Comedy fans all over the world are quick to recognize Lucille Ball as the Queen of Comedy. A pioneering comedienne and talent with a strong business acumen, Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, produced one of television’s most beloved sitcom. In addition to breaking new ground in terms of how everyday couples were portrayed and experimenting with the the new television medium as partners, Ball was also highly regarded in her own right.
Ball had been receiving attention for her on-screen image ever since her early days in the film industry. Her hair alone was cause for much fanfare throughout her career. Transforming from a “mousy brown” to a platinum blonde, no doubt influenced by the popularity of Jean Harlow’s iconic hair color, Ball followed major fashion and beauty trends of the day. Once she was cast in MGM’s Technicolor film Du Barry Was A Lady (1943), studio hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff dyed her locks a bright red, photographing beautifully in vivacious color. From that point on, Ball’s red hair would become closely associated with Ball—a color she would maintain for the rest of her life.
In addition to her noteworthy hair color, Ball would also effectively become a fashion icon as her popularity grew—particularly during the course of her I Love Lucy sitcom. Prior to working in films, Ball studied modeling under Hattie Carnegie in the 1920s, who just so happened to encourage her to dye her hair blonde. In addition to keeping Ball abreast of beauty trends, Carnegie trained Ball how to model various fashion articles and accessories, from ornate sequined dresses and intricate hats to luxurious sable coats. Her poise, figure, and ability to carry herself confidently and gracefully made her an ideal model for magazines and advertisements, including a stint as the Chesterfield cigarette girl, working under the stage name of Diane Belmont.
Soon enough, Ball would be gracing the Broadway stage and donning theatrical costumes as a cast member of Earl Carroll’s Vanities and Florenz Ziegfeld’s touring company of Rio Rita. By the time Hollywood came calling, Ball was well positioned to become a leading lady in films. Though her costumes ranged from the practical to the glamorous, she would not fully blossom into her full comedic persona until her radio role in My Favorite Husband showcased her knack for comedy. Its reimagination for television would eventually lay the groundwork for I Love Lucy, allowing her to work with her real-life husband, Arnaz, in addition to collaborating with the show’s supporting stars, Vivian Vance and William Frawley.
As the key cast member of I Love Lucy, Ball’s comic abilities as Lucy Ricardo were truly central to the show. Her antics and determination to shine in show business via her husband Ricky’s nightclub act were a constant source of comedy in the show, in addition to various “battles of the sexes.”
However, closely aligning with Ball’s character was a keen sense of fashion. Audiences of the day—especially women—connected with Ball’s character as an all-American housewife and a very well-dressed and well-groomed woman, at that. Though the comedic situations in the show would be great fun for audiences and certainly exaggerated far beyond everyday life for the sake of entertainment, Ball’s character, at heart, was a loving wife, dependable friend, and caring mother. Like women of the day, she, too, was also observant of fashion trends enjoyed during the period and was always dressed to reflect popular fashion choices of the day.
Ball’s key costume designers on the show each shared a close relationship with Ball from her Hollywood days. Elois Jenssen, her first costume designer, dressed Ball in Lured (1947) and was courted by Ball to work on I Love Lucy. Once Jenssen broke away from her 20th Century Fox contract in an effort to freelance, Jenssen’s fashions appeared regularly on the show. Unfortunately, working on I Love Lucy was a pay cut for Jenssen and would ultimately lead to her being replaced by Edward Stevenson, who would work with Ball frequently for the rest of I Love Lucy and future Ball endeavors. Stevenson had crossed paths with Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), which was one of 15 films in which Ball would wear one of his designs.
On the show, Ball’s wardrobe favored the casual style of American women, usually wearing fit-and-flare dresses or blouses paired with cuffed pants. Due to her height as well as a fashion statement, Ball also wore flats regularly. While her daytime dresses and outfits were typically the norm in scenes shot within the Ricardos’ apartment, various storylines drew Ball’s character away from everyday manners of dress. In some cases, her character would finagle a way to be part of Ricky’s show, leading Ball to wear a variety of chorus girl costumes. In other cases, she would even adopt a masculine style of dress, usually as part of a nightclub or vaudeville-style act. Additionally, she could be dressed for a day of outdoor sporting adventures or even fully dressed and accessorized to impersonate a popular actor of the day.
As the years went on and the I Love Lucy plots took the Ricardos and the Mertzes all over the map, Ball’s fashion styles were again broadened. Monumentally, Ball and Arnaz were able to weave Ball’s real-life pregnancy into the show, allowing Ball to make history by playing a pregnant woman in a television show while actually pregnant, in addition to depicting the excitement of a couple expecting a child as part of the show’s plot. Moreover, Ball donned maternity clothes of the day—from the practical to the glamorous—while her character continued to be as zany as ever.
Throughout the course of the show, Ball reflected the professional woman—as exemplified by her houndstooth Vitameatavegamin dress or chocolate factory uniform—as well as the glamorous woman. Dressed to the nines in the Hollywood and Europe-centered episodes, Ball dressed like a star and mirrored popular styles for travel, entertaining, and nights on the town. By the time the Ricardos and the Mertzes moved to the country, her style again transformed to reflect her new life in the countryside and a brand new set of adventures.
Though Ball’s character was generally well-dressed, Ball herself was not afraid to appear as the very opposite of glamour for the sake of good comedy. She was no stranger to making a mess of her hair, makeup, or outfits, blackening out her teeth, or wearing something that would amuse her audience members. As a film star, Ball’s dazzling on-screen image was cultivated carefully by the expertise of the studio system; however, in the case of television, Ball had complete control over her image and no studio image to which she needed to adhere. Fully governing her appearance, Ball allowed Lucy to roam Paris in a burlap sack, set fire to a faux nose in front of Bill Holden, and tumble about in a vat of grapes. While these were not the most fashionable moments for Ball, some of these instances were particularly memorable and iconic for the image she developed surrounding the Lucy Ricardo character.
While Ball namely mimicked fashions of her era, she also worked to inspire newer fashions and trends. Though her character would often wear house dresses on the show, Ball was truly a businesswoman at Desilu and dressed the part, often wearing blazers, professional dresses, and pencil skirt combos. On a humorous note, Lucy’s burlap Paris gown made its debut in 1956—just one year prior to the appearance of the “sack dress” in the Givenchy and Balenciaga fashion shows.
To this day, Ball continues to inspire fashions that pay direct tribute to her style on I Love Lucy. In 2020, Unique Vintage released a full Lucy-themed line of vintage-style pants, dresses, blouses, and accessories, with each piece paying homage to a specific episode of I Love Lucy. In the same year, Besame Cosmetics also released a Lucy-themed line of cosmetics, making Ball the first woman that they have honored with a tribute line to showcase some of her favorite color palettes. Best of all, viewers all around the world, in over 80 countries and 22 languages, continue to love Lucy.
This article received the 2021 Classic Movie Blog Association Award for “Best Profile.”
Fascinating. So many memories now gleam anew.