Perry Mason Hits the 1930s

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Normally I am not a huge fan of gritty reboots, but the new HBO Perry Mason (2020) series immediately caught my eye. While the original long running TV show Perry Mason (1957-1966) was set contemporaneously with the era it was filmed in, this new series flashes back to Mason’s start in the legal profession in 1930s Los Angeles. It is also helped by the fact that Mason is portrayed by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, one of those actors who is always satisfying to watch because he’s really good and he’s easy on the eyes. Since we are only halfway through the series run, this post is not going to delve too deeply into the plot, but there’s been enough good costume content so far to talk about, so I figured a post was in order!

Matthew Rhys as the eponymous Perry Mason.

I do want to put a trigger warning on this post, though, mainly to warn readers that the show is a very rough watch in places. The plot centers around the high-profile kidnapping of a baby, which goes awry and results in the death of the baby. Gruesome scenes involving the baby, as well as others who befall brutal deaths is pretty much peppered throughout the first 4 episodes that I’ve watched so far. For some people that will be a deal breaker, and I get it. That’s why I will be sticking to the costume content rather than the plot development.

And because this is set in the 1930s, the menswear isn’t all that interesting (suits and variations on them for everyone with a Y chromosome) so I’m going to focus on the women’s clothing from here on out.

The principle male cast members from L-R: Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow), Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), Maynard Barnes (Stephen Root)

 

Della Street (Juliet Rylance)

Della is the assistant to attorney, E.B. Jonathan, and is his done-with-your-shit Girl Friday. She’s always smartly dressed, and is unquestionably the brains of the outfit.

Love this sweater!

 

Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany)

Sister Alice is based on real-life celebrity preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. In the show, she primarily wears a white satin bias-cut dress with various stoles and collars switched out depending on the sermon. She does occasionally get to wear regular clothes, which are always light-colored and tastefully fashionable.

Special nod to Lily Taylor, who plays Sister Alice’s controlling mother, Birdy who is always soberly dressed in blacks and dark colors in contrast to the pale colors worn by Sister Alice.

 

Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin)

I was excited to see Gayle Rankin in this show, having loved her character Sheila the She-Wolf on G.L.O.W. Here she plays Emily, the grieving mother of the murdered baby, whose life just keeps getting crappier and crappier.

 

Lupe Gibbs (Veronica Falcón)

Probably my favorite female character in the show, Lupe is the closest thing Perry Mason has for a love interest, and that’s not saying much. She’s allegedly based on Florence “Pancho” Barnes, a female pilot and entrepreneur of the 1930s, though that’s really the extent of the similarity. She’s usually dressed in stylish, but practical trousers, blouse and boots. She does get a sexy velvet gown for the New Year’s scene, too.

 

Miss Prystock

No idea who this actress is because she’s not listed on IMDB, but she’s cute and dresses amazingly. She is introduced in the fourth episode as a young woman who lives in the same house as Della. Both her costumes were noteworthy, so I included her here. At one point she wears a Chinese pajama set, including matching gloves, that is undoubtedly an original 1930s set.

 

Are you watching the new Perry Mason? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

21 Responses

  1. Roxana.

    Who the heck is E.B. Jonathan and why is Della his secretary instead of Perry’s?
    I was watching the Raymond Burr Perry Mason the other day and I suddenly realized why his relationship with Della never goes anywhere.
    Della: Perry, as you wife I wouldn’t put up with this crap. As your secretary you pay me too. I like that arrangement.

    Reply
    • Butler

      This is essentially a “prequel” to the Perry Mason we know and love. In the mini-series Perry isn’t an attorney yet, just a down on his luck PI. Hope that explains it.

      Reply
      • Coco

        From random moments so far, like when he was on the witness stand in the first episode, I assume that he already studied law. Either he gave up practicing due to the his experiences in WWI or never took the bar. I don’t think the final episode is going to end with him opening an envelope and shouting, ‘I did it! I got into UCLA Law School!’

        Reply
  2. Frannie Germeshausen

    Those Chinese pajamas had me squee-ing so loud we had to rewind to hear dialogue. DEFINITELY original. I love the linings on Della’s coats, and Lupe’s swagger in her flying gear. I had to laugh when they said “let’s go to the diner” and the interior is Musso & Frank’s, definitely not a diner. So many beautiful original interiors . . . Yeah, it’s rough, yeah, how does this feed into the franchise we grew up watching in black and white, but really enjoying the vintage LA-ness.

