“Mrs. America” Style: Gloria Steinem

Posted on April 20, 2020

Looking at the costume design for this second episode (our first-episode costume analysis is here), which is still as much about Phyllis Schlafly as it is about Gloria Steinem (even though the latter’s name is the title of the episode), there really are only two things of note, the first of which explains why there are only two things of note. Costume designer Bina Daigeler is working with recent historic figures, and in the cases of Schlafly and Steinem, historic figures with enormous media footprints. Even further, they were both media darlings (of different sorts, of course) who understood the importance of how they dressed and what sort of messages to get across with their clothing choices. Which is to say that Daigeler’s concern as a costume designer is both to tell a story through costume, but also to accurately document the styles of the women portrayed, utilizing the massive video and photographic catalog of their own clothing choices.

Take, for instance, this orange dress for Schlafly’s Donahue appearance:

We can note that, just as she did when she visited the set of Conservative Viewpoint, Phyllis, ever the savvy media player, dressed to match the Donahue set. But this is an exact replica of both the dress and the set for her first appearance on Donahue, which means it’s not so much a comment on Phyllis, the character in this story as it is a representation of Phyllis, the actual person it’s based on.

Having said that, we think it’s entirely possible the real Phyllis actually did pick her dress to match the set. And we’d also like to point out again that, good as Blanchett is, she’s just a bit too elegant, with a bit too much bearing to accurately get across Schlafly’s public persona, which was much more self-consciously and deliberately “housewife” in style and tone.

The second thing to note about the costume design is a response to the first thing to note about the costume design and is exemplified best in the shots of feminists and Schlafly-ites descending upon the Illinois state capitol to weigh in on either side (literally) of the ERA vote:

 

We don’t have to tell you which ones are the women’s libbers and which ones are the conservative housewives. It’s clearly spelled out for you in the costume design, which is quite openly and deliberately framed to make the point without words. It’s Feminists vs. Housewives. It’s Intersectionalism vs. Middle Class White Christian Values. It’s the New Woman vs. The Traditional Woman. It’s long loose hair in the Steinem mode vs. wash-and-sets in the Schlafly mode. In other words, the costume design can’t get too fanciful with the well-established styles of the women in front of these movements, so it extrapolates from Steinem’s and Schlafly’s own personal styles to describe their respective movements. Put in terms as simplistically visual as possible, this is a conflict that can be summed up …

 

… as a wedge espadrille vs. a sensible, ladylike pump.

This is both a simplistic way of rendering this particular struggle and a way of seeing it through the eyes of the people on each side. Did all feminists look a certain way and all conservative women look a certain other way? No, that was no more true then than it is now. But this makes a great visual representation of what the script is spelling out explicitly. Regardless of how actual women on either side of this divide might have dressed, this is what their arguments boiled down to: traditional white feminine roles and aesthetics vs. a wild, diverse, youthful coalition more in tune with the times. Schlafly vs. Steinem.

Cardigans and house dresses and white faces organized in an orderly and ladylike fashion…

 

… vs. pattern and color, chaos and modernity, afros, beads and ponchos.

You could, however, step outside the story a little and note that you can find an implicit criticism of the more stylish, more supposedly  forward-looking side. The women at the head of the feminist movement are being depicted as a bit blind to the housewife point of view, if not openly hostile to it. “Revolutions are messy. People get left behind,” Gloria says, in reference to her more traditional sisters.

Steinem was undoubtedly a rock star of the movement and the media at the time, as evidenced by the opening scene of her making her way through a Ms. launch party at the Guggenheim.

She’s clearly glamorous and trendy, her long hair and fake fur jacket setting her so far apart from Schlafly’s refined suburban style as to make her seem almost alien in comparison. They don’t live in the same world at all.

 

Phyllis’s world is a world of kitchens and housedresses, where the only black face you see isn’t a lover or a co-worker, but a servant. It’s a world of ladylike flourishes and prim pastels:

 

By contrast, Gloria’s world is modern, looser, wilder and more trendy:

 

It’s mini-skirts and knee-high boots. It’s jeans (Phyllis was shown exercising in a skirt) and vests. It’s as obvious as the difference between waiting for your African-American maid to do your ironing in your suburban home vs. doing it yourself wearing a kimono in your New York hotel room while you wait for the Democratic presidential candidate’s phone call and your African-American boyfriend shows up to surprise you.

But it’s also a difference as subtle…

… as a manicure.

Despite all of these differences in style and point of view, the show is clear that both women are working within the same patriarchal system, utilizing roughly the same tactics and skillsets: rallying enough like-minded (and similarly dressed) women around them to plead with the men in the system for more recognition of their needs and worries. And yes, this subtle similarity can be found in their costumes. Last episode, we noted that Phyllis had a persistent brown-and-blue color scheme in her costumes. Well, guess what?

 

That motif continued and expanded outward to include her erstwhile enemy. It doesn’t have to “mean” anything in the sense of  “brown represents x and blue represents Y,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean that costume designer Bina Daigeler deliberately or consciously made this connection, but it is nonetheless there; a visual representation of something the script is making clear: These two women are very different, but have to exist and work in the same patriarchal system; have to put their necks out in service to their politics as well as their own ambitions; have to learn to navigate the expectations society places on their looks to their benefit.

 

Just as we saw Phyllis modeling bikinis and fending off grabby men, we see Gloria having to submit not only to a her “money guy” reducing her to a pair of legs in front of her staff, but also to have her sisters in the movement see her through the lens of her looks.

 

Gloria is shown putting on her signature aviator frames in the distinctly on-trend style she wore them at the time: over her hair and then tucked behind the ear. There’s no story reason to show her doing this, but it illustrates something about her character. Just as Phyllis easily navigates the contradictions of being an anti-feminist living the principles of feminism, Gloria has to live the contradiction of being a political player and public intellectual as well as a pretty pop star. Reduced not just to a pretty face, but a collection of female bodyparts (she is referred to by her face, her legs, her “tits and ass” – by her allies), she understands the value of that face. Rose Byrne is fantastic here, nailing Steinem’s droll nature and dry affect, while making sure to highlight that her mind never stops working. In this moment of putting her glasses on in her signature manner, Byrne subtly shows Steinem to be someone who doesn’t just know how to use her looks, but takes a certain amount of pleasure in them. It doesn’t just show that Steinem lived and worked in the same patriarchal system as Schlafly, who she dismisses as collateral damage in her war; it shows that she is just as subtly affected by the way that same system values certain attributes in her gender.

Next up: Shirley Chisholm.

 

 

[Stills: FX via Tom and Lorenzo]

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