For God’s Sake, Put on Some Clothes

I am fond of procedural crime dramas, lawyer dramas, medical dramas, and I am pleased to note that women are well represented in the roles of FBI agents, detectives, CSIs, lawyers, reporters, doctors, mad scientists, etc.  I am less pleased because so many of these characters don’t seem to have a clue how to dress.

I’m not talking dressing badly, or tastelessly, or even doing stupid things like wearing really high heels in a job where you’re on your feet all day (like, say, being an ER doc or a detective).  I’m talking about dressing inappropriately for a woman in a position of professional responsibility and authority.  Like the woman pictured above.  The show is Unforgettable; the character is Detective Carrie Wells, played by the extremely slender and beautiful Australian actress, Poppy Montgomery.  And unless it’s snowing in a scene, she runs around Manhattan in tank tops and low-cut t-shirts.  I can’t even begin to consider the show on its merits because every time the character arrives on screen, I want to take her aside and talk to her about her wardrobe.  Who is going to take her seriously?  Her low-life witnesses are surely staring down her cleavage; her co-workers wonder why she dresses like she just came from yoga class.  She doesn’t look likeshe takes her job seriously.

Better than Carrie Wells is Teresa Lisbon, lead agent for the California Bureau of Investigation on The Mentalist.  Lisbon favors blazers and blouses–and heels, of course.  I like her because her clothes don’t look expensive–she has a slight working class vibe about her–and because she rarely looks over-made-up and over-coiffed (they leave the coiffing to Simon Baker, the lead on the show).   She is often shown wearing Henley-style sweaters, or t-shirts, but usually she has a jacket too, so she looks like she’s attempting active-business-wear,  She looks like she means to be taken seriously, like she is less interested in being noticed for her clothes (or her body) than for her authority.

I really like Anna Torv, who plays Olivia Dunham on Fringe (I love Fringe),  The clothes she wears are usually well-made, well-fitted, and tasteful; she’s the Dana Scullyof our age.  On the other hand, she often looks as if she forgot to iron the blouse, and her style–long straight hair, often pulledback in a ponytail–makes her look sort of no-nonsense.  Her faintly melancholy deneanor suggests that she’s someone to be taken seriously.  That helps when you are dealing with aliens and multiple universes and shapeshifters…  Torv and Montgomery have a similar look and body type (all of these women are slender and athletic looking–even the short ones) but somehow Torv rarely looks like she’s showing off how svelte and limber she is.

Then there’s Kate Beckett on Castle.  She dresses well, in a sort of New York casual style.  I do have a real problem with the heels–they may be stylish, but when I saw her trying to kick out a wall the other night (there was a tiger on the other side…long story) in high-heeled boots I couldn’t help but think, you know, Merrells would have been more comfortable for this.  I don’t expect her to sport Adidas, for heaven’s sake, but really: if she’s supposed to be able to sprint after bad guys on a moment’s notice, the heels aren’t selling it for me.  Occasionally Beckettsits around the stationhouse in a t-shirt or (if it’s hot out) a tank top, but you can be pretty sure that when she’s out meeting the public she’ll throw a jacket on over it.  Business casual still means business.

Okay, I get cranky about this. What may be more surprising is that my husband, who is not above ogling a pretty woman, is quicker to snap “Put a jacket on!” at a character committing offenses against being taken seriously than I am.  But I am the mother of girls, or rather, young women.  I have discussions with them about the semiotics of clothing, especially for women.  They’re coming of age in a world that is very different from the one I grew up in (in which I was once told I should learn to type because it was a good job for a woman.  I compromised by learning to type badly).  But I can’t help thinking that some of the old verities pertain: if you want to be taken seriously, dress seriously.

Where, then, does that leave Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds?  Well, the show sets her up as her own sweet, eccentric, brilliant self, and even the FBI isn’t going to change her.  Plus: she rarely goes out to be the Face of the Team or interact with the public; her authority is entirely based in what she can do to support the people with guns.  Not all the butterfly hair clips and chunky plastic jewelry in the world can distract from ability, and her team knows it.  And anyway: she may dress like a Kewpie doll on occasion, but she never dresses like she’s holding down a business on the corner of 10th Avenue and 36th Street.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


For God’s Sake, Put on Some Clothes — 28 Comments

  1. Perhaps the whole point of the character’s outfits is to compliment the character’s personality traits and backstory.

    Try looking at it from that perspective and shift a little away from what you think they ‘ought’ to be wearing in order to conform with your (and occasionally your husband’s) concept of what they ‘should’ look like.

