An Outfit, an Ode, a Love Letter to Lucille Ball
Today, if you search Amazon for “I Love Lucy Costume” you will receive seven pages of results. Most of the options are nearly identical: a polka dot, 1950’s shirtdress with a circle skirt underneath a white apron and a curly, red wig. (Red wig sold separately, of course.)
This version of Lucy, the zany housewife version, is universally recognized. She is silly, and adventurous, and always, always funny. She is Lucille Ball’s masterpiece, but she isn’t Lucille Ball.
Lucille Ball, like all of us, isn’t so easy to pin down. She’s not an iconic outfit, she wasn’t a housewife, and she was never just one thing. She spent much of her life boxed in as Lucy when, in reality, she was breaking mold after mold for the women who followed her.
In 1974, TV Guide reported that Lucille had, “a face seen by more people, more often, than the face of any human being who ever lived." This is more impressive when it’s taken into account that she didn’t reach widespread success until she was 40.
Born in upstate New York in 1911, Lucille had a challenging childhood. After her father’s death when she was 3, she was often shuffled between family members. At 15, she moved to New York City to attend drama school. A teacher there told her she had no talent, and also wrote her mother a letter reiterating that point. Dejected, Lucille went into modeling and rapidly booked work.
Her modeling work caught the eye of Hollywood producers and, in 1933, she moved to Los Angeles. Lucille never quite fit any of the female archetypes of the time, though she played them all. She worked consistently, but was never a headliner. Often, she was referred to as the queen of B movies.
This, however, didn’t slow her down. She kept experimenting, and in 1948, she began work on a radio show called My Favorite Husband. In radio, she didn’t have to visibly fit into any boxes. She just needed her voice. She played Liz Cooper, a wacky housewife. Liz was the building ground for what would become Lucy.
My Favorite Husband was so successful that Lucille was approached by CBS to turn it into a television show. Here in Lucille’s story begins her string of firsts.
Lucille agreed to the show, under the condition that her husband be played by her real husband, Desi Arnaz. CBS balked at the idea of Cuban bandleader playing the husband of a seemingly All-American redhead. (She wasn’t a natural redhead.) Lucille was adamant, and when CBS wouldn’t budge, she and Desi took the idea on the road. They created a vaudeville-style act using the premise of the show, and it became so popular that the television executives finally acquiesced.
I Love Lucy starred Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo and Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo. They were the first biracial couple to appear on television.
The show was a near-instant hit, as was Lucille’s Lucy. Lucille was a spectacular physical comic. She had the ability to show Lucy’s thoughts on her face, and was never afraid to be goofy or look unattractive. In this way, too, she accomplished a first. Prior to Lucy, there were strict parameters around funny women. Old and ugly funny women were acceptable, but only as pitiful side characters. Femme fatales were allowed zingers, one liners, but they were expected to retain their sex appeal.
Lucy was a housewife. She was a reflection of the average 1950’s woman and she was funny. Not only that, but she was adventurous, scheming, and ambitious for her own career in show business. She was unlike any female character to have ever come before her.
While I Love Lucy was in pre-production, and one month before her 40th birthday, Lucille gave birth to her and Desi’s first child, Lucie Desiree Arnaz. Nine months later, the show was the highest rated on television, and Lucille was pregnant again. She and Desi wrote the pregnancy into the show. Like before, CBS balked. In 1952, it was unsightly for a woman to appear on television pregnant. (Married couples were still portrayed sleeping in a twin beds with at least one lamp between them.)
Compromises were made (the word pregnant could never be used), and Lucille Ball became the first visibly pregnant actor to ever appear on American television. On January 19th, 1953, 44 million viewers watched as Lucy Ricardo welcomed a son, little Ricky. On the exact same day, via a scheduled cesarean section, Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Jr.
I Love Lucy ended its run in 1957. Until 1960, the cast would reunite for occasional specials under the title The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. The day after the taping of the final special, Lucille filed for divorce. While on screen they portrayed a happy couple, in reality Lucille and Desi’s marriage had struggled for years. Desi had a history of infidelity and heavy drinking.
