I have long been a fan of The British Television series 'The Avengers'. I started watching the series as a child in the seventies, by the eighties I was raiding my Mothers wardrobe for her vintage sixties ski pants and anything else that looked vaguely Emma Peelesque, so that I could try to emulate her style.
I loved all the Avengers women, but Diana Rigg, Emma Peel was my style icon of choice, what a great role model, especially to a feisty 13 year old tomboy who was making the transition to fashionable young lady. Emma Peel was beautiful, intelligent, gutsy and the perfect foil to Patrick Macnee's debonair Steed.
I loved the surreality and often whacky plots of The Avengers, Steed and his sidekick racing round the leafy lanes of Southern England, hot on the trail of some eccentric villain intent on threatening the security of Britain.
For the fourth season, the last to be filmed in black and white, a new female partner appeared in October 1965: Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). The name of the character derived from a comment by writers, during development, that they wanted a character with "man appeal". In an early attempt to incorporate this concept into the character's name, she was called "Samantha Peel", shortened to the awkward "Mantha Peel," Eventually the writers began referring to the idea by the verbal shorthand, "M. Appeal.", which gave rise to the character's ultimate name of "Emma Peel." The character, whose husband went missing while on a South American exploration, retained the self-assuredness of Gale, combined with superior fighting skills, intelligence, and a contemporary fashion sense.
After more than 60 actresses had been auditioned, the first choice to play this role was actress Elizabeth Shepherd. However, after filming one and a half episodes, Shepherd was released, as her on-screen personality did not seem as interesting as that of Blackman's Gale. Another 20 actresses were auditioned before the show's casting director suggested that producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell check out a televised drama featuring the relatively unknown Rigg. Her screen test with Macnee showed that the two immediately worked well together, and a new era in Avengers history began.
Her style of dress typified the period, and the character is still a fashion icon. John Bates was brought in as the costume designer for Emma Peel in the second half of Season 4. He created a wardrobe of black and white op-art mod clothing and mini skirts. Before this, people had believed that lines, circles and other bold patterns would not work on the television cameras of the day. It was also filmed before the mini skirt had become mainstream. Bates even had to stop leaving hems on the mini skirts because the production team kept lowering them again. He also licensed his designs to several manufacturers under the Avengerswear label and these pieces were sold in various shops throughout the country.
(Bates apprenticed under Gerard Pipart at Herbert Sidon. From 1959 he began designing under the name Jean Varon.
Bates' work as Jean Varon in the 1960s was particularly modernistic. He designed dresses with bare midriffs, sheer panels, and very short hemlines, and as early as 1962 was designing high-fashion plastic garments. In 1965, one of his dresses with a mesh midriff was chosen as the Dress of the Year and donated to the Fashion Museum in Bath, which in 2006 held a major retrospective show of his work.
One of Bates' most influential champions was Marit Allen, the editor of British Vogue's Young Ideas spread, who considered Bates the true inventor of the miniskirt, rather than Mary Quant or André Courrèges. Ernestine Carter also observed Bates' originality, noting that the Paris fashion collections for 1967 contained many looks which Bates had done first.
In 1965 Bates designed memorable outfits for Diana Rigg to wear for her role as Emma Peel in The Avengers, including Op-Art mini-coats and accessories in graphic black and white, and a silver vinyl ensemble comprising a bra bodice, low-slung trousers, and a jacket. In the same vein he designed a modernistic space-age wedding outfit for Marit Allen in 1966 consisting of a white gabardine mini-coat and matching dress.
Jean Shrimpton Modelling a John Bates Dress
She is often best-remembered for the leather catsuit she wore early on in her first season. Rigg, in fact, disliked wearing leather and John Bates designed softer stretch jersey and PVC catsuits for her instead. For the colour season, the designer was Alun Hughes who used bold colours and lurid, psychedelic patterns. Hughes also created the Emmapeeler catsuit which was made of stretch jersey in bright block colours. The Emmapeelers and several other pieces from this season's wardrobe were also licensed and sold in the shops.
She drove a convertible Lotus Elan at high speeds, and convincingly portrayed any series of undercover roles, from nurse to nanny. Her favourite guise was that of a women's magazine reporter, trying to interview big business tycoons and rich playboys.
At the end of the 5th season in 1967, Rigg left to pursue major stardom in other projects, including a Bond film like Blackman. No farewell episode had been planned. She was recalled, under her contract, to appear in the episode that was to become the first of the 6th season ("The Forget-Me-Knot") which explained her departure. At its end, Peel's husband, Peter Peel, was found alive and rescued, and she left the British secret service to be with him, "passing the torch" to her successor on the stairway to Steed's apartment with the remark "He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise." (From Steed's viewpoint looking out the window to the driveway below, Peter remarkably resembles Steed, only with a moustache.)
Rigg and Macnee have remained lifelong friends.