Reel to Real: Spring is having a mod Marlo moment

It’s snowing here. Again. And as much as I enjoy the picturesque quality of a fleecy blanket of crystalline beauty from Mom Nature, enough already. What better time to direct your attention to a woman who personified the optimism and joy of Springtime? Ladies, I give you Marlo Thomas in her beloved character of Ann Marie, aka That Girl.

Marlo’s zippy mod-goes-hippie chic wardrobe was the envy and desire of millions of Boomer girls like me and, apparently, has lingered in the zeitgeist of fashion’s hottest designers. It’s blooming again this season all over the runways, so let’s gather these rosebuds while we may, shall we? This special “Reel to Real” continues a spotlight on spring fashions a la Marlo mode: Click here to see more sunny That Girl spring style.

First up…Valentino romantically revisits the lovely lacy looks that win Don’s heart on date night…Kay Style Secret: Over 40? Limit your lace touches lest you look more That Granny than That Girl. 

Bold checks and the return of the “dress coat” remind us of Easters past. Kay Style Secret: There’s a magical thing about coats with matching dresses–the younger you are, the better they look. You can quickly drift into aging Park Ave Ladies Who Lunch territory after about 35. Just a heads-up.

As we explore the many moods of Marlo, we’ll also learn a bit about how this plucky woman’s life imitated, or in this case, pre-indicated, her lively, never-say-die TV character.

Workday perfection, then and now. Kay Style Secret: Oh, the joys of keeping whites, white! The clean lines and understated elegance are worth it, right? The pale lip works best with an all-white look.

Black and white trimmed spring coats make graphic statements. Kay Style Secret: Not everyone looks good in stark black and white; typically, you need similarily contrasting hair/skin. Fair blondes and ash brunettes can be blasted by high contrast looks: it’s a high fashion look, so be aware there’s some maintenance involved.


Marlo’s first name for her self-created sitcom was “Miss Independence”…mainly because that’s what her family called her. That name turned out to be quite apt: Marlo wound up a champion for the cause of women’s rights and taught a generation that they were free to be who they were. (For you younger readers, that’s Marlo with feminist activist Gloria Steinem, a lifelong friend of Marlo’s.)

More spring coats! Here’s a structured Peter Pan-collared car coat in fire-engine red with statement buttons; a That Girl staple. Kay Style Secret: Red is considered a neutral by many, but not all reds are the same. Try on a few to see which one syncs up with your coloring; think tomato soup vs cherry Jell-O.

I often relate stories about how women were supported in, or driven (in some cases, flogged) to success by their mother’s ambition, but in Marlo’s case, it was her father, the beloved, brilliant Danny Thomas, who was the primary instigator. Or maybe it’s more that the family dynamic set the tone; the Thomas dinner table was a virtual nightclub.

I love the return of pink for spring! Here, pink-based color-blocked sheaths; daytime cotton on Marlo; sequinned and nightclubby this spring. Kay Style Secret: Pinks, like reds, range in tone and saturation. Candy pink vs. salmon–try it on to ensure it’s not washing you out.

Danny was a Las Vegas-style entertainer, a combination stand-up comedian, singer, and all-around funny guy during the ring-a-ding-ding era (in fact, the Sinatras and the Thomases were next door neighbors in Beverly Hills). Marlo’s early school years were full of stagework, but her real education came from hanging around with her father and his famous comic buddies; Milton Berle, George Burns, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr, Sid Caesar, Red Buttons, etc.

She admits, in her conversational joke-packed memoir Growing Up Laughing that “Growing up with all this, it’s no mystery where my sense of humor and my appreciation of the craft of comedy come from.” But her father wasn’t always too keen on her entering show biz. In fact, he did everything he could to discourage her.

Little girl flower power: specialty buttons, pockets, trim, fun brooches…Kay Style Secret: Girls, these quirky touches are the stock and trade of the Sophisticated Ingenue–using ultra-feminine touches in off-beat or ironic ways. If you are a Smartly Tailored gal or Sensual Bohemian, you’ll look a little silly in them.

