This Summer We’re Channelling: Ali MacGraw in “Players”

Ali MacGraw and Dean-Paul Martin in “Players”, 1979 | Paramount Pictures


This Summer We’re Channelling: a recurring seasonal series
in the journal that celebrates both style in film and summertime.

There have been many memorable fashion moments in film, characters inextricably linked with their clothes, influencing generations and fashion movements the world over. But only few actors have had the personal style that would transcend the screen, and fashion. Cary Grant was one of them. Steve McQueen, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, too. And Ali MacGraw.

Ali MacGraw started out in fashion, as an assistant to Harper’s Bazaar’s Diana Vreeland and then stylist to photographer Melvin Sokolsky. She was part of the world of fashion when the American designers were starting to break free from their own buttoned-up sartorial past and other influences, such as the too prim Parisian elegance, and find their own voice, liberation and trend-resistant style. Clothes started to be more than appearance and frozen perfection. Clothes started to be used as an expression of one’s personality, mere things quickly thrown together before going on with your life. Individuality and independence were the equalizer.

Ali MacGraw had the authenticity, self-confidence, resolute demeanor and classic American sensibility that contributed to her instinctive style. But, as she herself confessed in a Vogue interview, she also had the right person to guide her fashion sense – “I met Halston when he was making hats at Bergdorf Goodman. You ask me what really guided my fashion sense in 1967 and before—it was that guy.”

She also had another American designer, also a byword for American style, Calvin Klein, to dress her in Players (1979). In the book Point of View, Tonne Goodman recalls how the Calvin Klein fashion campaign models “became the essence of unabridged style, whether in collections, jeans, or nude,” and how the shootings would last for days because they had to get the models ready to enter a certain world and so they had to get tanned, work out and rest and do extensive fittings to attain “the Calvin Klein look”. Ali MacGraw already represented the essence of that unabridged style. She didn’t have to get into character to wear Calvin Klein. She “exemplified the great American style”, the designer himself noted, and she immortalized it on screen in the 1970s, defining an era when women were both liberated and celebrated for their femininity.

Players is an easily forgettable romantic drama, but “as a Hollywood tennis sports movie, it’s pretty good”, as Quentin Tarantino noted. Producer Robert Evans, an enthusiastic tennis player, wanted to make a convincing film about tennis (some of the best tennis players in the world, Guillermo Vilas, John McEnroe and Ilie Năstase, appear in the movie) and he wanted a professional tennis player who could act. Dean Martin’s son, Dean-Paul Martin, who played tennis professionally, got the role of the rising tennis star Chris, and Ali MacGraw, Evans’ former wife to whom he had remained close, plays Nicole, a jet-setter involved with a millionaire and who falls in love with the much younger than her Chris. Ali MacGraw’s wardrobe is the second good reason to watch the film.

Ali MacGraw, Dean-Paul Martin and Guillermo Vilas in “Players”, 1979 | Paramount Pictures

Her wardrobe is simple. It is a mix of sporty separates and relaxed elegant pieces. Denim shirts. Knitted jersey dresses. White jeans. Long flared skirts and white shirts with rolled-up sleeves and knotted at the front. A knee length skirt and a long sleeved black sweater. Loose-fitting trench. Easy slip-on dresses. And the coolest, most laid back and liberating look of all, mismatched long V-neck knitted sweater and flowy, silky long skirt (image on the tennis court above) – “This is me”, she seems to say. She’s naturally sexy and uncompromisingly modern. That all-encompassing modern style that is comfortable and easy to wear and effortlessly elegant for the woman on the go. For Ali MacGraw, this was not a sought-after look, something that fashion simply had to offer, it was instinctively hers, and it was stripped of any detail that could distract attention from her real self. It was her attitude that moved the youth toward a collective all-American look.

Calvin Klein is one those American fashion master minimalists that cemented the American design aesthetic and inspired generations of designers. But he wasn’t alone in accomplishing this: he had a great design team besides him, namely Zack Carr, who for nearly three decades was the brand’s creative director, who had a great contribution to defining the sexy, clean and minimal Calvin Kline style, which remains consistent to this very day. “I first met Zack in the very early days at Calvin Klein, where he was very much part of that brilliant new design studio,” Ali MacGraw recounts in the book Zack Carr. “Calvin and his team did all the clothes for me for two films. I got to see Zack’s immense talent at work over and over again. I think that he had a big part in the creation of the look that is “Calvin Klein” – the elegance, the color sense, the timelessness, the modernity. But what I think of above all, when I think of my friend Zack, is the quality of human being he was: tremendously talented, of course, but kind and funny and decent and humble. He was a shining star in a particular world that so often produces ego and competitiveness before humanity.”

True style requires a little more than clothes. I believe Ali MacGraw and Zack Carr for Calvin Klein made a pretty good team together.
More stories: This Summer We’re Channelling: The Safari Style in “Hatari” / An American Original: Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” / The All-Natural Look of Two Mythical Creatures: Thelma and Louise

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