For many growing up in the 60s, Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel was their first style icon. Over two seasons on The Avengers opposite Patrick Macnee’s Steed, Peel kung fu kicked down television’s puritanical costume regulations to create a character who came to define the look of the swinging 60s. As important as Mary Quant or Twiggy, Rigg’s Peel was perhaps more influential as, through the medium of TV, she was seen by a bigger audience.
Working with fashion designer John Bates, Peel made several televisual sartorial firsts including black polo necks, PVC jumpsuits, low-rise hipster trousers, flat boots and anything with an exposed zip.
After the leather catsuit she wore in the first series, designer Frederick Starke was brought on board to design a whole leather wardrobe for the second series. Some of the garments were faux leather so her character could be more mobile. “Leather doesn’t give much and with [Peel] being thrown about and throwing people about it could split,” he told TV Times. “[Faux leather has] more stretch in the material.” Whether real or not, the material prompted Macnee to comment: “Leather clings to her like an animal’s skin.”
Combining Mod with an avant garde, fetishistic element, The Avengers was a show that was fighting against the prudish mores of the day. Peel wore a miniskirt on the show before it had attained ubiquity, and legend has it that Bates stopped leaving hems on them because members of the production team kept making them longer. “The designer and the other men were horrified,” she told the TV Times. “They pulled their hair, said, ‘You can’t do that, it’s impossible.’ I argued that one must look forward and not back, and by wearing these brief skirts, one was looking forward.
“In fact, one was creating fashion [that was] very avant garde, rather than remaining at the tail end of last year’s styles. And it turned out that I couldn’t have been more right.” As well as austere approaches to costumes, Peel’s outfits shifted the dial on what was possible on TV. Her op art-inspired clothing was considered too strange for the flat screen. But they did it anyway.
But more than a style leader, Rigg’s Peel was a conduit for viewers. A bridge between postwar, suburban Britain and the new era that was happening in cities. “Mrs Peel was the ideal broker of the UK into the swinging world of the 60s,” Toby Miller, then a New York University film professor, told the New York Times in 1998. “She exuded the same style, confidence and beauty that were central to the abiding appeal of James Bond.”
• This article was amended on 20 September 2020 to make it clear that Toby Miller was formerly at New York University.