You may not think of the TV series MASH (1972–1983) as a frock flick. But the half-hour sitcom was set during the Korean War, from 1950-53, and located in a U.S. Army Mobile Army Surgical Hospital near Uijeongbu, South Korea. This also happens to be my favorite TV show ever, I’ve seen each episode of the 11-season run a billion times, and I can quote the dialog from many of them by heart. I adore Alan Alda and his character of Hawkeye Pierce for his combination of comedic chops and humanitarianism. So it’s about time I throw my beloved show a TBT bone!
This show ended almost 40 gasp years ago, but it stands up to repeated viewings IMO because a) it’s funny and b) it’s relevant. MASH humor is both high and low, inspired by the Marx Brothers and Shakespeare in equal measure, with physical comedy, word play, sexual innuendo, running gags, and more jam-packed in every episode. Equally important is the deep empathy and idealism of the characters contrasted with the miserable war setting they’re in. The balance between comedy and drama is deftly done, and this was one of the first TV shows to really master the form.
Not to mention MASH may well be the longest running historical period TV show around, with 256 half-hour episodes. For comparison, Mad Men (2007-2015) ran for 92 hour-long episodes. Of course, for all our ‘golden age of historical drama’ talk of today, 1970s-90s TV really knew how to bust out historical shows. Little House on the Prairie ran from 1974 to 1982 with 204 hour-long episodes and several follow-up movies and miniseries. Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (1993-1998) likewise kept at it for 149 one-hour episodes and several movies. And let’s not forget all those 1980s biopics Kendra loves! There’s some context for ya.
What’s truly impressive in watching MASH today is how modern yet not totally anachronistic the storylines are in terms of attitudes towards race, gender, and sexual orientation. Americans of the 1950s were notoriously repressed and bigoted, and MASH included several main characters that represented these points of view, such as Frank Burns (played by Larry Linville) and special guest stars. But they were contrasted with main characters like Hawkeye, Trapper John (played by Wayne Rogers), and then B.J. Hunnicutt (played by Mike Farrell). Because these doctors were supposed to be iconoclasts and “non-typical” 1950s Army doctor-conscripts, they could express non-traditional 1950s attitudes without it seeming weirdly out of place.
For example, in a season two episode titled “George” that first aired February 16, 1974, a wounded solider, George, admits to Hawkeye that he’s gay. Frank Burns finds out and wants to have the soldier dishonorably discharged, which was standard for homosexuals in the Army of the period. Hawkeye and Trapper conspire to stop Frank and protect the soldier. They do this both because George’s sexuality is none of Frank’s business and because Frank’s sanctimoniousness irritates them. However, throughout the first three seasons, Hawkeye and Trapper make casual gay jokes, calling each other “Mary” and doing a “sissy” prance, etc. They nominally act like typical ’50s guys, but they’re just not crusading bigots about it. A more modern tolerance is not shoe-horned in; it suits the characters.
Similarly, the series has a nuanced take on race in the 1950s. The U.S. Army had just been officially desegregated by executive order in 1948, so MASH accurately depicted African-American soldiers and nurses. In the first season, there was a black surgeon who’d been featured in the movie version, Capt. Spearchucker Jones (played by Timothy Brown), but the role was dropped.
More interesting were the storylines that dealt with active racism, such as the episode “Dear Dad … Three,” first airing November 10, 1973. A wounded white soldier asks to make sure he gets the ‘right color’ of blood, implying a difference in race and blood. Hawkeye, Trapper, and Nurse Ginger Bayliss (played by Odessa Cleveland, an African-American woman) teach him a lesson and tell the audience about the real Dr. Charles R. Drew, the African-American medical researcher who greatly improved blood storage during World War II.
Later in the show’s run, in season 10’s “The Tooth Shall Set You Free,” first airing February 8, 1982, a racist commander was exposed for assigning his African-American soldiers to particularly dangerous assignments that were likely to get them killed. The MASH doctors used data and eyewitness accounts from their patients (including guest star Laurence Fishburne) to get the man to confess and resign his commission.
Because the show was ostensibly set in South Korea, relations between the white Americans and the local Asians was a consistent theme. Characters like Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) consistently treated “local indigenous people” with respect. In contrast, the usually bigoted Frank Burns and guest stars like Col. Flagg from Army Intelligence and some soldiers fresh off the front line might use crude racist slang, but this was disparaged by other characters. Considering that Asians were included in the prevalent racism of the 1950s (note how anti-miscegenation laws in the Pacific Coast states were targeted at Chinese people), this again balances the historical point of view with the increasingly tolerant 1970s-80s attitudes from when the show was made.
The show’s treatment of women was more ambiguous. There was only one main female character, Margaret Houlihan (played by Loretta Swit), the head nurse. The rest of the nurses were practically interchangeable — they were Nurse Able or Nurse Baker most of the time. But Margaret transformed over the years from just a stickler-for-the-rules to a complicated woman trying to balance her Army career and desire for a personal life. At least her portrayal feels appropriate to the 1950s, she’s not an anachronistic feminist. Margaret is tough because she’s a woman working in a man’s world, but she’s still a woman doing a woman’s job. She embodies the contradictions of the period.
Hawkeye and most of the surgeons started the show as rampant womanizers, although their sexual escapades were always consensual, with women just as likely to turn a doctor down as accept a proposition. Over time, these storylines faded away, but occasionally they’d pop up but more pointedly. In the final 11th season, the episode “Hey, Look Me Over” takes Hawkeye to task for his shallow focus on female appearances by Nurse Kelley (who is “part Chinese, part Hawaiian”), and in the episode “Who Knew?” Hawkeye’s one-night stand with a nurse ends tragically.