  2. I agree — the whole “check out my tits and ass” wardrobe thing going on with supposedly active, professional women on TV is clear fanservice, and the fans being serviced are the straight dudes.

    I love the CSI shows, but female cops in spiky heels is ridiculous. And crime scene techs in clothes that are clearly trying to look sexy or high fashion? I remember an episode when Sara on the original Vegas show had been boiling down a body to get at the skeleton or something, and a (non-CSI) guy who’d been flirting with her kind of mentioned this weird scent in the air. She said something like, “Oh, yeah, the body fat from the corpse aerosolizes and gets into everything.” He sort of went O_O and we didn’t see him again after that, but the thing is, these people work with icky stuff all the time. To Sara, that was perfectly normal and nothing to be freaked out or embarassed by. Whether it’s aerosolized body fat or splattered and rotting blood or the oozing contents of someone’s intestines, this is a physically dirty job. It isn’t the sort of job where you want to wear your nicest clothes, or evey TRY to look sexy. 😛

    I like Mentalist’s Lisbon, too; I think she’s one of the best, most realistic female cops on TV for her appearance and behavior both. Sara’s a great field geek, and Lisbon’s a great team leader; both of them have their primary focus on their job, not their appearance, and their shows are the better for it.


  3. You go, Mad! Excellent post. I learned to type badly, too, and I’ve been in the business world for decades. No matter how the clothes might portray the character, the flat-out truth us that those outfits would never, EVER get taken seriously in any business or employment scenario.

    And anyone who thinks otherwise is wishing.

    An outfit that throws the viewer (or reader) out of the story and causes them to lose faith in the character, doesn’t seve the story-telling. All it says to me is that this woman doesn’t know her orifices from her extremities, or she doesn’t give a damn. Neither one makes he believe her.

  4. When I was raising a young woman, we played dress up. She would wear one of my business suits and see how differently the people on her regular bus treated her. It did the best job of convincing her that costuming was important to social perception. Have Avocado try it, I’ll bet she’s enjoy it.

  5. But, but, pretty arms! No, I totally get what you mean.

    Actually, the first time it really struck me was when I was watching the Warehouse 13 pilot. FBI agent Myka Bering was on duty at a very fancy party, and so was wearing heels and a dress so she could blend in. But the moment she suspected trouble, the shoes came off, and she took down the crazed assailant just like that. Myka is definitely a blazer and buttondown sort of girl. And indeed, as Oliva Dunham and Emily Prentiss continue to prove, blazer and buttondown, worn with confidence, can be super sexy.

  6. Abby on NCIS: love that character–she dresses in her own distinct style.

    Making actresses look sexy no matter what their job is nothing new, but (imo) it doesn’t help them to stand out. Most of these shows, I can’t tell the female characters apart. Except Abby!

  7. Widdershins: I love Garcia because she dresses exactly the way she dresses (and on those occasions when she tries to dress like a “grown-up” she looks uncomfortable and unlike herself–just as her character would. But Garcia, as a character, is not someone who deals with the outside world; she was sought by the FBI for her computer skills, and it’s plain that the FBI lets her dress that way because of that–not because she’s meeting their dress code.

  8. I rather link Dana Delany in Body of Evidence, but the fact she goes around wearing heels (hey how does she manage to kneel over bodies in those heels?) all the time leaves me up the creek.

    I am always awed by Linda Hunt. The fact she is on NCIS LA keeps me watching even if it is rather an oddity. I also like the very goth Abi Scuito in NCIS – but part of that is just due to taking her with a bit of humor and smiles.

  9. My spouse likes “Covert Affairs,” a show about a young woman who’s a CIA field officer and gets into all kinds of entertaining and ridiculous situations (last night she got kidnapped from the Smithsonian and thrown in the trunk of a car with a guy from MI-5). The thing is, the main character, played by Piper Perabo, always dresses appropriately for whatever she’s doing. But last night her boss, played by Kari Matchett, was wearing a low-cut, sleeveless sundress IN THE OFFICE. It was a perfectly nice dress, but not something I can imagine anyone at the manager level wearing to work. I think this is why my spouse likes the show better than I do.

