2020, the year of sumptuous TV style: From The Queen's Gambit to A Suitable Boy, small screen fashion made a statement
The TV series that offered the most compelling sartorial splendour this year also showed us that to be truly fashionable, clothes have to move beyond visual delight.
It may seem implausible for Emily in Paris and Virginia Woolf to have something in common. However, the recent Netflix show that pivots its storytelling in large parts on the handiwork of its costumier, Patricia Fields, has a lot to thank the Modernist writer for.
Woolf limned clothes as an extension of her characters. Writing in the early 20th century, she was certainly not the only one to do so. But through her sustained focus on clothes, she was the first writer to consider them as significant aspects of characters’ experiences; as legitimate narrative tropes. It was Woolf who coined the phrase ‘frock consciousness’, which to explain rather simplistically, refers to how dress illuminates the psychological experience of a character.
In Emily in Paris, the gung-ho American who has been handed a job stint in Paris, attends her first day of work dressed like a French souvenir shop — wearing both an Eiffel Tower-themed shirt and booties emblazoned with “Paris” and airmail stickers. By the time she tells her French colleagues, “I am so excited to be here in Paris,” her remark is de trop.
The purported ‘most fashionable show of the year’ is perhaps a lesser example. For there were other shows — many of which were not meant to be about fashion at all — that deployed clothing in more intelligent ways, reminding us of Woolf’s thoughts on the psychological relationship between clothing and character.
For our fashion-starved eyes this year, the visual splendour and escapism proffered thereof were absolutely necessary. But what the following list tells us is that for a show to be truly fashionable, clothes have to move beyond visual delight, beyond just situating characters within their physical locales, to become guiding dots in the psychological contours of a character.
Normal People (BBC Three, April 2020)
Why exactly has a silver chain worn by Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) — the show’s hunky, Classics reading male protagonist — influenced an Instagram account (@connellschain) with over 179k followers? When Sally Rooney’s acclaimed book about teenage love and angst was adapted as a 12-part BBC series, the costumes turned out to be a surprising conversation-starter.
Connell’s sartorial transition from popular school athlete to a University student in Dublin is slow. His basic t-shirts and shorts become an acute reminder of his class when he meets his richer, well-dressed peers at University. His inexpensive, now-legendary chain never leaves him. It was Mescal who insisted on wearing it throughout, almost as a totem of Connell’s working class, small-town identity. Since the show aired, searches for men’s chains increased by 56 percent on the Argos (a British catalogue retailer) website.
Mariam’s (Daisy Edgar Jones) dress identity is more dynamic; from the misfit, high-school student in her drab grey uniform to art student-chic at University. Jones carries off Mariam’s style evolution effortlessly, and there are stand-out moments that punctuate the show’s trajectory. The cream blouse worn with a silk scarf and smudged smoky eyes carries her into her new-found confidence at University, while her airy linen dresses and no make-up look during an Italy trip signal her comfort with Connell back in her life. Like Connell’s chain, Mariam’s fringe seems to have amassed a fan-following.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (Netflix, June-August 2020)
This Korean romance drama featuring Ko Moon-Young, an assertive children’s book author with potential Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and Moon Gang-Tae, a self-sacrificing medical worker, is an incisive commentary on mental health and cancel culture.
Within the dark fairy-tale setting of the series, we see Ko Moon-Young (Seo Yea-Ji) in extremely feminine outfits — structured skirt-suits, billowy dresses, exaggerated sleeves, and towering heels; always heels. In the confines of her home, we see her in an array of delicate, flowing night-gowns. But to the outside world, Moon-Young is always buttoned up or belted in; never a hair out of place and usually with oversized sunglasses. At all times, she dresses to impress — she wants to be liked but doesn’t know how. In turn, her outfits become assertions of her compulsion to intimidate as a coping mechanism.
Visually, the outfits are spectacular. Straight-off-the-runway looks by Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Ganni, and more are carried off by Seo Yea-Ji with a flair for making flamboyant outfits seem casual, something the South Koreans seem to have mastered. Watch out for outfits designed by Minju Kim, the Korean designer known for her graphic prints, and winner of Netflix’s design competition Next in Fashion.
As the show progresses, Moon-Young’s arc of emotional healing is embodied in her outfits that become lighter, less staid. In the final scenes, she is in cotton t-shirts, khaki shorts, and even the unthinkable — sneakers.
A Suitable Boy (Netflix, October 2020)
If you need a reason to watch this adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel, let it be the clothes. For any costumier, the period in which the film is set would present an exciting project. In the immediate post-Independence scene, when the upper-class milieu was teetering between the sartorial notions of Western modernity and Indian nationalism, clothing depicted perspective.
Arjun Bhasin steps right in. The acclaimed costume designer dressed over 100 characters in the show, proffering a panoramic view of the sartorial pulse of the new nation. The protagonist Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) gradually leaves her cotton kurtas and saris in her fictional college town of Bhrampur, and coquettishly emerges in Calcutta in organza sarees with their sleeveless blouses peeking through, as her hunt for a suitable boy intensifies.
Aspiration is the sentiment that binds the narrative and the characters — and this is spectacularly related through costume. Lata’s adulterous sister-in-law Meenakshi Chatterjee (Shahana Goswami) covertly pawns her father-in-law’s medals to make gold drop earrings for herself to keep up her show of affluence. Lata’s suitor and shoemaker, Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), has high ambitions of climbing the ladder of a Czech shoe company, and dresses the part consistently in a three-piece-suit and well-shined shoes.
On the other hand, the courtesan Saeeda Bai (Tabu) is slowly receding into an older world, as the heyday of artists like her are long gone. In her gilded quarters, she’s resplendent in brocades and diaphanous fabrics, building up her enigmatic persona.
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix, October 2020)
Netflix’s biggest limited scripted series ever, inspired by Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, is the coming-of-age story of teenage chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor Joy), as she beats player after player in her meteoric ascent to the top of the chess world. The Queen’s Gambit is about chess, but it is also about clothes. Netflix is currently showcasing the show’s outfits in a virtual exhibition; Beth, on her part, not only plays the game but also dresses like it.
Chess makes up the entirety of Beth’s life; she has little else besides. She struggles with alcoholism and tranquilisers, and clothes are her other balm. Costume designer Gabriele Binder cited designers like Pierre Cardin, Balenciaga, and the now-shut British brand Biba, while dressing Beth through her journey from a Kentucky orphanage to the finale Moscow Chess Tournament.
Binder crafts Beth’s outfits with the type of precision that is required on the chessboard. Beth’s pale green dress in her final game against Borgov mirrors the dress embroidered by her mother, that she enters the orphanage wearing. It suggests a full circle moment; that by the end of the show, she is at ease in her present situation.
Several of Beth’s outfits have geometric patterns that mirror the chessboard, and Binder has said to Vogue that “the contrast of the check print also mirrors the nuances of the game itself — it’s decisive, it’s win or lose — which you would not have with, say, a floral print.”
In the very final scene though, Beth in her long white wool coat with matching hat, doesn’t just mirror the chessboard but embodies the White Queen piece — asserting her dominance in a sea of male chess-players.
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