NEW YORK - The leather jumpsuits Diana Rigg wore as Emma Peel in The Avengers are a part of TV lore, like the bus driver's uniform worn by Ralph Kramden.
But the elegant fashions Rigg wears this season to introduce Mystery (a long-running PBS series) could be destined to outshine Loretta Young's inanely swirling tulles (well matched to the dramas they preceeded) in the pantheon of TV-hostess wardrobes.
Rigg's Mystery wardrobe is aimed at creating a chic and civilized image. The sole concession to theatricality is the reflection of period stories with a more formal look.
The series began with a taffeta Oscar de la Renta with wing- sleeves, plunging neckline and rose at the waist - and the season ends with a Saint Laurent woollen daytime suit in black with red lapels and cuffs.
It was decided from the start that the clothes should be limited to black, white and red which, coincidentally, are the only colors Rigg wears - so it was a simple matter for her to use her own wardrobe.
To introduce the Albert Campion, she has worn slinky crepe and sequins; for Rumpole of the Bailey she is in tailored black silk jacket and pants and red shirt; for the Hercule Poirot episodes she is in a short beaded ivory dress; for Inspector Morse she is in a daytime black suit with white blouse; and the St. Laurent suit is worn to introduce P.D. James's Inspector Adam Dalgleish.
Rigg certainly did not look like a clotheshorse the day I met her at the Wyndham Hotel, where she was nothing if not understated. All in black (knitted shift, stockings and pumps) her hair was cut in an unassuming bob and she wore no makeup.
She had just come from taping her final Mystery episode and looked, at 51 ("I see no point in disguising my age"), as if she coud still do justice to her Avenger outfits.
Perhaps she might not leap around with quite the same agility.
"I look at pictures of Jane Fonda and I see that my muscle delineation is nothing compared with hers. I am fit - I play tennis, swim, fish, but spending time in an exercise room with all that equipment would depress the living daylights out of me."
It is quickly apparent that Rigg does not do what she does not want to do. Living well for the best Avenger does not mean maintaining the glamor image - it's mostly jeans, she explained, when - after working in concentrated doses - she takes months off at a stretch to be with husband Archie Stirling (a businessman, farmer and occasional theatre producer) and her daughter Rachael, who is 12.
The family divides its time between their late Regency house in Kensington and Stirling's ancestral home, a 50,000-acre estate in Scotland.
Rigg likes being married to a rich man because she never made a great deal of money herself (for most of her time as Emma Peel, she was making only 100 pounds a week).
Even as an established actress (she hates the word star) she probably couldn't afford the wardrobe nor the jewelry, including a pearl choker with a diamond in the centre, which she put at the disposal of Mystery.
Rigg is careful to spend as much time as she can with her daughter, because she did not see a great deal of her own mother. But those expecting stories of a deprived child (so popular with today's stars) are doomed to disappointment.
"Both my brother and I were sent home to England to school, because my parents were in India. Naturally we missed our mother, but it is nothing we get steamed up about."
What occasionally does annoy Rigg is the assumption that the karate-chopping Emma Peel and The Avengers are the sum of her professional career. Still, if audiences on this side of the Atlantic persist in regarding her now as Diana Rigg of Mystery, she won't be resentful.
"In this business you have to be known," she said. Her popular image has not stopped her from becoming one of England's finest and most versatile actresses or getting the chance to play Regan in Laurence Olivier's King Lear.
Like Olivier, Rigg is always terrified of giggling on stage. Once, appearing in a production where the director's French wife was the star, she broke up regularly over a particularly ludicrous line in the show. Finally the star advised how she might overcome the fault: "Think of something sad, Diana. Think of being fired!"
Forgetting her lines has even greater terrors for her. She did it when she was playing in The Misanthrope while rehearsing for Phedre. The strain of performing in two verse dramas at once, both with different metres, brought her to a full stop. Another time, when she was starring in Follies, she skipped an entire verse in one of the songs.
On both occasions she was forthright about her mistake: "I don't believe in bluffing. I told the audience what had happened. They loved me talking to them directly and telling them I had to ask for a cue from the prompt."
You can believe her claim that it isn't in her to pretend things are right when they're wrong - for ex ample, she says she was not good in Follies for the first three months, but after that she was on top of her role; the show ran for a year.
She found the rest of the cast of musical-comedy performers 99.9 per cent more competitive than straight actors. "I suppose it is because it is that much harder to make it in musical theatre."
She has, she wryly admitted, "had a go at everything" including a Broadway appearance in the '70s in Abelard and Heloise, in which she appeared naked - causing John Simon to describe her "as a brick fortress without flying buttresses."
That description appeared in her book No Turn Unstoned - a thesaurus of the deadliest reviews ever written about the theatre's notables, from which she did not spare herself.
In reality she has the body of a fashion model - albeit a sexy fashion model. Even Stephen Sondheim couldn't resist writing a special strip number for her for Follies. Although in this case, she says, "I end up in a sort of corset."
Had it not been for her movie-star looks, Rigg might have stayed in the classical groove, for which she was prepared at RADA. She studied there as a student at the same time as Judi Dench, Albert Finney, Ian Holm and Alan McCowen.
For her latest role, she will be seen in a cruelly unflattering light in Mother Love (which will be aired on Masterpiece Theatre this spring) playing a bitter and repressed neurotic, as uptight as the tailored suits she wears.
Rigg is closemouthed about the production, which is not surprising in someone who hates to do interviews before a show opens. "It seems the wrong way around," she says. "You get bored talking about yourself and you don't know what the critics are going to say about you."
Some have said that a mocking air often threatens to surface in the roles she has played. While Rigg confesses that in her heart of hearts she does not take herself all that seriously, she disagrees. "You can't mock yourself if you are playing Lady Macbeth."
She says her modest wish is simply to go on working into her dotage but, when pressed, she also expresses a desire to have another stab at Cleopatra - and "although I've been very lucky in having two Stoppard plays, if Tom could possibly divvy up for a third ..."
In the meantime, she couldn't be happier with Mystery, and if as an Avenging Angel she paved the way for the Charlier variety, she hopes her hosting of Mystery will induce the networks to use more women hosts.
"The opinion has been that women don't have the gravitas for the job," she said. "That their appearance will detract from what they are saying."
Rigg is already proof that it is not the glamorous clothes on her back as the witty words out of her mouth that have audiences tuning in.
In fact, there is even reason to believe that viewers who had no interest in Albert Campion, Hercule Poirot or other classic mystery figures, may well develop one with Rigg as their guide.
Perhaps, if anything can, that will stop people thinking of black leather whenever her name is mentioned. If so, Diana Rigg will be pleased. She developed such an aversion to it after The Avengers that it wasn't until last year that she could bring herself to buy a leather suit.