Dana Scully and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit

From frumpy, high-’90s blazers to sleek, modern pencil skirts, the clothing The X-Files’ doctor chose for herself reflected her character—and the era she lived in.


In the first new episode of The X-Files, returning after a more than decade-long hiatus from conspiracy theory-ing and little-gray-men-ing, Dana Scully wears precisely the outfit you’d expect her to: a black suit, with a blouse (white, collared, buttoned) underneath. It’s an outfit that at this point is downright iconic. It’s what most Dana Scully Halloween costumes entail. It’s what the Dana Scully Barbie wears. It’s the uniform, essentially, of mid-’90s feminism—an outfit that is only in the loosest sense an “outfit.” Strategically drab, insistently un-insistent, it’s fashion fit for a character whose complexity goes far beyond her clothing: a thorough badass and also a thorough nerd, the debunker of Fox Mulder and also his partner, the skeptic and also the believer.

But that suit, fan service by way of wardrobe, is only one of the many that made Dr. Dana Scully an extremely unlikely, and also deeply appropriate, fashion icon. The slow evolution of Scully’s style—shoulder pads! tapered ankles! pants so profoundly pants-y that they beg to be referred to as “slacks”!—spawned, in the early days of the Internet, passionate online discussions. It gave rise to everything from dedicated Tumblrs to Vogue-published appreciations of “Scully’s #GirlBoss Looks.” But it also suggested, within the universe of The X-Files, Scully’s meaningful progression as a character: her strength, her romanticism, her ability to be open to the world’s unlikeliest possibilities. Scully’s fashions, precisely because of their lack of Fashion, helped her to become that rarest of things: a character who is at once a sex symbol and a feminist heroine.

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Scully, and The X-Files along with her, emerged during a time that perhaps more than any other equated the wearing of suits with the enjoyment of power. (The “power suit,” an offshoot of the broader impulse toward “power dressing,” emerged in America in the 1970s, but it became a widespread phenomenon in the ’80s and ’90s.) For women in particular, the suit was laden with meaning. On the one hand, to wear one was subversive in the manner of Marlene Dietrich and Diane Keaton: It co-opted the quintessential garb of the working man on behalf of the working woman. And yet to wear a suit was also, as wearing a suit always will be, deeply conformist. The power suit, donned by a woman, suggested the triumph of the women’s movement by suggesting the banality of the women’s movement. It made feminine power ordinary, and wearable, and fashionable.

And Scully, of course, would not be the only ’90s TV heroine to rock a suit. She was in the company of Murphy Brown and Samantha Jones and Ally McBeal and many, many others—heroines who all embraced the gender-bending trends of the ’90s, whether they involved wrist-spritzes of the unisex fragrance CK One or nodded approvals of Julia Roberts’s red carpet pantsuit. Here was the culture’s new insistence on egalitarianism, realized through mutualized frumpery.

And yet Scully was also notable—she was also singular—for how far she veered from Sam Jones’s bra-less blazers and Ally McBeal’s micro-hemmed pencil skirts. She instead espoused an early form of normcore that you might call competencecore. The X-Files first aired in 1993, and Scully started things off right at Peak Pantsuit: Her ensembles included pants that were wide of leg, jackets that were thick of lapel, each individual garment so generous of cut as to suggest that the biggest revelation The X-Files might have in store was that its costumers were in the pocket, so to speak, of Big Fabric. Scully’s blazers, in those early days, were often double-breasted, because why not add more fabric; the (usually silky) blouses underneath were typically primly buttoned all the way to the top. And those layers were often topped off by wool coats whose cuts—boxy, shoulder-padded, lapelled—mimicked those of the suits themselves.

The layered look of the original ScullySuit—a wearable parfait of practical, wrinkle-resistant fabrics—came in a rainbow of shades. There were some khakis in there, sure, but there were also fire-engine reds and jade greens and other colors ostensibly chosen to complement Scully’s rosy skin and red hair. Oh! And there were also patterns. So many patterns. (Remember that tartan blazer? THAT TARTAN BLAZER.)


