The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

When TV offers a more thought provoking take on women’s clothes than designers, it’s time to hit refresh


 

Most people in decent societies would agree (above the line at least) that a woman should be able to wear whatever she likes without being jumped on. But, as we’re finally beginning to acknowledge publicly, what we wear has consequences.

Clothes matter. They can offend in their sloppiness, their ostentatiousness and their lack (or excess) of modesty. Alternatively, they can seduce entire nations, as when a visiting Duchess wears a maple leaf hat in Canada, or a First Lady chooses British for a rendez-vous in London.

We know this, which is why most of us are still prepared to modify our normal attire when we enter a religious building, or attend a “do”. It’s why Hollywood chose to make a universal show of wearing black to the Golden Globes. Sometimes the hem is mightier than the sword.

One designer who intuitively understands the power of clothes, in her own quiet way, is Phoebe Philo. That’s why her decision last December to leave Celine after ten years there was a blow, and the announcement this week that she will be replaced by Hedi Slimane a shock.

These might sound like rich women’s problems. But while Celine’s clothes were eye wateringly expensive, Philo’s stealth reinvention of elegance, her interesting proportions, her never predictable silhouettes, her faultless (but not boring) taste, her endless ability to reinvent classics such as pea coats, trench coats, blazers and slouchy trousers, always in discreetly luxurious fabrics, and her championing of comfort (she’s the woman you can thank for trainers now being a smart staple in your wardrobe, for totes being light and unfussy, for beautiful knits you’d be proud to wear to the office or to dinner, for a thousand and one asymmetric pleated skirts, for high-cut shoes, for metal heels) profoundly influenced many other design teams – from ASOS to Zara.

Slimane’s four year tenure at Saint Laurent was equally successful, commercially. But his vision – Courtney Love meets every skinny wannabe Emo-boy you’ve ever met – was the Platonic opposite of Philo’s. She dressed women for the female gaze. He dressed them to go forth and live out their fantasy as rock chicks.

Quite what he’ll do at Celine, where he’s also been charged with introducing couture, menswear and a beauty line, was the talk of couture week. Where are the designers who can bring us a way to be feminine that takes stock of what’s going on out there in the wider world (as Philo unfailingly did)?

One designer who intuitively understands the power of clothes, in her own quiet way, is Phoebe Philo.

There wasn’t much evidence of any kind of new thinking in the couture shows themselves, which often seemed trapped in visions of women that looked outdated. Instead there were structures as stiff as mountains, models as thin as wire hangers (oh, and not a woman over 30 to be seen, not on the catwalks at least) and visions of femininity so sickly sweet they might elicit some major eye-rolling from a five year old. If you judged femininity by what was here, it didn’t appear to have materially moved on from the 1950s.

And if you need a reminder of why the 1950s really weren’t that great for women, I recommend Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. An engaging tale of an Upper West Side Jewish Princess turned accidental stand-up comic, it has its wobbly moments, chief among them, for me at least, the fact that Midge Maisel’s stage act is not actually very funny, unlike her off-stage antics. But it’s sharply observed, the clothes are terrific, and once her weedy husband abandons her and she finds her feet, Midge exhibits all the hallmarks of a feminist icon.

Unlike Mad Men’s hypnotic adoration for all things mid-century, this show has one eyebrow permanently arched. Midge Maisel is a fashion plate with a penchant for French designers but, as her side-kick and manager, the butch, beat-nicky Susie Myerson frequently points out, all her itty bits are pains in the neck, albeit pretty ones. Midge knows this. The lyrics of the opening soundtrack to one episode, featuring Midge flouncing her way down a Manhattan street, go like this: “I adore being dressed in something frilly, when my date comes to get me at my place. Out I go with my Joe or John or Billy. Like a filly who is ready for the race… When I have a brand new hair do with my eyelashes all in curls, I float as the clouds on air do I enjoy being a girl…”

It’s charmingly cringy, because we know whose side the story’s on – and it’s not those bouncy, frothy, cumbersome outfits. Only when she’s caught in the rain on the way to one of her downtown comedy dives, damp hair and smudgey make-up suddenly looking like something out of a Saint Laurent campaign, does Midge seem liberated.

And then there’s Feud, the BBC mini series about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s decades long rivalry that culminated in a pitch fork battle when they were filming Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. The depiction of how they were written off for being too old and then, even after Baby Jane was an unexpected box office smash, typecast as hagalicious freaks, is depressingly familiar. But the clothes…

I’m not talking about the little girly horror Davis wears as Baby Jane. “Off-set”, the actresses (played by the reliably wonderful Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon) wear a succession of elegant silk dresses and coats (Crawford) and Katherine Heburnesque slacks and blouses and elegant, pared-back shirt dresses (Davis) – dignified, graceful and practical attire in which to plot the ultimate revenge

We badly need more of this knowingness on the catwalks, because when TV offers a more thought provoking take on women’s clothes than designers, it’s time to hit refresh.

This article originally appeared in The Telegraph. 

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