The Dame had a look like no other
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She became Dame Diana Rigg of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, at the age of 56. For many actors, it would be the crowning achievement of a distinguished career spanning film, television, and stage. But instead of resting on those formidable laurels, Rigg went back to work, winning a Tony award for her performance as Medea the very next day. Her death today at 82 resonates across an exceptionally wide swath of the entertainment world and pop culture.
For viewers of a certain generation, Rigg will always be the bad bitch who killed Joffrey. But for me and many others, she is eternally Mrs. Peel, The Avengers’ swinging sixties superspy and catsuit fashion icon. Forget the execrable 1998 movie version starring Uma Thurman as Peel to Ralph Fiennes’ John Steed. The original series—which I discovered in daytime reruns as a grad student in London—was as progressive as it was stylish, never more so than during Rigg’s tenure in seasons 4 and 5.
Conceived a serious (male) buddy spy show, The Avengers morphed into campy comedy as Steed (played by Patrick MacNee) cycled, Dr. Who-like, through a series of comely female sidekicks. They recruited Rigg from the Royal Shakespeare Company to replace Honor Blackman when she left the show to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger in 1965. (She eventually followed in Blackman’s footsteps, ditching Steed to marry George Lazenby’s James Bond On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.) Emma Peel—the name was a pun on “m-appeal,” or “man-appeal”—was a “talented amateur” to Steed’s Bond-like secret agent. Rigg’s classical training balanced the show’s comic-book, karate-chopping silliness, and her chemistry (and sexual tension) with MacNee launched several decades of will-they-or-won’t-they crimefighting partnerships, from Moonlighting to The X-Files.
Years before Eartha Kitt donned Catwoman’s catsuit in Batman, Riggs became a style icon. London designer Frederick Starke had dressed Blackman as a sexy beatnik in black leather vests, leather pants, and turtlenecks as a foil to MacNee’s Savile Row pinstripes. bowler hat, and sword-concealing umbrella. Rigg wore a form-fitting zippered black leather catsuit in early episodes and the opening credits, but she reportedly hated it; it undoubtedly impeded her high-kicking fighting style. They called in Anne Trehearne—a former fashion editor for the youth-oriented British fashion magazine The Queen—to update her look.
ABC had just bought the American rights to the show for an unprecedented $2 million; it was one of the first British series to air on primetime TV in the US. Though its production values may look cheesy today, it was one of the highest-budget British shows of its era. A lot of that money was spent on Rigg’s wardrobe. “Her figure is stately rather than curvy,” a UPI reporter noted, “but it is perfect for the designers who drape her in far-out snakeskin catsuits and shiny plastics.”
At a time when London was emerging as the epicenter of the fashion world, Trehane brought in British designer John Bates, who designed the Jean Varon label, to dress Rigg. An example of his work had just won the “Dress of The Year” award for 1965. His mod costumes were not just fashion-forward—incorporating cutting-edge trends like miniskirts, PVC, mesh, cut-outs, synthetic knits, and trousers, which women were still banned from wearing in many offices and restaurants—but also made television history. Previously, it was thought that the bold patterns of Op-Art fashion wouldn’t work on black and white screens. Bates proved conventional wisdom wrong, dressing Riggs in dizzying spirals, checks, stripes, and circles.
In another unprecedented move, Bates and Trehearne decided to produce 35 interchangeable garments (plus accessories including berets and tights) rather than conventional, stand-alone costumes. Bates then licensed his designs to the masses as “Avengerswear.” For the first time, grown women could shop their favorite show. Trehearne had the bright idea to stage the season’s promotional pictures like a fashion shoot, giving an added boost to the spinoff styles.
Bates only worked on The Avengers for half a season, but he gave it the distinctive look it remains remembered for today.When the show shifted from black and white to color midway through Rigg’s tenure, Welsh designer Alun Hughes took over, introducing Crayola colors and psychedelic patterns. Once again, fans could buy the costumes, including the “Emmapeeler” stretch jersey catsuit in a rainbow of vivid hues and the character’s trademark oversized watches.
Rigg revealed that she had designed one “somewhat Freudian” outfit herself. In an orgy scene, Peel goes undercover in a Playboy Bunny-style costume of knee-high fetish boots, spiked collar, elbow-length gloves, and corset worthy of Littlefinger’s brothel.
After Rigg discovered that she was being paid less than the cameraman, she decided to leave The Avengers to pursue a film and stage career. Mr. Peel—missing and presumed dead—suddenly resurfaced, and the couple drove off into the sunset together in a convertible Bentley. Seen only from a distance, he was a bowler-hatted, umbrella-toting clone of John Steed.