Privilege Blog

Does Women’s Television Workwear Mean Anything? Anything At All?

Nobody expects women on television to dress as they do in real life. At least not in the USA. Especially not working women. Female FBI agents in 3-inch heels chase down sneakered criminals, women cops unbutton their third button, girl doctors sport very good hair. Oh well. It’s imaginary.

But three current American programs star heroines with wardrobes worth a closer look. When we consider the TV universe, and compare it to the real world, maybe we’ll find something.

Political Animals

Sigourney Weaver as burgundy jumpsuited Elaine Hammond

We’ll start with the preposterous. Always a good strategy. Sigourney Weaver plays Diane Hammond, Secretary of State. She has run for President and lost in the primaries. Gives her concession speech wearing a burgundy jumpsuit. Not a pants suit, mind you, a jumpsuit.

I just don’t think so. Diane’s character bears all sorts of well-noted resemblance to Hillary Clinton, a philandering Southern former President husband for one thing. Unrepentantly bad hair, for another. But reference doesn’t guarantee reality. The jumpsuits, and the odd insistence on Very High-Waisted Pants, spring from the writers’ imagination, and serve more as a symbol of Powerful Women Who Make Bad Sartorial Choices, than a guide to work fashion.

The Good Wife

Christine Baranski in black, white, and pearls as Diane Lockhart

Let’s look towards the more realistic. Baranski plays top partner in this show’s fictitious law firm. And she dresses the part quite well, I’d say. Black and white silk top, structured cardigan, pearls like truck tires, and reading glasses. No color on the fingernails, notice that?

Note also that she’s not dressing like a man. No woven gray or black suit. Nor like a young woman with one small strand of pearls. I think these choices apply to the real world of 2012.


Emily Mortimer, pencil skirt and button front, as Mackenzie McHale

Above you see Emily Mortimer, playing the senior producer of a cable news broadcast, on Newsroom. First of all, let’s cheer for her color sense. Nice work, wardrobe people. Second, she’s in a pencil skirt and blouse. Yes. We do dress like that. Third, her shirt’s coming untucked. Exactly. It happens. Finally, she has a signature necklace. I haven’t been able to locate its provenance, but the gold chain with spaced discs is understated but unique. I approve.

Cheryl Sandberg v-necked at TED

Sheryl Sandberg

We turn to real women. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, speaking above. Confession: the first time I saw this video I couldn’t stop muttering to myself about her cleavage display. Chalk that up to generational attitudes, and never mind. At the very least this outfit indicates that if you’re about to ride honcho over the most famous IPO in history, you can get away with decolletage.

Of course, we wonder if she has put it under wraps now that the shine is off that trophy.

Marissa Mayer

How about Marissa? Formerly of Google, now CEO of Yahoo. Pregnant CEO of Yahoo, but that’s a far more serious discussion for another time.

Marissa Mayer, new CEO of Yahoo

Neither aqua, nor cardigans, are common on the C-level male. And how about that non-cropped hair, huh?

We can’t extrapolate Sheryl and Marissa out too quickly across all industries. They are in high tech. We’re different out here in California, amongst the bits, bytes and user interfaces. Women CEOs in other industries are most apt to dress like Denise Morrison and Maggie Wilderotter, sisters in blood as well as in calling.

Maggie Wilderotter and Denise Morrison
CEOs of Frontier Communications and Campbell Soup

So, finally, we will note that Fortune Magazine reports there are now 20 women CEOs amongst the 500. For decades, American men have worn the same outfits to conquer as they do to seduce. First, women had to get to the top. Then, possibly, they could lower their necklines a tad. Just a tad. I’m no advocate of vulgar display. But if America finally, ever, tolerates female sexuality matched with institutional authority, what then, my friends?


Sigourney Weaver in Political Animals via Bust Magazine
Christine Baranski in The Good Wife via NAtv
Emily Mortimer in Newsroom via iMDb
Sheryl Sandberg at TED via ABC
Marissa Mayer via CNN
Maggie Wilderotter and Denise Morrison via The Wall Street Journal

61 Responses

  1. Yes! I love all three of these shows and these women in them. It’s so refreshing to have somewhat reasonable and professional examples of women’s professional wear!

  2. I don’t watch any of these shows, but I don’t think that the role of fictional TV (or movies) is to present “guides” of reality in any form. They’re all some kind of hybrid blend of reality, fantasy, and stereotypes of popular culture – their purpose is not to make a documentary. So I would have to say that women’s television workwear doesn’t mean anything much.

  3. I thought this post was excellent, it really spoke to me as someone who constantly and critically examines my work wardrobe every morning. I’ll try to remember “needs more pearls” in the future.

  4. Diane Lockhart has the best career woman wardrobe on television. She nails it, every time.

    While I also abhorred Elaine Hammond’s burgundy jumpsuit, I do think she’s worn other looks much more succesfully. The vintage gold embassy party dress she repurposed for the engagement dinner? Stunning, and appropriate at that.