Make doom for Daddy

Marlo’s father repeatedly warned her of the perils of show biz, telling her that it’s tough for anyone but especially for women. Marlo, a Freidan-era proto-feminist, decided that she would and could make it. Viewers of That Girl will immediately recognize those characters…the sunny can-do kid vs her practical, protective father.
Bold slashes of white add power and dramatic mpact to these dress/skirt suit looks. Watch for dirndl waists or trapeze shapes. Kay Style Secret: Beware, only the slimmest gals can pull those pound-adding shapes off, but just about anyone can add a slice of white to punch up their look.

After 2 years of college studying to become an English teacher (hence her skillful use of language in all her books), she informed her not-too-surprised parents that she wanted to study acting in NYC. Danny insisted she finish her degree; she did, handing him her diploma and stating: “This is for you. Now I’m going to study acting.” She did, sticking to her guns of doing it on her own, not relying on her famous father’s connections. She was learning, but the breaks weren’t coming.

Marvy metallics in girly shapes are THE Springtime look for dates and events. Kay Style Secret: Emphasis on the word ‘girly’ here, gals. No one under 30 need apply.

Energizing red and white stripes are a Springtime classic. Kay Style Secret: Avoid the Yankee clipper nautical cliches by adding funky touches, like over-the-top earrings and chic shoes.

It drove Danny nuts to see her spinning her wheels; he begged Marlo to allow him to set up a meeting with a producer pal of his at Columbia studios. Reluctantly, she agreed. The very nice man asked her very nicely why “a lovely, educated, well-raised girl” would want to be in “this lousy business?” He encouraged her to return home, marry her boyfriend, and settle into the womanly work of giving her father some grandkids. Marlo informed her father that she would have no more of THAT, thank you very much, and went back to her Miss Independence ways.

Marlo rocks a silver metallic animal print pantsuit, making it daytime-appropriate with a red turtleneck. Kay Style Secret: The update daytimes a similar fabric with workday accessories and a halter neckline. You’ll want to skip the go-go girl makeup and cover those arms for your office, most likely.

Showdown at the dinner table

One fateful night, Danny laid it out for her, bluntly telling her that lightening seldom struck twice in one family and she should rethink her career goals. His fabled Lebanese temper rose as the discussion continued. “You’re an educated young woman. You could be a senator, for God’s sake! Why would you pick something at which you cannot succeed?”

Black and white geometric graphics and simple shapes are everywhere. Kay Style Secret: Please don’t wear these without a goodly amount of make-up, especially eyes!

Stunned, Marlo walked to the doorway and turned (an actress always knows how to make a good exit). Her father’s daughter, Marlo’s temper rose to the occasion. “Not only am I going to make it, but someday, you and your partner Sheldon Leonard are going to want to hire me and you won’t be able to f*ing afford me!” Marlo later learned that her worried mother, who’d overheard it all (as had half the neighborhood, probably) went to Danny and chided him for being too tough on their daughter. “No,” Danny responded, “If she really wants it, she’ll have to face a lot tougher rejection than this.”

Baby doll silhouettes of poofy, gathered or pleated skirts energized with stripes and knock-out colors. Kay Style Secret: This is another skinny-girl-only silhouette. Nobody but the very slender look good in a dirndl. Trust me.

Daddy’s little girl. Not.

Marlo’s career finally took off in a small way; she performed in local Los Angeles theaters. Critics inevitably compared her to Danny, a mighty tough act to follow. She was spotted by a TV producer when performing in Sunday in New York (later a film hit with Jane Fonda). Could she do an Asian accent? Yes, she assured them, of course! Just as Ann Marie would have, she then hustled to a nearby Chinese restaurant and paid a waitress to coach her. Marlo’s first big TV appearance was as a mail-order bride for Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza. Marlo’s gigantic brown eyes posed a problem; even skillful theatrical makeup couldn’t alter the shape convincingly enough. The storyline was altered to make her a half-Persian, half-Chinese girl. Why not?

Fringed, embellished, folkloric print A-line skirts–the modern version from Tory Burch. Kay Style Secret: Sorry, gals, this is another tough silhouette. The firm-fabric A-line skirt makes many hip-enhanced girls look even wider; the thick fabric adds pounds. If you’re not a willow, give this a pass.  

