Women’s fashion on TV is as varied as the female characters portrayed.
It used to be that if you were a woman in a TV show, you were probably either a casually dressed homemaker or a businessperson in a work-appropriate power suit — sometimes both. There wasn’t much variation in women’s fashion, from mom jeans to pantsuits, because they represented the miniature boxes that female characters were put in. Now, however, if you flick through channels or hop around on Netflix for a bit, you can see a huge range of women’s fashion on TV — and glean something about each character from a glance at her wardrobe. Women in current shows range from aimless stoners and twentysomethings to powerful boss ladies in expensive suits, women who are successful professionals but dress like slobs, and women who are successful professionals but dress like children.
Broad City, Comedy Central
Let’s talk about one of the most stereotyped groups first: millennials. Judging by the many think pieces written about this particular generation, millennials are a lazy, aimless group in desperate need of maturity and responsibility. The most exaggerated example of this stereotype that immediately comes to mind is, of course, the ladies of Broad City. Abbi and Ilana are best friends in their twenties who are cheerfully scraping by in New York — the show’s tagline on Hulu is “A bottle of wine tastes just as good when you pay with all pennies.” Abbi often wears jeans and tees, but Ilana wears things that millennials in particular might identify with: crop tops, black lipstick, rompers, leggings as pants, visible bras with cut-outs, a dog hoodie… (OK, that last one might be for Ilana only.) It’s not surprising that Ilana dresses like the most exaggerated possible depiction of a millennial when she’s the one who most struggles to hold down a job and act like an adult. Abbi has more clearly defined goals and ambitions and is just more put together, which shows in her slightly more put-together (if still very casual) wardrobe. Abbi gets overlooked a lot, but her role is essential. Two Ilanas would have crossed the line to caricature, so we need Abbi for a more accurate portrayal of millennial women in the city.
Speaking of millennial women in the city… A discussion of women’s fashion on TV would not be complete without a mention of Girls. The show takes a somewhat more realistic approach to depicting young twentysomethings trying to grow up in New York. The four friends — Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna — have very different personalities and ambitions, and their wardrobes showcase that. Hannah, the struggling writer, constantly wears clothes that skew too casual and rarely fit properly. Think too-small crop tops and awkward-fitting rompers, usually rendered in colorful prints. This sometimes gives the impression of an overgrown baby, especially when Hannah is next to Marnie. Marnie’s put-together style reflects the grown, successful woman that she wants to be. Meanwhile, Jessa is often as erratic and contrived as her boho-hipster outfits. Shoshanna’s vibrant and tailored dresses reflect her quirky but driven personality. We can see all the ways these four young women are different simply by comparing their clothes.
Then there are the shows that zero in on one complex female character rather than painting a broad canvas of an entire generation. For example, Jessica Jones. In this Netflix original, the titular character has so many crises and so much baggage that something as menial as worrying about putting together daily outfits clearly doesn’t warrant any thought. That doesn’t mean her go-to outfit doesn’t contain any meaning, however. Her tough leather jacket acts as armor between her and the harsh world she lives in. Her boots top off the practical and somewhat intimidating look — no dainty flats or crippling heels for Jessica Jones. She’s a superhero PI who kicks ass. Jessica Jones doesn’t dress to impress a boss or for sex appeal; she dresses to survive.
30 Rock, NBC Studios
That’s an extreme example, but she’s not the only woman on modern TV who does the bare minimum style-wise while struggling to survive in her field. Take Liz Lemon, with her sloppy go-to look of jeans, a T-shirt and a blazer — not very office appropriate. Meanwhile, Jack Donaghy is always in an impeccable suit. And yet one has to admire Liz Lemon’s ability to be a successful woman in charge while being utterly herself. She never succumbs to pressure to dress like her male boss. Liz Lemon is the kind of person who transitions pajamas into day wear, and it doesn’t really matter because she’s good at her job.
UnREAL, Wieden Kennedy Entertainment
30 Rock is off the air now, but a character on a relatively new show reminds me of both Liz Lemon and Jessica Jones: Rachel on Lifetime’s UnREAL, which is now in its second season. Rachel is a hardworking producer on a reality show that mirrors The Bachelor, and her lack of a personal life shows in her monotonous, practical wardrobe. She’s usually in a parka or leather jacket along with yesterday’s dirty jeans and T-shirt (including one that proclaimed “This is what a feminist looks like”). She dresses like her male co-workers, but you get the impression that it’s because she wants to, not because she feels she has to — after all, her equally competent boss Quinn dresses very stylishly, but Rachel follows her own path.
Then there are the characters who actually care about what they wear to work, although they go about it in very different ways. There’s Olivia Pope of Scandal and Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife, representing the exact mental image of the successful modern businesswoman in their expensive coats and sleek pantsuits. Then you have portrayals of successful career women who go outside the box somewhat with their wardrobes. Jess of New Girl is happy and secure in her position as a teacher even though she usually dresses like one of the preteens she teaches. It’s all floral dresses and dorky glasses all the time. Mindy of The Mindy Project is portrayed as a competent doctor, but she eschews tasteful neutrals for constant mash-ups of color and pattern. Her taste in loud clothing goes well with her bouncy, somewhat childish personality, but it’s unexpected for a doctor.
You’d be hard-pressed to find something that all of the above women have in common, and that’s the point. Some are successful and driven while some aren’t. Some dress stylishly while some dress sloppily, and some have very different definitions of “stylish” dressing. There’s no one way to be a woman. The extreme variation in women’s fashion for all of these characters is visual proof of the diverse, complex roles available for women. These days there’s a good chance that any given woman can find not only her taste in clothes displayed in a TV show but a reflection of her identity as well.