robert Benchley) fritters away his time on novelty office games bestowed for the man who has everything (golf putting, puzzles, ring toss, you name it). MacGregor’s concession to comfort in a hard nose pursuit of revenue falls to a pair of feathered slippers she wears around the office. When she learns of a shot at landing an account with a tobacco company giant, she rushes to Francesca’s on Fifth Avenue to equip herself with just the right sartorial lure for the CEO, a notorious woman hater.
When MacMurray arrives at the boutique, he initially compares with other men waiting for women to emerge from private dressing rooms in the back. Other men object when they hear MacMurray’s Tom Verney receive permission to enter number three. After all, if they’ve seen their wives change a million times, why should they be barred entry? In a whisper, the shop owner explains that he’s a secretary, which mollifies a seated husband, but Verney blanches and replies vehemently:
That’s a dirty lie!
Men have always rankled at the feminised label ‘secretary’, something that pops up in Mad Men, set two decades later in the 1960s, when Mr Hooker, from the new British firm that acquired Sterling Cooper advertising agency in series three, insists he’s a personal secretary, a job title that equates a more important role than the lowly skills of dictation and answering phones that women perform. He believes his gender should confer a superior status over the women in the typing pool, so he considers himself entitled to the office that Joan Holloway provides. Once a job title turns pink, men exit in droves, pay packets plummet, and if forced into the role, men revise the title, as in the contemporary ‘murse’ or ‘manny.’
Verney’s admission into the female-only space of the dress shop knocks his male status down to an inferior lackey. MacMurray stands well over six feet, yet viewers register no sexual threat from his supportive position. As an underling, he’s essentially rendered eunuch and permitted access to a space that any other man would presumably abuse for his own advantage. Viewers fathom a number two pencil for the lone wood he will sport in the executive’s dressing room.
When he enters, Russell’s A.M. MacGregor stands in a slip in front of a mirror as shop assistants zip her into a frock. He looks away flustered, fumbling with his pencil and notebook while she fires off instructions at a rate that recalls Hildy Johnson snapping fingers in a lowdown about the four o’clock train. She starts with her scheduled meeting with the tobacco scion and how she needs to learn all about the business and the history of tobacco before then, but also what to do about men who hate women. A pretty tall order then. She continues with a stream-of-consciousness list of tasks, including the need for research about the industry and retrieving the tobacco company’s advertising campaigns for the last two years. MacGregor interrupts herself to ask if Verney considers her dress demure. Verney replies that he doesn’t because of the way it fits, which he refuses to specify, trails off, and leaves the sentence unfinished. She corrects him:
You don’t know what demure means to a woman.
MacGregor saves him a lecture about fashion, but viewers can guess it would entail the ways women produce a desired effect and how something fits may not even hit the top five. She exhibits a total lack of embarrassment at his presence. He doesn’t rate her modesty. He’s there to take orders. The executive’s reply to his opinion further underscores her dominant position. Verney’s opinions carry less weight than her own. In this female space, his taste doesn’t matter. She decides what categories and definitions apply to what she wears. He’s not the intended audience or recipient of the style or purpose behind her selection; lady executives dress for a higher pay grade than a man who takes instructions. He appears humiliated by the prospect that he’s not in charge or control for once in his lifetime, like he wants to shake a fist at clouds in the wake of a woman who doesn’t prioritise his every whim. This moment offers sweet validation for women in the audience, more satisfying than a month of good hair days.
MacGregor declines to consider his viewpoint in the same way that she ignores his discomfort at watching her dress and undress. Standing there in a skimpy slip removes Verney’s ability to pose a sexual menace, something many men take for granted. In their mind, women should panic in a terrified shriek, cover up and tremble at the vision of masculine power in the room. If you really want to demoralise a man, as Russell playing MacGregor demonstrates, simply act as though it’s no big deal that you’re almost naked in his vicinity.
Verney’s definition of what counts as sexy draws from a simplistic style economy that boils aesthetics down to crude terms. By his understanding, the second garment she tries on, a black evening gown, should fall in the modest category because it doesn’t emphasise her breasts like the first frock did. I’d argue on the contrary, that the gown’s shoulder cut-outs achieve siren-level, sex-bomb embellishments and MacGregor knows it, too. A woman’s facility with suggestive array transcends the narrow imaginative scope of an average man, where a head turning gown exceeds a base tits and gam quotient.
MacGregor wraps up the fitting session by commanding his agenda for office, library, then home to pack for a work retreat to her house in the country:
You better run along now.
Russell’s boss lady dismisses Verney as though he were a child who asked for another cookie. She finally acknowledges his pained expression during a conversation where she was oblivious to his anxiety. She waves him off, amused.
A similar dynamic unfolds in Our Blushing Brides (1930) when Robert Montgomery’s Tony Jardine uses his position as son of the shop owner to waltz into the mannequin dressing room as Joan Crawford changes after a show. Crawford’s character grabs the power he thinks he holds by refusing to cover up for a man who doesn’t rate her modesty, having forced his way in. Indecorous and ungallant, Crawford squares off against his rich boy privilege and refuses him the pleasure of her vulnerability. Russell and Crawford offer far more thrilling portrayals when they stand up to men rather than fall into their arms. Give me a sass mouth dame in a slip reading him the riot act, and I feel restored, suited for battle.