“Mrs. America” Style: Brenda Feigen-Fasteau and Jill Ruckelshaus

Posted on May 13, 2020

We’re playing catchup on our costume design analyses of Mrs. America, but teacher, we have a note explaining why. As we noted in an earlier entry, experience has taught us that once you analyze the approach of a costume designer working on a television series and you’ve established what they’re doing and how they’re doing it (as you see it), each subsequent episode has less and less material to work with; fewer points to make. Mrs. America is focused on a handful of women over a single decade of the 20th Century, making points about political movements through the clothing choices of their respective leaders. Once the motifs are established and the historical reference points appropriately made, you often risk winding up repeating yourself.

It didn’t help that the fifth episode, “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc,” represented a slight departure from the show’s norm of highlighting movement leaders with big media footprints, like Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Schlafly, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan; distinctive figures with easily conjured visuals, allowing costume designer Bina Daigeler to play around in that area between the known history and the interpreted retelling of it.  Brenda and Marc Feigen-Fasteau may have been a power couple within the movement at the time, but they just don’t have the same weight as the iconic figures each episode has highlighted. Having said that, we’d like to focus on the only scene that truly mattered from a costume design perspective before we move on to episode six’s focus on Jill Ruckelshaus.

 

 

Notice how the couples are mirror images of each other; the women in their red-orange dresses, heels and camera-ready hair, the men in their red, white and blue menswear. The differences are minor but telling: the prominent cross on Phyllis, the swirling and discordant prints of Brenda (representing her heightened emotional state and inner turmoil), the flared pants, check print, and aviators on Marc. The cross and the typical Republican male uniform on Fred are not hard to parse or understand and that’s the point of them. But Marc’s feathered hair, flared pants, Steinem-esque frames, and print shirt mark him as the “sensitive man” type of the seventies. Two other things worth noting: Phyllis’s gold pumps, evincing a flashiness and love of the spotlight that she tries to keep hidden, and Brenda’s blown-out hair, which is TV-appropriate, but when you pair it with her dress and her heels, is evidence of how she still feels the need to present herself in the expected feminine mode. Marc gets to play with menswear tropes because he’s a male feminist, but Brenda, an actual leader in the feminist movement, doesn’t feel like she can step outside the norm. In virtually all her other scenes, she sports pants, flat hair, and flat shoes.

On to Jill Ruckelshaus:

We should say first that Elizabeth Banks was fantastic in this episode. Holding her own in a head-to-head, dialogue-heavy scene with Cate Blanchett is reason enough to stop and remember how good an actress she is. The fact that she wiped the floor with Blanchett in that scene is a good reminder that she’s not just good, but an excellent actress. Give her all the roles.

Anyway, the thing about Jill Ruckelshaus is that, from a historic perspective, she was an important figure in the movement, but not necessarily a leader in it in the same way Friedan, Steinem, Abzug and Chisholm were. But her media profile, as both a high-ranking political appointee and a high-ranking Republican political wife, gave costume designer Bina Daigeler a bit more to work with than Brenda Feigen-Fasteau, and while she didn’t necessarily lead a movement, she’s clothed in a style that would nonetheless come to define a certain kind of political woman in the next decade.

 

Contrasting her immediately with Betty Ford makes a rather stark point about Jill: She’s trying to be the forward face of the entire Republican party on the issue of women’s rights. Betty Ford is dressed conservatively and old school in style; her helmet hair and Chanel-inspired suit having been the political wife uniform since Jackie Kennedy made it so. But Jill, with her more up-to-date wardrobe with its more glamorous touches (note all the jewelry) is forecasting the style of the next woman to become an iconic First Lady: Nancy Reagan.

 

Which isn’t to say it’s an exact one-to-one representation, but the point of the story and the costume design helping to tell it is that Jill is something of a rising star and a bit of a hotshot who’s media savvy and camera-ready. She has the one quality in her costume design that none of the other women in the story have: a sort of mainstream glamour that straddles celebrity and political styles – note the combination of a fur trimmed metallic gold jacket with a very old-school and conservative string of pearls. Gloria may have looked like she walked off the cover of Rolling Stone in her trendy styles, but Jill looks like she walked off the cover of Redbook or Ladies Home Journal:

 

The look is feminine, coordinated and conservative (note how much she loves high collars and pussy bows), but also stylish and on point for the times. If there’s such a thing as trends in how women in politics dress, Jill is representing the next step. Of the three political powerhouses pictured here, Jill’s style is the one that defined the working woman style of the day Think of the 1980 fill classic 9 to 5) and more or less remains in place today, with minor variations.

But Jill doesn’t just stand in contrast to old school Republican figures like Betty Ford or upcoming ones like Nancy Reagan. She’s also being compared and contrasted with Phyllis Schlafly, who would also wind up becoming a powerful figurehead in the party:

 

Schlafly and her posse represent the suburban, Catholic, midwestern Republican wife model of the time and the evangelical women are dressed in homier styles, with a woodsy sort of undertone to them. Country conservatives vs. upper middle-class suburban conservatives. Note Phyllis business suit and small pussy bow. Like Jill, she’s adopting the tropes of a working woman’s uniform. Unlike Jill, she’s not a political wife.

Jill’s style is more cosmopolitan, more well-appointed, more overtly moneyed. Even in a brown tweed suit, she’s sporting a metallic gold blouse with an enormous bow. This is Washington D.C. power dressing in the Reagan-era mode. Gloria and Shirley and Bella are much further from Phyllis’s style and the contrasts can be jarring. With Jill, it’s more subtle; working within the mode of conservative Republican styles, but clearly much more glamorous and modern than Phyllis’s rather dowdy and prim take on women’s suiting.

But for all of Jill’s maneuvering and political skills, for all the ways in which she comes up against power and attempts to mold it, she’s still working in a paradigm – and with a set of goals – that center around her husband’s career first and whether or not she’s playing the political wife game as well as she’s playing the political appointee one:

 

 

Her husband does not get picked to be the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican party and her own work as a feminist is cited as a reason why. It’s notable that she receives this news in something softly feminine with a whimsical sort of butterfly touch at the waist, unlike the power suits and hardcore glamour of her earlier looks. Sitting at her husband’s feet, barefoot, in a pretty lavender dress, feeling punished for her ambition.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Sabrina Lantos/FX – Stills: FX on Hulu via Tom and Lorenzo]

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