Fashionista: The Mary Wills Story

Photo courtesy Ingrid Hunnewell

"Designing for the Ice Follies is like painting in action. Ice Follies has the greatest scope and the fastest pace of any form of theatrical entertainment. I consider this one of the biggest challenges of my career." - Mary Wills

The daughter of Mary (Champie) and Dr. Euclid Clarence 'Doc' Wills, Mary Lillian Wills was born July 4, 1914 in Prescott, Arizona. Her father was a family physician and when Mary was a teenager, his work brought the family to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Left: Dr. Euclid Clarence Wills. Right: Mary Wills. Photo courtesy Ingrid Hunnewell.

Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Mary studied theater and art at the University Of Arizona and University Of New Mexico. She was described as having a "bubbling personality [and] astonishing vitality" by her Theta sorority sisters. After completing her studies, she went east to New York City - ignoring the advice of her family and friends - with big dreams of being a big actress, or failing that, a set designer. She maade ends meet by working as a counter salesperson at Saks Fifth Avenue then got her first big break - a scholarship to enter Yale University's Art And Drama School. She earned her masters there and made history as the first woman to graduate from the Costume Design department. Her very first job out of Yale was designing costumes for an ice show in New Haven, Connecticut.

The lure of designing costumes for the silver screen brought Mary to Hollywood. Her exceptional talent for costume design led her to design dresses for plays, summer stock companies, operas, television and film. She even created uniforms for the staff of the Space Needle Restaurant in Seattle. Legendary actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Collins wore her creations. Her many film credits included "The Diary Of Anne Frank", "The Virgin Queen", "Funny Girl", "Hans Christian Anderson" and "Paint Your Wagon". She received no less than seven Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design between 1952 and 1976, winning the coveted award in 1962 for her work on the MGM film "The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm." Like Midas, anything she touched turned to gold. In Hollywood, they called her special flair for fashion 'The Wills Touch'.

Mary Wills' fashions for Ice Follies skaters. Photos courtesy Ingrid Hunnewell.

Largely passed over is Mary's role in shaping the fashions of professional figure skating. She began working as a costume designer for the Ice Follies in 1962, at a time when the show was already hugely popular. With a whopping four hundred thousand dollar budget, Mary and her team at the company's Hollywood costume shop took the look of the tour's skaters to a whole new level of glamour.

Left: Eddie Shipstad and Mary Wills. Right: Mary Wills at the drawing board. Photo courtesy Ingrid Hunnewell.

Mary had lace imported from Belgium and Luxembourg, marabou feathers and ostrich plumes brought in from Africa and white swans breast and stripped peacock feathers delivered from India. Working with everything from nylon tulle to Thai silk, the gowns she created for the women featured in Richard Dwyer's famous Young Debonair act had jaws dropping. In 1966, she remarked, "I used to think the skates hampered me as a designer but now I see them as an advantage. They give you height where you need it - in a long leg line. That's better than putting a tall hat on a little girl."

Mary Wills' fashions for Ice Follies skaters. Photos courtesy Ingrid Hunnewell.

Mary left her position at the Ice Follies in the capable hands of Helen Colvig in 1967 and moved on to other projects but one of her very last jobs before retiring in 1983 was designing Dorothy Hamill's dresses for the television production "The Nutcracker: A Fantasy On Ice". She died of renal failure in Sedona, Arizona at the age of eighty two on February 7, 1997, her contributions to figure skating fashion largely overlooked.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":