So: Is it defensible, in this day and age (day: Tuesday; age: the 21st century) for an established news organization to put forth a 3-page article on how newswomen dress? On this particular day, the editors of the Washington Post didn't just answer that question with a yes (and I'm not saying tackling this topic is not O.K., because it's about how you do it, but more about that in a moment), they answered it with a resounding, nearly 2,000-word yes in the form of an article by Katherine Boyle. This is a piece that includes extensive reporting (quotes from retailers as well as newswomen themselves); some historical clothing analysis based on gender; a lot of pondering about what it all means; knowledge of cap sleeves. Sounds pretty thorough. So: What's wrong with that?
The piece hinges upon this discovery: "The women’s blazer is disappearing — from department stores and network news broadcasts." This, as I look around the shared workspace in which I am currently writing, appears true also for shared workspaces: I see men and women, I see sweaters and flannel, but I see nary a blazer on a guy or a lady. It appears that we are all quite empowered in here! But back to the newswomen, as Boyle kicks things off:
Dresses dangled on the racks at Neiman’s and Saks and all [CBS's] Norah O’Donnell needed was a suit.
“I couldn’t find a nice suit jacket that wasn’t black,” O’Donnell said. “You used to find all kinds in blues and hot pinks. They stopped making them. That’s when I thought, what’s changed?”
What has changed, indeed? Boyle takes us back:
For decades, the suit jacket transformed women into workers. With jackets required for entrance at male-dominated clubs and boardrooms, women bundled up their breasts to blend into a professional culture that predated their arrival. But in recent years, even as men continued to assume corporate uniforms of suits and ties, newswomen — one of the last vestiges of female suit wearers — have resoundingly dismissed them from their closets. They now flank themselves in bright sleeveless sheath dresses and stiletto heels, renouncing the once hard-and-fast edicts of television news: no bare legs, no long hair, no feminine distractions from the news. The revision of the female anchor’s dress code happened swiftly and broadly on network and cable television. And if newswomen are the most visible barometers of workplace fashion, the women’s suit may one day go the way of the petticoat.
It is undeniable fact that work-wear has in general changed, as has non-office clothing, over time. We (that is, "normals," non-newscasters), are just generally more casual overall, which you can blame on working from home, the gradual decline in popularity of the fedora (among most), the boom in jeans as acceptable day-wear for those other than agriculture or industrial workers, and so on. Progress! Hence, jeans and sweaters abound in my workspace right now. So do laptops, headphones, and a whole lot of tech equipment. If someone walked in wearing a suit, we'd probably hide. Suits are for the olds, the traditional types, upper-management, newscasters (maybe!), the bosses.
But equal measures of revealing and covering and revealing-covering have taken place for quite a while, since the entry of ladies into said "professional culture" (and we all know about Joan of Arc just as we know about Joan Holloway). Meanwhile, men's wear has been changing, too, and so, even as we get articles on Paul Ryan's suit choices, we also get reporting on how guys are wearing leggings. Clothes are a reflection of culture, and it's fair to talk about any and all of it. It's fine to say that newswomen are wearing fewer suits and more dresses. It's fine, even, to talk about what women wear, and not even mention what men are wearing in the same breath. But to discuss it breathlessly — newsrooms are "allowing" ladies to put on separates! Ladies are choosing separates for themselves! — turns our female anchor class into some harbinger of a gender-equal clothing trend (or maybe, inversely, means that our newsrooms are just being sexist in another way). That does the whole topic a disservice. Because this, in fact, appears a good thing:
“Ten years ago, professional dress meant a Talbots suit for women,” said Dave Smith, president of SmithGeiger, a market research firm that consults with news networks. “What’s appropriate for female talent on television has evolved because of familiarity. The audience has equal regard for female and male anchors. It’s given women far more liberty to be feminine.
So why does Boyle's piece seem a little bit ... underwhelming in terms of the sense of "liberty" it reveals?
Perhaps it's because of the inherent irony of a piece about "empowerment for women" that includes this graph:
That theory of empowerment rings true for many newswomen. They’ve finally laid claim to the anchor’s chair and can let their hair down or, at least, grow it past their shoulders. Even Sawyer and Mitchell have adopted subtle changes in wardrobe. Sawyer sometimes wears crisp black blouses sans jacket while anchoring the evening news. Mitchell often prefers pastel, cap-sleeved shells for her afternoon show on MSNBC.
Then, as Boyle mentions a bit later, there's that sneaking suspicion that maybe women are being made to dress more sexily than ever, for ratings. Is the freedom from the suit just a bustier in another color?
Some morning show hosts have commented on network edicts regarding dress. Before her departure from “Today,” Ann Curry told Ladies’ Home Journal that executives encouraged her to wear “ridiculously high-heel shoes.” Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” found that executives tried to control her wardrobe when she transitioned into morning television.
Or ... could it be that in certain industries people are supposed to wear certain clothes? Or look a certain way? Especially if they work on the teevee? Boyle writes, "What women should wear on television is an ongoing public debate, particularly among newswomen themselves." And in the end, that's essentially what we get from this piece. Women and clothes, together forever like peas and carrots, whether it's business suits or cardigans or khaki pants and button downs, overlaid with the ominous judgment of those who look at these women and clothes, determining that their hemlines are too short, or too long, their heels too high, or too low, their lipstick too bright, or too dull, and so on. The problem with this article is that it doesn't transcend the judgments about how women dress even in its pitch that the times are a'changing, the times have a'changed. It's simply putting another outfit on how women should look. As Boyle writes, "While short skirts and cleavage may work for a reporter in Los Angeles, markets in the heartland could find a sexy meteorologist off-putting." It's so hard to know what women should wear! Would that we could all just put on uniforms and be done with it!
“It was easier for us to advise them when it was shorter hair, no jewelry and blazers,” [Kent Collins, chairman of the television department at the Missouri School of Journalism]. “It’s becoming much more complicated. There’s been a lot of talk amongst the women, particularly on the issue of sleeveless. We’re still trying to figure out what’s acceptable.”
Yep, we've come a long way, baby ... yet if we're still using the language of Virginia Slims and talking about sleeves as a form of female empowerment and equality, we still have quite a ways to go. Sometimes clothes are just clothes. The best article about female empowerment in the newsroom or out of it would not, I dare say, need mention them at all.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.