Historical Costumes in M*A*S*H
Given that this is a show set in the military, the vast majority of the costumes are uniforms, and as I’ve said before, uniforms don’t give us much to talk about costume-wise. They’re either accurate or they’re not, and there isn’t a ton of variation. While I’m no Korean War uniform expert, I do spend time on MASH fan forums where actual Korean Army vets post, and they’ll nitpick various things, but I haven’t seen major complaints about the uniforms. So let’s look at what I do know and what stands out — the few 1950s women’s dresses, plus some of the pretty darn modern hair.
It’s been very difficult to find costume designer info for the run of the series. All IMDB lists are Rita Bennett and Albert H. Frankel as costumers for the final episode in 1983, which they received an Emmy nomination for. The individual TV episodes don’t list costume designers in the credits at all (just set decorators). So I don’t have a lot to go on other than my own obsessive lifetime of watching and rewatching the show here!
Hairstyles in M*A*S*H
And a mention of B.J.’s mustache. Starting with World War I, all branches of the U.S. military prohibited beards and mustaches on recruits. Specifically, this was so gas masks would fit better with the start of chemical warfare. Facial hair regulations were loosened in the 1970s and have gone back and forth since in different branches. But during the Korean War, guys would have been expected to be clean-shaven. B.J. starts that way, but by season 7, he’s grown a mustache that becomes a target for Hawkeye’s jokes. However, the ‘stash is never subject to critique for being against regs.
The Klinger Collection
Most of the ’50s dresses, civilian dresses that is, were worn by Corporal Max Klinger (played by Jamie Farr), a soldier who was bucking for a Section 8, meaning a psychiatric discharge. MASH creator Larry Gelbart was inspired by tales comedian Lenny Bruce told of wearing women’s clothes in the military, and Gelbart created the character of Klinger as a one-off joke. But the joke landed well, so they kept Klinger with the dresses.
The character of Klinger was not gay or transgender, and he makes a point of saying so in the season 2 episode “Radar’s Report” when he’s interviewed by psychiatrist Dr. Freedman. Klinger says he’s “just crazy!” — his assumption is that a cisgender heterosexual man wouldn’t want to wear dresses unless he was mentally unstable in some way (a mainstream attitude for the period). But Dr. Freedman can only grant him a Section 8 if he’s gay or “transsexual,” per 1950s usage. Klinger’s dress-wearing is generally accepted by most of the characters, and even the “regular Army” commander Colonel Potter who takes over in season five realizes this is a charming quirk. Only the negatively drawn characters such as Frank Burns criticize Klinger’s dress-wearing.
With his increasing role in season 2, we start to see Klinger’s wardrobe develop. It’s not strictly 1950-53 all the time, and I think his dresses tend to be more late 1940s or early 1960s. This may be what fit Jamie Farr and looked interesting from a storyline and art direction point of view. The full-skirted “New Look” 1950s silhouette would have been cumbersome in a busy war zone, not to mention a tight filming set, so a straight-skirted shape would be easier all around. “V” necklines and low-cut necks show off Farr’s hairy chest for comedic effect. Bright colors, pastels, and prints show up pleasingly against the Army drab that everyone else wore. Accessories didn’t need to match, they were just as likely chosen to be more garish or outlandish, hence flowery hats, fur stoles, big clip-on earrings, and shiny baubles.
Season 3 is when Klinger really comes into his fashion sense, starting with the first episode, “The General Flipped at Dawn.” The character is still a minor player but is included in most every episode.
Jamie Farr became a series regular cast member in season 4, and his wardrobe begins to expand.
Season 7 is the last full year of Klinger’s cross-dressing, and many new outfits are introduced, along with repeats and several of the most outrageous costumes. Going out with a bang!
In season 8, Klinger stopped wearing women’s clothes on a regular basis. Jamie Farr was getting tired of the shtick, and the tone of the show was changing from fewer sight gags and more serious topics. This coincided with the actor playing Radar O’Reilly leaving, so Klinger’s character became the unit’s company clerk. All of this meant the cross-dressing bit was only trotted out again for specific stunts with high impact.
According to a blog post from the Smithsonian, Klinger’s female costumes were often recycled from the 20th Century Fox wardrobe department. In particular, during the season 7 episode “Major Ego,” first airing on November 6, 1978, Klinger goes through a series of ‘stars of the silver screen’ costumes, including a Gone With the Wind tribute, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and a Bette Davis homage proclaiming “what a dump!” (which she says in the 1949 film, Beyond the Forest), while wearing a coat pink wool coat that was originally made for Betty Grable.
Then, in the season 8 episode. “April Fools,” that aired on March 24, 1980, Klinger wore a gold lamé gown first made for Ginger Rogers. It was altered for Jamie Farr and turned into a ‘queen of the Nile’ outfit.
Get a taste of Klinger’s fashion in action here:
Other Civilian Clothes in M*A*S*H
We only see Margaret Houlihan out of uniform and in civilian clothes twice — for her wedding to Lt. Colonel Donald Penobscott and for an attempted date with Private Jack Scully. It’s interesting that both of these “dress” events are romances that turn sour, because her overarching story is how difficult it is for a woman in the 1950s to have her own career and also have some semblance of a romantic or family life. Margaret doesn’t figure this out within the series, but she revisits it and adds depth to the idea each time. A decade before The Feminine Mystique, she’s worried about being confined into the life of a housewife when she could be so much more.
Other civilian clothes are worn by guest stars. The first season ends with a USO show, where the singing trio looks more 1960s than 1950s.
Compare with this actual singing group that performed for troops in Korea:
Another view into civilian life was home movies. These tended to be where the wardrobe department got the costumes most correct.
Are there any other MAS*H fans out there?