Introduced by Earl Stanley Gardner in his first Perry Mason novel in 1933, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Della Street was already a popular character who had appeared in more than fifty whodunits, six movies and twelve seasons on radio before she entered American TV in the fall of 1957. Writer Melanie Simone takes a look at this on-screen secretary’s style and fashion.

Depicted by Barbara Hale, former RKO starlet gone Columbia contract player, CBS’ small screen version of Perry Mason’s confidential secretary turned out to be a lot less glamorous and a lot more silent than any her predecessors. Notepad and pencil in hand, a devoted smile on her lips, Della soon became the epitomized Girl Friday of the Fifties and Sixties and Barbara Hale merged with her alter ego in the hearts and minds of many fans.

Appreciated by real life secretaries for her quiet professionalism from the start, Della Street quickly won the affection of her co-stars and audience, receiving her first Emmy award in 1959 along with leading man Raymond Burr, as well as another nomination in 1961.

It was the love to detail and realism the actress herself and the wardrobe department invested in making Della so feasible. From her practical curls and simple heels, to her unobtrusive makeup, Miss Street oozed class at Perry Mason’s office and never took center stage to outshine her boss.

Looking pristine at work and dapper thereafter, Della always dressed to a tee, was cordial and polite. She also liked to work for a living, didn’t mind overtime and, most importantly, wasn’t on the look-out for a husband to give her a life. Well respected, skilled and loyal, Della was an astute observer with an eye for expensive clothing, a nose for exclusive perfumes and a tongue that liked to appraise new clients with utmost discretion but obvious consent from Mr. Mason.

In eighty-one whodunits and twelve years on CBS radio, Miss Street had no age, no eye color, no measurements. As the Della Street who’s left a lasting impression on generations of Perry Mason fans, Barbara Hale shaped the image of a gentle and professional woman. Dressing typically for the time, her wardrobe underlined her femininity and accentuated her curves.

Called “beautiful” by Paul Drake, Perry Mason’s detective friend, she was proper and elegant, her outfits appropriate and always covering her knees – the latter upon insistence of executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson who didn’t want the show to look dated by following every trend, especially when shorter hemlines were introduced every other month in the Sixties.

In order to make her believable beyond her skills, Della only owned a limited collection of affordable clothes and repeatedly wore the same outfits, showing variation only by combining her scarfs and sweaters with another skirt. Her trademark look was presentable and neat: shirt waist dresses (including one with her embroidered initials), pencil skirts, cardigans and blouses that embellished her neck with a bow.

In the first season, Della constantly ran her errands on mules which were later replaced by a classy pair of heels. As an accessory, Della often wore a demure pearl necklace, a watch or a charm bracelet on her left wrist while her little finger frequently showed the presence of a simple ring. From time to time, Miss Street was also seen wearing a necklace with a pendant showing her initials, long before Carrie Bradshaw made it fashionable to wear her name around her neck.

In 1985, when Barbara Hale reunited with her screen partner of nine seasons, Raymond Burr, for the Perry Mason TV movies which would last another ten years, she continued the tradition of presenting Della as efficient, devoted, warmhearted and always dressed to the nines. Again, following contemporary but lady-like fashion, Della combined over-knee skirts with stylish boots, turtlenecks, blazer jackets and two layers of pearls. Without changing her hair as much as on the original show (while avoiding the beehive), Della Street kept her cropped, practical curls which added credibility to the on-screen depiction of Perry Mason’s tireless associate.

Today, Della’s look can be re-examined on DVD with the first part of season 7 scheduled for release on August 21, 2012 in the US. Her style can also easily be copied thanks to Pinup Girl Clothing’s Birdie dress, Queen of Holloway’s Mad Men line, Tara Starlet’s Side Button skirt or any other comparable design inspired by more graceful times.

With a circle skirt, blouse and scarf, a classy suit and three inch heels, it’s easy to feel as sophisticated and charming as Della Street. Add a full head of brunette curls, matching intimates, stockings and a petticoat to your outfit and you’ll perfect the sentiment. From where I’m standing it is worth the effort, paying tribute to a character many real life secretaries still love to look at for inspiration. After all, a gracious style is never outdated at the office.

One Response

  1. Laura-Leigh

    How come this comment section is still empty?! I loved this article! Thanks so much for bringing back so many memories of a great show and, also, for inspiring me to polish my office wardrobe à la Della Street.

    Reply

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