it’s handled

In the comments for “goodbye to all that,” Blogless Terry made an excellent observation.  Business casual is Olivia Pope.  There’s a difference between the way characters are portrayed in film and the way that real-life women of power dress, sure, but I think that media stands in conversation with the world of real life, and that it simultaneously reflects and molds the ways in which we consider powerful women.

I figured it would be an interesting experiment to look through photographs of professional women in film through the decades, and try to abstract generalizable rules from the images.  Fun times, guys!

[Note: Things are cited when I could, but it’s really tedious to figure out who we’d consider the source.  I look forward to some cease and desist letters.]

His Girl Friday (1940)
Columbia Pictures

His Girl Friday Rosalind Russell

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Hepburn Adam's Rib

The Best of Everything (1959)
20th Century Fox

The Best of Everything

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1979)
CBS, MTM Productions


Network (1976)

Faye Dunaway Network

9 to 5 (1980)
20th Century Fox

NINE TO FIVE, (aka 9 TO 5), Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, 1980. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved..
NINE TO FIVE, (aka 9 TO 5), Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, 1980. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved..

Bear in mind that the ladies of Nine to Five are former secretaries who took over.  So their looks are something of a middle ground.

Baby Boom (1987)
United Artists

Diane Keaton Baby Boom

Working Girl (1988)
20th Century Fox

Working Girl Still

Sex and the City (1998-2006)

Cynthia Nixon S&TC Cynthia Nixon S&TC II

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
20th Century Fox

Miranda Priestly via HelloGiggles

Up in the Air (2009)
Paramount Pictures

Up in the Air

Performance by an actress in a supporting role, Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air" (Paramount in association with Cold Spring Pictures and DW Studios) This image is made available here as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 82nd Annual Academy Awards¨ Nominations Announcement Press Kit. This image may only be used by legitimate members of the press.
Performance by an actress in a supporting role, Vera Farmiga in “Up in the Air” (Paramount in association with Cold Spring Pictures and DW Studios)
This image is made available here as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 82nd Annual Academy Awards¨ Nominations Announcement Press Kit. This image may only be used by legitimate members of the press.

The Good Wife (2008-present)

Diane Lockhart Still

Scandal (2012-present)

Olivia Pope via Marie Claire
Getty Images.

What do we take away from this?  First off, holy pinstripes, right?!  Secondly, there’s a clear lineage here, especially reflected in the colors—grays, browns, blacks, and pops of red—and in the shapes.  If you want to be more elegant, you wear silk; if you’re lower on the totem pole, you wear cotton button-fronts.  Somewhere in the middle?  Do both.

Speaking of totem poles, let’s talk about hierarchy.  I wonder if people just starting out dress the way that they do because they don’t know better, because they can’t do better, or because you have to earn the right to the Diane Lockhart blouse.  Let’s compare Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air to Anna Kendrick.  Different companies, different ranks, way different outfits.  Late 1990s Miranda Hobbes is quite different from mid-aughts Miranda Hobbes.  It could be time, it could be a difference in savoir faire gained over time, or it could be the fact that as one rises in the ranks it’s okay to stop matching the wallpaper and start getting noticed.  Personally, if I were ever CEO of a company, I’d wear ball skirts and cashmere t-shirts every day.

Constrast that change—evolving into a more feminine style of dress as one rises in the ranks—to the image from The Best of Everything.  Joan Crawford’s senior status is projected through the fact that she is wearing a feminine silhouette in suiting fabric.  You can tell that she’s that the junior staff member is junior because she’s wearing something softer, more feminine, and more on-trend.

Shifting gears, am I the only person surprised by the enormous Internet literature on feminism, and with it clothes, in Working Girl?  Goll-ee.   There is stuff here, here, here, here, and here.  Probably more, who knows?  (Oh!  Read this one.  It goes from Working Girl to The Good Wife, and Teri Agins comments on the evolution.)  Here’s that famous quote everyone likes: Harrison Ford says, “Dress like a woman, not like a man would dress if he were a woman.”