    Reply
  3. Colleen

    I have been watching, although I haven’t seen the most recent episode yet. It’s definitely gritty, and I’m missing the court side of it.

    Reply
  4. Mylla

    Pssst, this may not be the best sentence, you know there are more to a man than a Y chromosome! (suits and variations on them for everyone with a Y chromosome)

    Reply
      • SarahV

        Yep, that was really really awful – if you can fast-forward right past it, you are in for a rewarding show. To give fair warning, there is some pretty gruesome violence, but the scene with the baby….. yeah, that was hard to get passed.

        Reply
  5. Mitzy Carter

    I am watching and I will be doing a blog post on the absurdity of Perry’s little camera and the beautiful big prints he gets out of it, lol. I am enjoying it, though. Also, somehow, I think that might not have been the right baby?

    Reply
  6. SarahV

    What I love are the little things like the conservation of Della’s wardrobe – she’s a stylish working woman in the midst of the Great Depression; she looks sharp and snazzy, but she definitely only has so many coats – there is a great article linked to over TLo that links to the Hollywood Reporter going over the costumes and how Della’s outfits have repairs made them by the character herself.

    Also! John Lithgow’s performance is a tour de force in a long career full of’em. I hope he nabs an Emmy nomination. And whoever paired him up with a vainglorious showboating Stephen Root as the District Attorney is a genius!

    For those of you who saw the episode – I watched the most recent episode (4) a few times and I could quite make out the dialogue, but what was the in-story explanation for the gloves on Miss Prystock – is she a hand model? Did I hear that?

    Reply
      • Frannie Germeshausen

        I remembered that gloves at night can help keep the moisturizer in place, so if she’s a hand model, that makes perfect sense. It is LA after all.

        Reply
  7. Jane Limbach

    I’m loving this series. It has a very Hopper-esque look to it.
    Love the cast.

    Reply
  8. Kinehild

    Sarah, you’re a truly wonderful human being and I appreciate your insight and opinions. I may not be like 100% sober, but I am 100% serious, you make my brain happy.

    Reply
  9. ctrent29

    Already a big fan of series. I have seen some episodes of Burr’s Perry Mason from both the 1950s and 80s. But to be honest, I’m more familiar with the actor as Ironside. Being an Angeleno and a history buff, this new “Perry Mason” is very appealing to me. And besides, I’m one of those who like a good mystery.

    Reply
  10. Heather Ripley

    Can’t wait to see this when it comes out on Netflix (I hope!) and thanks for the warning about the baby scenes.

    Reply
  11. Addie

    I kind of don’t get this as an adaptation? Like we watch Perry Mason every night in our house for the cheese and 60’s helmet do’s. “Perry Mason” is an interesting case study as the early seasons are thriller/noir of the 1940s, which fade out into a brief foray into a highly-technical courtroom drama (using legal terms beyond “I object”? How novel!) in middle seasons before becoming one big Peyton Place-type soap opera with rotating characters. Perry and the gang barely show up until 3/4 of the way into the episode in later days. It’s not baby death and nudity, it’s using the phrase “hopped up on goofballs” and loudly declaring that “I designed the singing spaceship!” and they stole my patent so I had to kill them! (This is also true of a miracle cure for goldfish one time. I’m sure it would’ve made millions, that goldfish medicine.) Or the hammy meltdown in court as they say “And then I hit him. I hit him I hit him I hit him!” (sobbing).
    Seriously though I highly recommend the show for 60’s cheese and the goofiest hair and hats that the era has to offer. It’s not Sam Spade or Poirot and definitely not L.A. Confidential; it’s more like Dragnet meets General Hospital.

    Reply
  12. Karen K.

    I just started watching and one thing has always puzzled me about some period dramas — do they really think that nobody in the 1930s wore bright colors? In the crowd scenes everyone is wearing such dull colors, they look so downtrodden! Is that a trope because of the Depression? Or did no one wear bright colors? It all looks so muddy and I’ve noticed it on other period dramas as well, especially the working-class Victorians.

    Reply

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