Then came a BIG theater break; Marlo was asked to read for Broadway hit “Barefoot in the Park” (hmmmm….another Jane Fonda film hit. I see a pattern..). At auditions, she learned she’d be used in the touring road company. Miss Independence said no thanks. “I just cannot travel this country for a year being compared to my father. It will be a nightmare for me. It will kill my spirit.”

The slim-top, fluid skirt dress isn’t a massive trend, but it’s a much more wearable one. Kay Style Secret: See how the brown in Marlo’s hair and the model’s echo the dress color? Monochrome looks like this bestow instant upscale elegance. Our modern model has toughed up the look with edgy arm-party bracelets and spke heels.

A few months later, she accepted the same part…in the London show. Danny and Marlo’s mother flew in for opening night. Marlo and the show were a smash. Marlo looked at her father’s face in the dressing room after the show; she declared “He looked like he had just finished the triathlon. I’ll never forget the look on his face. It wasn’t joy. It wasn’t pride. It was utter relief. I was going to be okay.”

Wide white collars set off the face and, if exaggerated, add an innocent, girlish touch. Kay Style Secret: All this directive attention to your face means, yes, again, you’ll need to pay special attention to eye makeup–as Marlo always did!–to keep from looking washed out. Note the pale lip on both these looks.

Free to be mad, mod Marlo

After That Girl hit the airwaves, Marlo and Danny were watching Marlo’s songstress sister, Terre, in one of her first Las Vegas gigs. Marlo was weeping with pride and turned to her dad to say “Isn’t she good?” She reports that Danny stood there, cigar in mouth, arms crossed. “She’s very good,” he said, “But she’ll never make it. She’s not angry like you were.” Six months later, Terre followed her heart back home to marry and raise a family.

In 1966, Marlo was in the audience watching her father perform at the Sands Hotel. As he had so many times before, he paused in his act to acknowledge celebrities in the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he declared, “We have a special star in our audience tonight. Miss Marlo Thomas, please stand up and take a bow.” Miss Independence took her bow, eyes and heart brimming with love for her tough, terrific father. She was “free to be me.”

Heidi Klum’s quote below–and her bold yellow Spring 2013 Michael Kors turtleneck–reflect the style, sass, and spirit of Marlo’s life. Isn’t that what we all need on a gloomy wintery day? Steal some looks from Marlo and make your spring closet a groovy place to shop!

Quotes and biographical information taken from Growing Up Laughing; My Story by Marlo Thomas; Harper Collins 2010. Marlo shares her life and the lives of comedians who also grew up laughing. Wonderful bedside reading and a great gift book for anyone who could use a laugh or who loved–and loves–Marlo Thomas.





12 thoughts on “Reel to Real: Spring is having a mod Marlo moment

  1. Lots of fun with this one Kay! Really good and inspiring stories included and all the adorable clothes from the era made me smile…. even though I’m lost past replicating most of these ‘looks’! 🙂 Great job, as always!

    • Thanks, Linda! I adored Marlo back in the day and never stopped admiring her. She went from TV star to media mogul with her books and her TV special on Free to Be You and Me…such an inspiration! Her books are well-written and her story of her dad and her…so sweet! And the clothes..well, they speak for themselves! It’s easy to see why she and Loretta Young had so much in common!! Thanks for stopping by, my dear!
      Love, Kay

  2. Kay, you nailed the reel to reel… loved seeing the looks brough forward. But are you sure I can’t wear tights with a touch of metallic? J’adore that look!

    • At a party, perhaps, but not to work! LOL! Aren’t they cute, though? Love that look myself, but I think I’ll pass this decade! Love, K

  3. I remember watching That Girl weekly just to see what Marlo was wearing and I had my share of color blocked coat dresses and mod outfits back in the day.
    Marlo went on the Phil Donahue Show some years later and you could feel the sparks fly between them – so interesting to watch on live TV. The rest, as they say, was history!

    • Thanks, Nancy, so much for taking the time to comment!! I never saw that Phil D. show…I wonder if it’s on You Tube! She talks about her romance in her book…very interesting. He had 4 boys at home when she moved in. YIKES! Hugs and thanks again, Kay

    • Thanks, Liza! I so appreciate you taking the time to comment…it’s so wonderful to know I’m not working in a void! Warmly, Kay

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