You might never have heard of Harriett Mellinger, but she probably had more influence on the 20th Century lingerie industry than Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page combined.
Harriett wasn’t a model, actress or fashion designer; she was the “muse” and “style adviser” to her husband Frederick, who revolutionized women’s intimates in the post-war period with his massive mail-order business Frederick’s of Hollywood.
Throughout the freewheeling ’50s, the swinging ’60s and the sexy ’70s, Frederick’s led the industry by introducing American women to black lingerie, push-up bras, thongs and those sheer, flowing nightgowns you see on Mad Men.
Its erotic innovations turned the family business into an American institution and a cultural force, too. The company’s ubiquitous catalogues brought the sexual revolution to the doorsteps of middle America and its celebrity marketing helped foster the cosy relationship between Hollywood and the fashion world.
Through it all, Harriett stayed out of the spotlight, an otherwise typical California housewife whose husband happened to spend his days thinking of new ways to flatter and reveal the female figure. Her influence, though, was enormous, as Frederick routinely ran his provocative ideas past Harriett for approval and input.
Both Frederick and Harriett (above) have been gone for two decades, but their legacy endures. And Frederick’s of Hollywood — now a publicly traded company with little connection to its founder’s family — has chosen to acknowledge Harriett’s pivotal historic role with a new luxury collection of glamorous, silk-and-lace intimates named for Fred’s girl.
The Harriett label (which has its own website and online shop) consists of three style ranges that offer loungewear, sleepwear and foundations in two-tone black and teal shades with gold and crystal accents. To round out the collection, there are matching open-toed shoes, a clutch and a necklace — all dripping with rhinestones.
According to Frederick’s, the new label is intended as “an ode to the love story behind the legend” and a way to honor a woman whose “insight helped Frederick’s become one of the most recognized brands in the world.”
Harriett is also part of the company’s ongoing effort to revitalize its brand after years of well-publicized financial struggles, and gives Frederick’s an entry into the vintage-inspired lingerie boom as well as the lucrative luxury market. It also adds some much-needed polish to the company’s occasionally lurid history (its founder liked to titillate customers by marketing his goods as “the latest SIN-sation“).
Mostly though, it’s a way to correct a historical oversight, give credit where it’s due, and remind Frederick’s customers of its rich, colorful heritage.
We’ll never know what Harriett herself might have thought of the Harriett line 50 years ago, but it’s presented so tastefully she probably would have been tremendously flattered. And insisted that Fred bring home some samples.
Here’s a look at Harriett. This being Frederick’s, it’s all affordable, with no single piece selling for more than $150.