  10. On House, the director of the hospital, a physician, always wears tight tops cut down to the cleavage, and tight skirts. Riiiiight.
    There was a show on AMC called ‘The Killing” which didn’t get the buzz that “Mad Men” and “Breaking Back”, but which I thought was really good. The main character is a woman, a homicide detective. She’s played by Mireille Enos, and she usually rushing around Seattle, in grey winter weather, wearing a parka over a warm sweater. She wears shoes that will keep her feet warm and dry, and that she can run in. She is shown in fitted exercise clothes — when she’s exercising.

  11. The hair thing is really what gets me, frequently. High heels, definitely. Long, loose hair, for all kinds of action an adventure? I grouse at the screen. “Pull that back!” “Put your hair up!” “Braid it!” Seriously!

    I miss Scully.

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  13. We hardly ever saw Buffy in heels. She did put up her hair frequently.

    Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect always dressed sensibly, even though she generally directed or ordered action, by virtue of her rank, rather than participate in the action.

    Long hair as currently demanded in every character / actress on screen is one of the greatest liabilities a kick asser can ahem labor under: long hair is made to be grabbed by your opponent.

    Nothing much changes does it? In fantasy women warriors have bare nearly everything and long flyng hair, while men are covered head to toe and hair is shorn to the scalp. Also, you know, lice.

    Love, C.

  14. I’m totally with you and have to wonder if I’m turning into an old fogey. Let’s face it, the women walking the malls dress far worse than tank tops. and cleavage is spilling in your face behind every cash register. Maybe this is some new kind of sexual revolution? I’ve got breasts, so deal with it? I don’t think there are many police departments that could…but that’s reality, not TV.

  15. Madeleine, great post. JanetL, What You Said about Cuddy in “House.” At one point another character tells her she dresses like a whore (I’d say a mid-level call girl, not savvy enough to keep it classy), but that makes absolutely no difference to the character’s choice of clothing in subsequent episodes.

    Emily Procter (CSI Miami), in an interview, was asked what the theme of the show was, and she replied, “Cleavage.”

    I think The Killing fell way out of favor with anybody who had been watching it because of its season finale. Details would be spoilers; in general the producers chose an unsatisfying cliff-hanger. If you think of set design as being in the same general area as costume design (just to keep this vaguely on topic…), while some of the background has clearly been filmed in Seattle, generally speaking it’s Hollywood’s idea of what Seattle is like. Every time you turn around you’re in a monsoon and thunderstorm. We very seldom have thunderstorms, and when we do it’s usually a clap or two of thunder. We do have more heavy rain than in past decades, but traditionally, Seattle rain is misty.

    It’s funny that in dramas, women often dress inappropriately while the men usually dress more or less appropriately, except that the geeks (surfer dude in NCIS: LA; Spencer Reed in Criminal Minds) get something of a pass. But on talk shows, the women dress like they’re going to be interviewed on a talk show (the same kind of sexy dresses that look silly and inappropriate in a drama’s work context, but are appropriate for talk shows), while most of the men come wandering in looking like they just got done gardening. I wonder why that is?

  16. This is why I love Flashpoint–its female police officers always have their hair tied or braided back, and they do their jobs in the exact same uniforms and shoes the guys do. Even when the plot gives the female characters excuses to dress up, it’s casual–when Cst. Jules Callaghan is assigned to guard a female VIP at a gala, she wears a dark blazer and slacks; when she stumbles onto a hostage situation on her day off, she’s in ballet flats, even though the actress is only 5’2 (and the show didn’t emphasize that she was saving peoples’ lives while wearing a sundress. She just DID it).

  17. Hmm. It is instructive to look at real-life working women. I have a picture of my daughter on maneuvers with the US Army; she is in full camo, heavily armed, and looks exactly like all the other soldiers in the shot. Only a doting mom’s eye can identify her, by her upper lip — the only bit of skin visible.
    In other words, the exigencies of the work drive the clothing. Soldiers look alike because they all have identical sartorial needs (to carry grenades on belt, torso armor, protect head with helmet,etc.).
    Now on TV, the demands of the work are different. It is in fact very desirable that the women do not look like the men; cleavage and legs are a plus. With those forces driving the clothing choices, what you get is what Mad complains of.

