Diane Sawyer broadcasts from ABC News headquarters in New York City. (Ida Mae Astute/ABC )
Dresses dangled on the racks at Neiman’s and Saks and all Norah O’Donnell needed was a suit.
Earlier this year, when the veteran news anchor was scouring stores for a suit jacket to wear for her “CBS This Morning” publicity photo, she discovered what her viewers have known for years: The women’s blazer is disappearing — from department stores and network news broadcasts.
“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?”
For her head shot, O’Donnell, 38, ended up choosing a six-year-old navy Giorgio Armani blazer out of her closet, one she rarely wears except when interviewing presidents or heads of state. Like so many working women in the news media and other professions, O’Donnell hasn’t bought a suit in years, a surprising admission given that the newswoman spent her 20s wearing suits so she “could be taken seriously.” The same can be said of seasoned anchors such as Diane Sawyer and Andrea Mitchell, who rarely graced the screen in the 1980s and ’90s without lapels shielding their chests.
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.
“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.”
O’Donnell agrees: “There has been an evolution of women’s wear on television. Part of that is the changing times, but it’s also because there are more women in media who feel comfortable about what they want to wear.”
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.
But skeptics find ulterior motives in the modern newswoman image, one that’s celebrated in men’s magazines and YouTube tributes to the legs of NBC’s “Today.” Skin sells, and media are more competitive than ever: Are networks encouraging lower necklines and higher hemlines to boost ratings?
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.
“When ‘Morning Joe’ started, I was a hostage to fashion by network executives and stylists, who thought they knew what I should wear,” Brzezinski said, calling the clothes “short, skimpy, tight. They were not me and not Washington.”
It was only when she went on the road with the show during the 2008 primary season that she began choosing her own clothing, which then included J.Crew blouses and casual separates.
“Joe [Scarborough] said, ‘That’s the look you want to hit with this show. You want to be you,’ which is kind of Washington, comfortable, not very showy. My style’s evolved over the years, but it came from shedding the culture of TV news that I used to try and compete in.”
Brzezinski’s current wardrobe falls in line with the modern uniform of female hosts and anchors.
“I can’t imagine wearing a jacket anymore,” Brzezinski said. “But I’m almost 46. There’s not a lot of choices for women my age. I get a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, you can wear that!’ But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
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