  5. I agree Dianne Lockhart is well-dressed, and very true to life.

    However, one thing that always irks me: why does no-one on TV get changed when they get home from work? I wear suits and heels everyday – I walk in the door and I STRIP! There’s no way I’m eating my dinner in that. Both because I’m uncomfortable and want to forget work, and because I don’t want to get food on my expensive clothes!

    Also, I’ve noticed, no-one on TV is shown driving anywhere unless it ends in a crash. Everytime a camera is in the cab of a vehicle, I’m like, uh oh, they’re gonna crash!

    1. What confuses me, even more than not getting changed, is the shoes. I’ve heard maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but wearing full on shoes at home? It’s odd to see on TV.

  6. I lean more towards the traditional for work. But maybe with a slightly lower neckline, while I am still young enough to bare a little bit more. but some of the clothes I see on some women are completely inappropriate for the field.

  7. This one is fun, it speaks to a topic near and dear to my crotchety old heart. The Sigourney Weaver jumpsuit is just ridiculous, but as Kathy said, the folks putting together these shows aren’t trying to reflect reality, they are creating their own realities. It will come as no surprise to you that I am strongly in the ‘less is not more’ camp when it comes to clothing. (Referencing the amount of fabric covering one’s person.)

    Sending you a smile,

  8. Third, her shirt’s coming untucked. Exactly. It happens.

    that’s a stylist thing, actually; tight tuck in front, looser tuck in back. a blouse of that sort of fabric, worn with a skirt that high-waisted, wouldn’t come out in back on its own.

    1. Huh.

      I tried the look on Friday, IRL. Shirt completely wound up with loose back tuck, no stylist anywhere in sight.

  9. I haven’t seen these shows to have an opinion, but your thoughts seem right on the mark. From the post title, I thought you were going to discuss the wardrobes of television reporters. Not necessarily the correspondents whom we usually only see when cutting to their field reports, but rather the in-studio anchors and analysts. There definitely seems to be a heavy sexualizing of these women over recent years. Although I appreciate the extra freedom that they seem to be granted in their clothing choices, it seems to be that there is an implicit pressure to play up their looks. The clothing cuts seem more suited to social occasions than news and the makeup is cocktail hour worthy. It’s questionable whether these women have increased institutional authority as their sexuality has gained visibility.

    As an aside, I recall reading a few years ago about a Washington subculture that was crushing on Hillary. I wish I could remember it more accurately – but it definitely came across that these men found her sexuality enhanced by her power. Almost teenagerish in their fandom – “she’s so sexy” and “she’s so amazingly smart and good at her job” sentiments – both spoken with the same breathless admiration.

    1. I am so in agreement regarding women in TV/cable news. Christianne Amanpour, Rachel Maddow and a few others get it right. The sleeveless, microphone in the cleavage look can’t be good in terms of enhancing authority. On the other hand, there is a move away from serious journalism on TV, and the clothing reflects that.

    2. I think the sexualization of female newscasters may be tied to the declining power of networks news, unfortunately.

  10. i don’t really watch tv so i’ve never seen these shows but i do like christine baranski. whatever role she is in, she is always well-dressed. i wonder if she gets to choose her own clothes. she gets it right.

    i think wardrobe-wise, women are screwed in the business world. if they dress conservatively then they are labelled uptight and the opposite if they show a little skin. sheesh.

  11. Very interesting Lisa. For me I think two of the best dressed women on television are Diane Sawyer and Nancy Pelosi. I would give almost anything for Mrs.P’s wardrobe.

    I agree with the comment from the gardener’s cottage above about wardrobe-wise for women. It’s darn if you do, darn if you don’t.

  12. I know absolutely nothing about the TV series, so just a word of the real workers.
    Somehow, I like the pictures/ style of the two first ones. They both look real and I undersood, that they do serious business.
    Oops, I off track, sorry.

  13. I don’t think burgundy is SW’s colour
    The 2nd photo is much more ‘real life’.
    The 3rd one is similar to what is worn on our Newsnight.Ida

  14. Great topic! I thought you might be mentioning
    real-life television personalities. Here in the
    Magic City the early morning news/weather/traffic
    women tend to be younger and dress like hookers! Tight, tight, tight clothing that is also short in
    length and very low cut on top. No one seems to mind

  15. What was wrong with Elaine Hammond’s jumpsuit?! It was burgundy… not some garish color. AND she was wearing a matching jacket. It was no different than wearing a burgundy suit with a matching blouse — IMO.

    And another well-dressed powerful woman on tv to add to the list is Olivia Pope of “Scandal”.

    1. I think jumpsuits with wide belts are too unconventional for a world leader from the United States. World leaders are supposed to be stable, and know the rules.

  16. I’ve not seen these shows so I’m basing this on the photos you’ve posted. Christine Baranski’s character has a style that is appealing to me. And, thank you very, very much for pointing out that her nails are unpolished.

    If ever a woman’s sexuality is combined with institutional authority, then women will rule the world. Capturing a man’s attention with her sexuality and then using him to do her bidding? That’s illegal, I guess, and not so nice, but it would be a fabulous sociological experiment.