  18. Brenda, I have no problem with women wearing things that display their cleavage or legs–as long as its appropriate to what they’re ostensibly supposed to be doing. If they want me to believe a woman is a cop she should dress as if she might have to do something active.

    I had the same problem with superheroines when I was editing comic books: if you’re going to be doing martial-arts style fighting, having to make sure your boobs don’t fall out of your tunic is a distraction. Don’t get me started on the classic comic book female-on-spike-heels stance: chest and butt thrown out in a wild S curve. All I can think of is chiropractic.

  19. Funny- when I looked at the top photo, my reaction was, “There’s someone who’s going to get something done,” while some of the blazer-clad models came across as desk ornaments or talk show hosts. I can’t imagine wearing top photo’s outfit myself, but she didn’t look remotely indecent to me.

    I’ve never seen the program, though. If I have spare time, I’d rather read.

  20. I don’t have a problem with heels (as a New Yorker myself, I have 2″ and 3″ boots that I can wear – and yes, run in – without problem). I also know that, in certain situations, that extra inch or three of height can give a woman a real psychological advantage.

    Likewise, a tank top or t-shirt doesn’t bother me – so long as we see every now and again that she keeps a blazer in the back of the car or hung on her office door, the same way guys keep an extra tie stashed in a drawer. A woman who dresses too soberly can give the impression that she’s uncertain of her authority, as much as proclaiming it. A little casual skin, done right, says “I’m at the top of my game and you can’t touch me.”

    (That said, even The Goddess Garcia toned it down when she tried to become the team’s PR liason after JJ left.)

    Hair, tho, hair get me, every. damn. time. If you’re in a situation where you have to be active, where you are dealing with evidence, or you might be attacked, then your hair should either be short (chin level) or tied back somehow, so it can’t contaminate evidence or be used against you. That’s just basic job competence.

  21. I think the thing that gets me is the fact that while women are routinely wearing one thin, tight layer, the men are completely covered up. I want to know what climate they’re living in that both sets of people can be comfortable like that.

    Teresa Lisbon is one of my favorite characters on tv right now. Along with Emily Prentiss.

  22. The weather-unsuitability is exactly equivalent to the job-unsuitability. My idea is that in TV and film the fantasy (scantily clad girls, or SCG) is forced to trump any pretense to realism or practicality. SCG also is top card in the comics industry: compare only the costumes of Superman and Supergirl. And it is better not to consider theater at all.
    It may be possible to formulate a rule: that SCGs are ace. Only in very rare situations does it not rule.

  23. “And it is better not to consider theater at all.”

    You think theater is a bigger offender than comics, television, and movies?

    Huh. That’s not my perception at all.

  24. Comics, not being subject to the laws of gravity (or blessed by the alien technology of Improbable Mammary Suspension™) is the worst offender, I think. Plus, the editors believe (or did believe when I was working in comics) that their target audience were 13 year old boys who thought with their hormones. That I disagreed got me nowhere.

    But I’ve never thought of theatre as particularly bad, because so often costume is used to support the character’s definition (I’ve taken costuming classes–that’s the idea, anyway) for an audience that, by its definition, is more interested in the drama than the Big Loud Bang. Ideally film and TV and theatre =should= be thinking in terms of character deilneation via clothing–but other market forces, and other hormonal impulses, come into play.

  25. I saw Robin Tunney on The View and she talked about her high-heeled boots. She said she wears them to be taller, or as tall as, her co-workers since she’s the boss and loses authority when she’s shorter than them. She told a story about running after a bad guy in her high-heeled boots and lost her balance, flying through the air and landing on her hands. But, she still wears them and does her own stunts in these boots, with heels at least 3 inches high and often higher! I worked in 5 1/2 inch stiletto heels for years, and wore them every day. No one can believe that I can wear them all day, including running out of the building down the stairs and outside on the cobblestone sidewalks during fire drills.

    • I understand the dilemma for short women. I had a friend in Aikido who was maybe 5 feet tall and worked as a trial lawyer, and she often ran into people who treated her as if she wasn’t even there. (I didn’t make that mistake, because I had trained with her and knew she could throw me around.)

      But count me among those who don’t believe you can wear those heels all day and run down stairs. All high heels throw your hips forward and put you off balance. That’s why they’re considered sexy. Me, I can’t stand to walk around off balance all the time. And I wonder if anyone has looked into any correlation between a lifetime wearing stiletto heels and hip surgery.