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Why Mary Tyler Moore's pants were such a big deal in the 1960s

Image: CBS, Worldwide Enterprises

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is known as a trailblazing sitcom. Mary Tyler Moore singlehandedly transformed the television landscape for women through her portrayal of Mary Richards — a single, 30-something, career-oriented woman.

Despite storylines that broke the mold, Moore's knack for shaking up the television landscape didn't start with her eponymous sitcom. Instead, it started with her outfits on The Dick Van Dyke Show nine years earlier.

No, Moore wasn't the first woman to wear pants on television. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance wore them from time to time on I Love Lucy in the early 1950s.

However, Moore was the first women to wear pants often enough to get the attention of The Dick Van Dyke Show's sponsors. According to an interview Moore gave to NPR in 1995, the actress said the sponsors were worried her pants fit a little too snug around her rear end. They used the term "cupping under" to describe it.

"There was a little too much defintition," Moore said. "So they allowed me to continue to wear them in one episode — one scene per episode, and only after we checked to make sure that there was as little 'cupping under' as possible."

Undetered by the pressure, Moore said within a few weeks her character had more scenes with pants. The actress gradually wore capri pants so often it became her character's signature look. 

Moore didn't think she was taking a feminist stand by wearing pants on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Instead, she thought she was displaying what other housewives of the era were already doing. 

"I had Laura wear pants, because I said, 'Women don't wear full-skirted dresses to vacuum in,'" Moore told TV Guide in 2004. "Women kind of breathed a sigh of relief, too, and said, 'Hey, that's right. That's what we wear.'"

Subtle changes like that ended up transforming the television landscape. Because of Moore's capri pants, Samantha could wear whatever she wanted on Bewitched, Mary Ann could walk around in shorts on Gilligan's Island and Carol Brady could play football with the boys on The Brady Bunch.

Sure, it may not seem like a big deal now. But to some extent, Laura Petrie's capri pants paved the way for Mary Richards' existence.

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