We are all dressing for TV now — or at least for the small screen.
As we sit in our homes, Zooming and FaceTiming, how we look on these little boxes has taken on outsize importance. No wonder, then, that what other people wear has also become of obsessive interest. Think of Deborah Birx’s scarves and Joe Exotic’s animal prints, which sent internet searches for tiger, leopard and zebra print soaring early in the stay-at-home period.
Yet while they’ve gotten less attention, perhaps because they derive from a more politically discomfiting source, the clothes we really should be paying attention to are on “Mrs. America.” That’s because of what they tell us about our past and what they reveal about our present.
Though the FX series, which tells the story of the birth and almost death of the Equal Rights Amendment, from 1971 to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, had its debut on Hulu last month, it is being dribbled out weekly through the end of May before living in totality in the streaming universe. The more I watch it, the more I can’t get it out of my head.
Or rather, the more I can’t get its characters out of my head: Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett), the housewife turned failed congressional candidate turned activist who became the most effective political opponent of the legislation, as well as its architects, the haloed figures of second-wave feminism: Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), among others.
By their clothes, with all of their gender implications and stereotypes, we do know them. There are lessons in those closets, if we are willing to learn.
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the show is how familiar most of the clothing semiology is. Despite how much things have changed, both in Washington and in what we wear, they have not, apparently, changed very much. And not just because the Twitterverse is suddenly full of users writing odes to Ms. Steinem’s aviators.
Rather, it’s because the lines between sides are drawn so clearly by their unspoken uniforms and because the personal and political branding is achieved so effectively through consistent costume. Sound familiar?
Never before would I have thought that 1973 and 2020 have so much in common. Yet it was only three years ago that there was a protest to demand women be allowed to wear sleeveless dresses in Congress.
“I wanted people to see that we are not entirely over that time,” Bina Daigeler, the costume designer, said on a call from Spain, where she is isolating at home. “We still have to fight for everything. We still use the same weapons.”
Looking at Ms. Blanchett’s Schlafly, in her pastel peplum suits, her silk scarves tied just so around her neck, her neat square-heel pumps and carefully coifed wings of hair, it is clear what she means. After all, her wardrobe effectively channels the 1950s Doris Day homemaker tradition, even while Schlafly’s own behavior (talk shows, debates, aggressive disinformation, exaggeration as a political tool) suggests an entirely different agenda.
And it is impossible not to be reminded of the women who populate the Trump White House — Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway, among them; or to see, in the Schlafly cardigans, carefully draped over her shoulders, the echoes of Melania Trump’s similarly draped coats.
Just as Ms. Steinem’s straight hair and glasses, jeans and T-shirts, serve to signal a rejection of just such tradition. Just as Chisholm’s look-at-me prints and jewelry, and Abzug’s ever-present hat, herald their differentiation.
“When I graduated from law school, my mother said to me, ‘Wear a hat and gloves,’” Abzug explains in one episode. “That way they won’t mistake you for a secretary.” So she took that stereotype and turned it on its head, and those choices have echoes down the years in Rashida Tlaib’s Palestinian dress, worn at her congressional swearing-in, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s hoops and red lipstick.
The party lines are drawn largely through fashion: through the difference between the pie crust collars dusting her chin with ruffles favored by Schlafly and co. and the unbuttoned plaid shirts and peasant blouses worn by Ms. Steinem, et al.; between the A-line skirts of the Stop E.R.A. crew and the pants of the libbers. So much so they become part of the discourse.
“You want to get ahead climbing on the shoulders of men, Phyllis,” Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), the Republican charged by President Ford with championing the E.R.A., says in one episode. “Fine. Just know they are looking right up your skirt.”
Earlier, Schlafly had watched Ms. Ruckelshaus giving an interview on TV wearing a strand of pearls very similar to the pearls she herself wears — and the pearls so many first ladies have worn, almost as a badge of the job.
“She’s not fooling anyone in those pearls,” Schlafly says.
But, of course, she is. She is using a clichéd idea of gender and power, apparently forged in the crucible half a century ago but still imprinted on our retinas and informing our attitudes — to dress up a challenging idea in a comfortably familiar style. She is using Schlafly’s strategy against her.
It is the opposite of what Ms. Steinem and her cohort do. They use their style to underscore the modernity of their mission. But either way, it’s a visual signal and a reminder of how our eyes can tell us one thing even as our ears hear something else.
Ms. Daigeler said that this is precisely why she chose to have most of the “hundreds” of costumes made to order for the characters instead of sourcing vintage; she didn’t want the fit and fabric to look rooted in the past, but rather to bridge then and now.
It is why, she said, that in the show’s final episode she dressed Schlafly in a mint green suit that “any conservative woman in public life would wear today.” It was the note she wanted to end on, a quiet reminder that the cues that tap into our prelapsarian instincts, and that can be used to manipulate reaction, predispose us to make certain assumptions about someone before they even begin speaking. That they color our impressions as much as any Instagram filter.
Or Zoom background, for that matter.