Capturing the 1950s Wellesley-Girl style

January 18, 2004|By Pamela Sitt | Pamela Sitt,Knight Ridder / Tribune

The chick flick of the moment, Julia Roberts' Mona Lisa Smile, is resplendent with details befitting a proper lady: red lips, pearls, gloves and a sleek silhouette.

In this case, the lady is a 1950s Wellesley Girl -- but one need only look to fashion runways, contemporary magazines and well-heeled city streets to realize that a modern-day version of the Wellesley Girl has marched into mainstream fashion. We asked Mona Lisa Smile costume designer Michael Dennison, the man who dressed a cast including Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal, about how to bring 1950s style into modern day.

What is the look of a Wellesley Girl, circa 1950, and how did you define it?

Wellesley Girls, if nothing else, were completely and properly dressed. I went to the archives of Wellesley [College], and looked through yearbooks and newspapers to get the basic overview of their approach to dress. Interestingly enough, I discovered there was an unwritten rule that was pretty much how the Wellesley Girl dressed. There was a quote in one of the articles: "The Wellesley Girl is keen on narrowing her skirt and her blouse and sweater being a little looser." That happened to be the silhouette. They were allowed to wear slacks on campus, but ... the Wellesley Girl did not wear jeans [off campus].

Did you take any creative liberties with the costume design, or was the fashion of the time period accurately reflected in the film?

I purposely chose to take the girliness and the frou-frou out of the clothing. It could have been very "wallpaper" (think of the busy prints on the wallpaper in Julia Roberts' character's room). I took all of that out and painted the picture a bit more structurally. I used a conceit in the movie -- the married girls had two simple strands of pearls and the unmarried girls had a single strand. It showed a transition in character.

What elements of 1950s style do you see emerging now?

It has to do with redefining the three areas of the feminine body: the bust, waist and hips. There was a definite figure -- there were very specific foundation garments that helped to define these areas. If you want to apply those to contemporary dress, which designers are doing now, I think there is a movement to redefine the waist. We're rediscovering the waist -- it's not the high hip, it's the actual waist. When you set that as your center point, your legs are longer ... and the leg takes on a real gam shape.

Who was the most fun to dress?

I would have to say, hands down, Julia [Roberts]. There was an expressive freedom there that let me kind of go anywhere I wanted to. She had to be misplaced. She was reflecting the West Coast -- very specifically, a pocket of liberalism in the Bay Area. She was more like a free-spirited, free-thinking woman who had great access to ethnic style.

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