Scully’s first forays into FBI power-suit-ing were accessorized, as they would continue to be throughout the show, with a single, simple necklace: a small gold cross that would be revealed to be, soon enough, a relic of Scully’s Catholicism. A cross whose omnipresence would mean that Scully would spend her years on The X-Files—shooting guns, cartwheel-kicking monsters, side-eye-ing Mulder—with the ultimate symbol of I Want to Believe dangling delicately on her neck.

Another accessory that took Scully through the course of the show: heels. Even in the field—even fleeing pizza-delivering vampires and liver-eating mutants and the U.S. government—her shoe of choice was a pair of pumps. At the outset of The X-Files, the shoes were as practical as any pair of pumps can possibly be: kitten-heeled, sturdy, as expansively cut as Scully’s taper-slacked pantsuits. They were pumps, indeed, that had a whiff of wartime austerity. But the shoes evolved as both Scully and footwear trends external to The X-Files’s universe did, to the extent that in the reboot of the show, Scully is wearing heels that are essentially stilettos. And they signal just what they did in the ’90s: femininity that will insist on itself even when it is impractical. Scully both heralded and embraced a Hollywood trope that continues today: professional women, be they detectives (Jules O’Hara in Psych) or executives (Claire Dearing in Jurassic World), clad in footwear that is, literally and otherwise, highly impractical.

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For that, and also for a myriad of reasons that can be shorthanded as THAT TARTAN BLAZER, it’s become popular to mock Scully’s sartorial choices. Rebecca Traister, in an otherwise loving ode to the sci-fi heroine, referred to her “ill-advised jewel-toned pantsuits.” The fucknoshoulderpads Tumblr has a post tellingly titled, “Oh, Dana Scully, No.” Paper Magazine recently wrote that “pop culture’s foremost alien huntress … has terrible style.”

And, indeed. The ScullySuit is, ultimately, the sartorial equivalent of mom jeans: trying at once too hard, and not enough. Scully herself, however, cannot be fully faulted for her fashion faux pas. Not just because the ’90s had their way with us all, but because even the most garish and most marmish of her outfits have their message to send about who—and, indeed, why—Scully is. The X-Files is ultimately a show about institutions: about our ability, and possibly our complete inability, to have faith in the bodies that give form to government and culture and society at large. Trust No One, and all that. And what represents The Institution writ large more than a dull, black pantsuit? As worn by other characters—the Smoking Man, in particular, and his variously smoldering henchmen—suits, in The X-Files’ universe, take on a menacing quality. They represent both conformity and conspiracy, and the show’s ultimate conviction that those two things might actually be indistinguishable.

In that sense, Scully’s fashion missteps establish her, from the outset—despite her official assignment as the Bureau-appointed babysitter of Spooky Mulder—as that rarest of things: trustable. Hers is a uniform of non-conformity. It acknowledges the reality of Scully’s workplace (“a lot of what we’re constrained by is the actual restrictions of the FBI,” Molly Harris Campbell, the show’s costume designer, told The New York Times, noting that “this is very much a show that concentrates on being realistic”). But its colors and patterns and occasional abandonment of slacks for skirts also carry a broader message within The X-Files’ moral cosmology: Trust No One makes an exemption for one Dana Scully.

Scully in her element: suited, side-eye-ing (Fox)

Scully’s outfits—and they are technically designer outfits, by the way: Max Mara coats, suits by Calvin Klein and Emporio Armani—are also the uniform of a woman who is playing a traditionally masculine role. (“‘Baby’ me,” she informs an epithet-wielding assailant at one point, “and you’ll be peeing through a catheter.”) She is “Scully,” not “Dana.” And her suits are evidence of a strategy many women-in-a-man’s-world have relied on: the striking of a careful balance between standing out and fitting in. They acknowledge femininity—the silk blouses! the bright colors!—while also de-emphasizing it (boxy cuts! pants! suits!). Her suits insist that Scully—shooter of guns, dissector of corpses, author of a doctoral dissertation on Einstein—is, as it were, “just one of the guys”; they insist at the same time that she most definitely is not.

And they continue to do that throughout the show. Scully’s suits—with the exception of season two, when Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy led the show’s costumers to offer up blazers and coats that got, against all odds, even roomier than they had been before—become progressively slimmer-cut. They get darker in tone. They get sleeker. They get more revealing. The black suit Scully wears in the opener to the show’s 2016 season features not only a skirt, but one that is decidedly body-conscious. (The episode also features Scully wearing scrubs—scrubs!—that are themselves notably tailored to her shape.)

