The Morning Show is a stylish reminder that power dressing only lends false notion of authority in a man's world

The Morning Show, Season 2 of which wrapped up this week, accentuates that power dressing remains more a money-spinner fashion vertical than a meaningful challenge to male power at the workplace.

Manjima Bhattacharjya November 20, 2021 10:33:44 IST
The Morning Show is a stylish reminder that power dressing only lends false notion of authority in a man's world

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The second season of the series The Morning Show closed this month on a sombre note. Headlined by a Hollywood cast, the show is about how a television morning show hosted by two celebrity newscasters (Mitch Kessler, played by Steve Carell, and Alex Levy, played by Jennifer Aniston), which falls apart when one of them is called out in a series of cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. As Mitch is "#MeToo-ed," a spunky regional journalist Bradley Chase (Reese Witherspoon) is brought in to replace him as the new rising star. The first season sets up the unravelling with the allegations against Mitch, while the second season takes a more sympathetic look at the fallout of ‘cancel culture,’ and the heavy impact of sexual predators at the workplace on everyone – the perpetrator, survivors and others. Noone escapes unhurt from abuse of power at the workplace.

The costume design of The Morning Show has been exceptional and central to creating its key female characters of Alex Levy and Bradley Chase as professional women in a competitive workplace. Alex’s luxurious wardrobe — a massive Pinterest hit — in textured camels and monochromes are of a successful Manhattan professional. Bradley’s wardrobe is more mix and match, befitting her living out of a suitcase in a hotel room. As the network gets the rising star ready for her role, she is taken shopping by the head of the network to try out various “costumes” suitable for her new status. By the second season, we witness her external transformation from a hillbilly wearing flannel checked shirts, leather jackets, boots, and jeans with a rough ponytail, to the classic newscaster in tailored pantsuits with sleek hair. Her costumes and style mirror her ascent to a powerful position in the network. Witherspoon’s costume stylist, Sophie de Rakoff, says Bradley’s character arc is "a journey in the script, and a journey for the costumes."

The Morning Show is a stylish reminder that power dressing only lends false notion of authority in a mans world

Bradley stays distinct from Alex though, always a little off kilter to stay true to her individuality. It is another well considered decision of the show’s stylists, who have put sufficient thought in relaying small details through costume. For example, Alex’s costumes were tailored to specifically suit the nuances of her profession as a star TV presenter who had “to be prepared at a moment’s notice to get on to an airplane” to go and interview prime ministers or presidents. Bradley is made to carry the same little bag through the show, a defiant "little part of herself."

Bradley has a less abundant wardrobe than the sophisticated and wealthy Alex, but its precedent is the same: power-dressing.

The term 'power dressing' is attributed to a self-help manual for male professionals published in 1975 that sold 3 million copies, called Dress for Success by John Molloy. In a sequel for women professionals in 1980, Molloy urged women to dress in suits if they wanted to succeed in the corporate workplace. The women’s suit had already become popular in the post-World War I era as women began to work in professional spheres. Chanel is considered a pioneer in designing the tailored skirt suit that enabled women to embrace modern life. In essence, it mimicked the sharp edges of men’s business suits, covered the torso (aka breasts) to conservative degrees, but kept the feminine form waist-downwards, a desexualised, non-threatening femininity for workplaces.

The Morning Show is a stylish reminder that power dressing only lends false notion of authority in a mans world

Powerful women over time, from Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth to Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris, have worn ‘suits’, with a move from the skirt suit to the pantsuit and embracing more “feminine” colours as emblems of confidence and authority in popular lore. (This is not necessarily true in India, where power dressing in the corporate sector is often saris and pearls.)

Power dressing has a long history in television, harking back to soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty that made bright coloured business suits, heels, padded shoulders, and costume jewellery fashionable in the wardrobes of professional women. Television news in the US has presented telecasters in certain kinds of clothing that made it normative ‘workwear’ or a sort of uniform in professional life. To cast themselves in the moulds of other successful career women, women often believe they must weaponise their wardrobe to make it in a male-dominated world. That they can display authority through a double-breasted blazer or stride through the corridors of power only in high heels.

In corporate legend and in fashion narratives (or where Forbes meets Vogue), power dressing is a hugely profitable vertical in itself. Women worldwide spend an astounding $35 billion annually on workwear. Men spend much less. In 2014, a TV host called Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit to work every day for one year in a social experiment, calling it the “sexism suit” that showed how men escaped the scrutiny and expectations of workwear that women faced. In The Morning Show, while the women keep up with the power dressing, Mitch’s navy blue suits are unremarkable. Mitch’s power has nothing to do with his clothes, but him being a wealthy, white man.

The Morning Show is a stylish reminder that power dressing only lends false notion of authority in a mans world

The big question is: Does power dressing really mean something?

The Morning Show is a reminder that power dressing amounts to nothing. Alex Levy needs lawyers, publicists, and a team to negotiate a rise in her pay package. She has nothing to offer the harassed women in the network. She might as well burn her wardrobe and stay in pajamas.

Power dressing might make women feel powerful and confident. Dressing up and being a ‘working woman’ are so closely aligned in the self-image of women. For many, swinging that bag on the shoulder or wearing lipstick symbolises the going-to-work, a transition from the role of homemaker and caregiver to bread-earner.
But the #MeToo story of the last few years has shown us that it does not always matter. What women wear and what happens to them are two separate things; one has little bearing on the other. Every woman, regardless of power dressing level, is vulnerable to abuse of power, or can be complicit in a toxic workplace. Power dressing for women is an eyewash. If the power-dressing economy has gone up rapidly, women in powerful positions in corporate America have barely inched forward. Of the Fortune 500 companies in the US, only eight percent have female CEOs, an all-time “high” of 41 of 500 in 2021. It is worse in India: only six of 250 top companies’ CEOs are female.

The Morning Show is a stylish reminder that power dressing only lends false notion of authority in a mans world

The struggle for power in the workplace continues in other ways through everyday efforts, making institutions accountable, creating space for sharing our experiences without judgement and harm, building support structures at work, and working towards more equal relationships in our working and non-working lives.

There are other interesting choices in The Morning Show that point to newer ways of power dressing. For instance, Stella Bak (Greta Lee) is the young millennial network head, an Asian American with her own style. Stella wears androgynous clothes, bomber jackets, and definitely no heels. She is a killer decision-maker. This “girl boss” look is a new avatar of power dressing for a new generation in power where "they are showing up as themselves, and people are listening." They are also handmaidens for capitalism, and isolated in their individuality. One can hope that it is not only their way of dressing that will break free from the past, but ways of working that will build better workplaces of the future.

Manjima Bhattacharya is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018).

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