    What I like about all of the CEOs posted is that they look like women. I don’t share much with them in style (or anything else), but they look like women. Hallelujah!

  17. I havent seen these shows either, haven’t arrived here yet. All I can think of is god these CEOs are young,so I was glad to see Denise and Maggie.

  18. Sorry may I mention something I have just heard about. Bear Baying in Sth Carolina. Have just signed an online petition to ban it but dont think the Government in Sth Carolina will care what an Australian thinks.

    Are people talking about this in US?

  19. I work in the creative industries so my work uniform has always been a bit more ‘out there’, but when watching The Good Wife I always admire the wardrobes of Diane Lockhart and Alicia Florrick. I have a very special place in my heart for Alicia’s eyebrows specifically!

  20. Yes, I guess I agree on the jumpsuit after being chastized by the MIL for calling it a dress on my 5yo….. Can you see my brow raising?

  21. I like Elaine Hammond. I think the high-waisted pants are camouflaging that she, like her well-know inspiration, has no waist. It’s tough to watch your diet while jetting across the world.

  22. No I have not seen these shows but I know of some of the women… A hard mine field to cross and I agree with Janet if you dress too conservatively you are accused of being too manly but with too much flesh on show – not appropriate! Have a great weekend Lisa…
    Sarah x

  23. When I was a young lawyer and having babies, I used to watch a pregnant Jane Pauley before I got dressed. I shudder to think of the big a line preggers dresses with the bows, but that’s what was around 25 years ago.
    Julia Louis Dreyfuss is wearing in her role as the Veep. Wears Versace dress, Walter Steiger shoes, and House of Lavande jewelry. It’s very classy, but a little too stylish for stodgy Washington.

    The biggest beef I have with television reporters and anchors is the ubiquitous sleeveless sheath – in February. I already miss Ann Curry because she had the most couture wardrobe.

  24. I misunderstood your post, and I apologize. I re-read and see that in the first paragraph you discussed imaginary, etc. I didn’t even know that Emily Mortimer was on an American TV show – I really like her as an actress and will give it a watch. Hope you find the disc necklace.

  25. Sigourney as Elaine Hammond is hit or miss. But Sigourney at Katherine Parker? Still kind of love it after all these years.

  26. Am I the only one who watches television?

    I adore ” Newsroom.” Can’t get enough of Aaron Sorkins words. Beautiful music to my ears. Emily Blunt’s clothes? You’re right perfect.

    1. I’m a longtime journalist, work in newspapers now(aaurgh!!) and was in television and public radio and I gotta say…’Newsroom’ is fun but it has very little basis in reality. None of my various fellow reporters at national newspapers (excuse me, my fellow content providers at media companies) think much of it either. But again, we’re probably just jealous of our turf and how other people interpret it…so no harm done.
      Actually my first name is Mackenzie…(the only 59 year old Mackenzie you will ever meet) and yes, once upon a time I was a television producer! But Emily Mortimer has nothing to fear from me….:)

    1. I was JUST about to comment with the NY Times article and wouldn’t you know, Flo beat me to it. Great minds think alike.

  27. I think it nice that the two CEO sisters do not feel the need to hide their neck wrinkles, as do ladies of a certain age. Although it may not be as flashy as some, their style is very age appropriate and looks very comfortable.

  28. If a television series had as a heroin a plump and not very pretty sixty-something political woman constantly changing hairstyles, all of them very unbecoming, as if she were a 15 yr-old, everybody would say : “unrealistic”. Unless they named her Hilary Clinton….

  29. I also quite like the fashions on “Scandal.” I love the show in its entirety and think the fashions are pretty accurate.

    I also love everything about “Newsroom,” including that the characters’ attire fit well with their ages/positions.

  30. Overt sexuality, whether male or female (yes, males can dress too sexily also and what are those those ankle-baring suits about?) will never live comfortably in the C-suites of corporate or public-service North America. Fine with me; doing business and doing it are two different endeavours and I like my workplace free of such distraction.

  31. In my convervative town and business (psychiatry) I must adopt the Baranski look, though as soon as I’m home kick off the Louboutins or Blahniks to rest my size 10+ feet and pull on the yoga pants!!! Though much like a news reporter, I sit all day and welcome any opportunity to welcome the next patient into my equally conservative office so I can move out of my seat. However: despite the usual massive pearls I’d love to know where to find Mackenzie from the Newsroom’s necklace, just as at times I sport my daughter’s add-a-pearl necklace which is not-quite completed thus still sports a bit of gold chain, just for fun. Sigourney is always hot even with aliens popping from her chest…

  32. I will be honest, I dress in a mix of Christine Baranski and Emily Mortimer. And I do not come near jumpsuits. Ever. Too long waisted is my primary excuse, but I do have a laundry list of other reasons…

  33. I’m so glad my only concern with my work-a-day fashions is what I won’t mind getting marker, paint, and oil pastel on…well, and also, how can I look Halloweeny without wearing a sweater covered in smiling pumpkins and black cats.
    Always thought provoking Lisa!!!
    xo J~

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