After the divorce, Lucille went back to work. She created a new show, The Lucy Show, starring herself and Vivian Vance (Ethel on I Love Lucy) as a widow and a divorcé. Unsurprisingly, network executives were skeptical that the American public would be interested in the lives of single women. They were wrong, and The Lucy Show ran for six years. It was the first of its kind to spotlight adult female friendship.
As Lucy premiered her second TV show, off-camera she was accomplishing another first. The creation of I Love Lucy had spawned Desilu Productions, a television production company Lucille and Desi formed together. In 1962, at age 51, Lucille bought out Desi’s share to become the first woman to run a major television studio. At the time, Desilu had 35 soundstages, 50 acres of land, hundreds of offices, and roughly 1,700 employees. Under her leadership, the studio produced hits including Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. Lucy sold Desilu in 1967 for 17 million dollars. (That’s the equivalent of 128 million dollars today.)
Lucille continued to act for the rest of her life, though she struggled to be accepted as characters other than Lucy. She received numerous honors, including two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was a Kennedy Center honoree and the first woman inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. In 1989, after suffering an abdominal aneurysm in the early hours of April 26th, she passed away at the age of 77.
An Outfit Inspired by Lucille’s Style
In 2015, Vogue said that, “on screen and off, Ball favored the casual look” and I tend to disagree.
While Lucy’s costumes may have ushered in the casual styles of the 1950’s, in a multitude of offset photos, Lucille was all glamour. (This glamour extended throughout her life. In the 1980’s, she made numerous appearances in outfits trimmed in feather boas.)
When constructing an outfit inspired by Lucille’s legacy, I wanted to quietly pay homage to her masterpiece, Lucy, but also to her glamour. I found inspiration from a photo of her on a balcony in 1965. She’s looking out at the Manhattan skyline, dressed in a black dress suit. The dress is a sheath, just past the knees. The jacket has a high collar and fur-lined cuffs.
As luck would have it, I, too, have a black dress suit from the 1960’s. I took the jacket from that set, and wore it on top of an apron front jumper and a collared, striped shirt. The bottom layer was Lucy, but the top was all Lucille.
I did consider going all in, and wearing the full dress suit. I didn’t. We were attending a birthday dinner and the dress was too much (and too tight!) for the occasion. (Though, if it was my own birthday, that would have been an entirely different story!)
Lucille, Feminism, and Wrapping it up
Littered across the internet are a slew of poorly researched pieces about Lucille. They list all of her “firsts”, call her a “girlboss” and ignore the rest of her story. She is presented as some sort of Feminist Kool-Aid (Wo)Man, gleefully bursting through glass ceilings while yelling, “OH YA!”
In reality, Lucille secured most of her “firsts” before second wave feminism got to its feet. There was no cheering parade of women behind her.
By many accounts, Lucille accomplished what she did because she became the adult at the head of the table. Desilu Productions was a family company. After the success of I Love Lucy, she moved her whole family out to Los Angeles. With Desilu, and two children of her own, she did what she had to to take care of everyone. In a PBS documentary, Carol Burnett recounted a story where Lucille told her that after the divorce, she had to take over on set. She didn’t necessarily want to, and she never seemed to enjoy it.
In the end, what peeves me about those disingenuous pieces about Lucille is that her struggle is glossed over. Her story is shoved into a modern-day narrative, and her reality was much, much harder than ours. To me, that’s what makes Lucille so impressive. It isn’t that she ran around shouting “for women everywhere!” Rather, it’s that she found herself in situations where time and time again she was told no and she always persevered. Her “firsts” are impressive, yes, but her bravery, her tenacity, and her intelligence are what deserve our gratitude and respect.
This is the first Inspired By post of Women’s Month, and I’ll be back on Sunday with another. (It will be shorter! Probably.)
What are your thoughts about Lucille Ball? What other women would you like me to spotlight this month?
Before we go, here’s a bit more Lucy. See you on Sunday!