Gillian Anderson recently referred to Scully’s wardrobe, politely, as “limited”; she was the one, InStyle reports, who charged the costume designer from Hannibal with updating Scully’s clothes for The X-Files’ new episodes. The mandate was to respect “the demure aspects of her wardrobe.” Which makes sense: Chris Carter, The X-Files’ creator, has talked about the remarkable ability Anderson—only 24 when the show began filming—had to bring “a certain need-to-prove-yourself quality to the character”; her costumes, with all their complexity, helped her to do that, and continue to do so. They de-couple Scully’s femininity from her everything-else: her intellect, her empathy, her abilities as an FBI agent, her relationship with Mulder.


One of the more subversive elements of The X-Files—beyond its insistence on government-run conspiracies and its protagonist’s belief that his sister was abducted by aliens—is the gender-bending it brings to the partnership between Scully and Mulder. Mulder, in general, plays the traditional woman’s role: Languid of eye, loopy of walk, he is dreamy and woozy and romantic. And Scully, for her part, is effectively the masculine one: practical and industrious, indulgent of her partner’s flights of fancy but able to ground him when she must. It’s revealing that Scully’s primary catchphrase—despite multiple seasons of crackling dialogue between the two—has been, and remains, the no-nonsense “Mulder, it’s me.” Scully does not enjoy wasting time.

Except, you know, when she does. The X-Files presented itself in its early marketing as a sci-fi thriller: a nerdy drama about aliens and conspiracies. But what it was, at the same time—and what it became, even more fully—was a rom-com, with Scully made even more of a bombshell by her utter disinterest in being one, and Mulder being “basically a walking pheromone.” Theirs was, at the beginning, a static electricity—latent, buzzing, omnipresent—and that fact alone was able to put the “tension” in “sexual tension” better than most shows ever could. It was truly an open question, for a long time, whether these two people would ever, finally, consummate their mutual attraction.

The suits they both wear—Scully’s neat and pressed, Mulder’s puppy-dog floppy—legitimize, in their weird way, The X-Files’s rom-comic inclinations. As does the fact that Scully, wardrobe- and otherwise, certainly has a softer side: t-shirts and soft cardigans at home, torso-hugging vests at parties, that amazing white-lace number she wore on a date during the show’s first season. But both Scully and Mulder spend the majority of their time together wearing suits—uniforms of the working world—and that suggests, in turn, that both are effectively immune to the superficial concerns that can unite and divide couples of more standard issue. Their attraction exists in spite of those suits. It smolders on, shoulder pads and all. Their partnership transcends their clothes. Their suits are, yes, soulful.

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The X-Files’ “Barbie and Ken” gift set (eBay)

And Scully’s suits are particularly so. The X-Files was initially the story of Fox Mulder: The Truth Is Out There, I Want to Believe, all that. Its story was initially told, by default, from his perspective—with Dana Scully sent to him, essentially, to be a spoiler. Very early on, though, that premise flips. The X-Files becomes Scully’s story. She is the one who evolves—indeed, she is the only one, Mulder being what he is, who can do much evolving. Mulder carries with him the banality of the true believer; it is Scully, the scientist, who espouses the tension of agnosticism. Will they or won’t they may be a favorite, driving question of The X-Files; equally important to the show’s mythology, though, is will she or won’t she? Will Scully, finally, believe?

As she sheds layers of clothes, season after season—as blouses go unbuttoned, then give way to tight t-shirts and slight camisoles; as blazers get belted and nipped and shortened; as coats shrink to fit her form—Scully sheds something else, as well: her belief, and indeed her default trust, in all that she has taken for granted. The big things so many of us take for granted. Government, religion, culture, the carefully constructed intellectual infrastructures that give the world its order ... all of those, as The X-Files goes on, get called into question. Scully’s clothes become a metaphor for her willingness to believe in disbelief. They become a visual symbol of how far her rationality has taken her. Scully, her clothes suggest—her weighty coats and bulky pants jettisoned in favor of more freeing options—might finally be able to share Mulder’s faith in faithlessness.