But in 2013, when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer reclines in Michael Kors in Vogue, a little feminine flare is more than tolerated, it’s an asset. “There is nothing more mind-numbingly boring than a matching jacket and skirt,” says Kate White, former Cosmo editor-in-chief and author of I Shouldn’t be Telling You This. By all means dress like a woman, and unlike Tess, there’s no need to tone it down and blend in: “If you look fantastic and fashion forward, you’ll feel more confident and people will notice and remember you.” Using the gender spectrum to your advantage is perfectly acceptable, but you still need serious hair. “You should have a cut that says you mean business,” says White.  (Rosemary Counter for Jezebel)

I’m not sure that that’s true, but we’ll talk about that in our next installment.  (Oh, yes, this is a three-parter.)

8 thoughts on “it’s handled”

  1. great post. and yes that is a lot of pinstripe. which I never think looks that nice on anyone, men or women. I always think of old black and white movies with 1930’s gangsters as wearing pinstripes.
    as for business attire, yes many traps for new players. maybe I am old fashioned, but I fall back on the if it is business attire then it includes a jacket. which doesn’t help people in steamy climates I know. This might be not welcome to many but cardigans shriek elementary school teacher to me. at least hosiery have gone away. I will be interested to see what you come up with.
    PS Working Girl, I have seen that a zillion times and always notice something new, fantastic movie and the best capsule of that time period for work. Also fascinating for this west coast working girl who never came near that type of NY city centric work atmosphere.

  2. Where is Claire Underwood, I repeat, WHERE IS CLAIRE UNDERWOOD ? Also talking about hierarchy : Rachel Zane VS Jessica Pearson (Suits). Can’t wait for the 3rd installment (I’m finally catching up with my reader, now that I am in Canada… Not much to do in Canada…)!

    1. I’ve been in Canada all my life (minus 2 years spent in SF, CA) and I find ALL sorts of things to do in Canada. Are you living in the Yukon? North West Territories? I was just rather stunned at your comment to be frank.

  3. I always think of Joan Cusack’s derisive price tag wardrobe comment “and it’s not even leather” (or leahthuh) in “Working Girl”.
    “9 to 5” has always struck me as more realistic in how folks dress for office work, particularily the happi coat that Tomlin’s character keeps at work. I had more women bosses with that clothing approach than any of the rest. It’s a jacket, a work uniform, but not a flak jacket, and she leaves it at work (a powerful way of saying: I work at work, I don’t take it home).

    And a reminder: because air conditioning is a way of life in office land.

  4. I see you are focussing on movies, which is great. You got me musing on some 1980s & 90s TV series white-collar ladies.

    I grew up on Claire Huxtable, who I don’t think we ever see at her office, but we get her a lot having just gotten home from work, and she’s a high-elegance but believable attorney, I think.

    Speaking of attorneys, LA Law had women and men in their glorious office and courtroom attire.

    And then on the “order” side of law and order, we got Cagney and Lacey in their fairly casual work attire, not to mention DI Tennyson in Prime Suspect.

    And then into the private detective world, you have Maddie Hayes from Moonlighting and Laura Holt of Remington Steele.

    Thanks for the reminders

  5. That Adam’s Rib dress is outstanding.

    The Marissa Mayer commentary brought out some feelings of guilt I forgot I had about being a bad woman, because I never really liked the Vogue thing with her sprawled on a couch in Michael Kors.

    But after thinking on it this morning: I think the reason I don’t like it isn’t because she’s playing up her femininity and she shouldn’t be (where a lot of debate focused right after, if I remember correctly), it’s that it kind of seems like she’s playing at being a model. But we’re not reading about her because of her model pose.

    It would be weird if Barry Obams were caught out in a GQ profile in any of these images: right?

    This earlier stuff seems to make more sense:

    But whatever, I do totally buy that it’s more normal now for women to wear lady clothes at work rather than man clothes adapted for a lady’s body. How feminine and how toned down is something else…

  6. This was a great post! Loved all the pictures 🙂 I’m 62 so most of them I recall rather well. I actually agree with Harrison Ford and have always thought that professional women shouldn’t “copy” their male counterparts. I always thought that was counter to feminism to be honest – it’s like saying, “To be truly successful, respected and valued I must LOOK as much like a man as possible!” Why? How does that forward the feminist cause? We should be saying, “I’m a woman who knows how to dress well and I’m successful, respected and valued every bit as much as any man!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s