it’s handled

by Charlotte

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)
MGM

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

mtm-15

Network (1976)
MGM/UA

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)
HBO

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)
CBS

Diane Lockhart Still

Scandal (2012-present)
ABC

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.)

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