What women should wear on television is an ongoing public debate, particularly among newswomen themselves. In a 2011 interview with Katie Couric for Glamour Magazine, Rachel Maddow called the look of cable news “un-businesslike.” Couric concurred, saying, “Some newswomen dress like they’re going clubbing.” Critics point to 24-hour cable news as the catalyst for the changing uniform. But Fox News fashion director Gwen Marder says that workplace fashion was evolving before cable news started showcasing shoulders.
“When I started 12 years ago, anchors wore two-piece suits, a corporate uniform,” said Marder, who buys and styles the wardrobes for 140 Fox anchors and reporters. “About seven years ago, fashion trends started to change and dresses were readily available.”
Fashion labels such as Diane von Furstenberg, Hugo Boss and Anne Klein started producing sheath dresses in solid colors that double as work and cocktail wear. The dresses showed up on cable news anchors around the same time, making it hard to pinpoint whether cable news caused or reacted to the retail trend. But among newswomen, at least, 24-hour cable news networks became the laboratory for a grand makeover, which has since permeated the entire industry.
“We decided to push the envelope,” Marder said. “Everyone was wearing cardigans, and [we] said, ‘Let’s just try the sleeveless dress.’ It started to feel natural to everyone.”
Fox News, which supplies clothing to its anchors like many networks do, gives anchors freedom over their garments, shoes and hemlines, only encouraging women anchors to wear bold colors that producers once eschewed: bright greens, fuchsias, hot pinks. “Our brand is color,” Marder said.
And in only six years since cable news first showcased shoulders, the dress has become the preferred staple of women on television.
“Suits were very expensive,” O’Donnell said. “You can get a really nice dress for $300. I actually find it a lot easier as a working mom.”
Researchers wonder how the new look of news is affecting viewers. Maria Elizabeth Grabe, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University Bloomington, co-authored a study on the impact of sexualization on news viewership. She found that the more “sexualized” a female anchor is, (i.e. bold makeup and clingy clothes), the less likely male viewers are to remember the news. For her 2011 study, a 24-year-old anchor read the same news broadcast twice, once in androgynous, loose-fitting clothing and little makeup and again while wearing bold makeup and attire that accentuated her waist-to-hip ratio. Viewers found the sexualized anchor less credible, but women remembered more from the sexualized anchor’s broadcast, indicating a gender gap in how viewers remember news content.
“The old wisdom of femininity not getting in the way of the news has been thrown out,” Grabe said. “I think the news consultancy business is driving the changes. . . . With cable news networks taking off, it’s all about eyeballs and getting an audience.”
Still, when in doubt, in court or in the presence of breaking news, sleeveless dresses are left hanging in the closet. Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz both wore traditional black suit jackets for their turns moderating presidential and vice presidential debates. Mitchell wore a militaristic crimson blazer when announcing the resignation of David Petraeus as CIA director. And while the Supreme Court does not require women in the press section to wear suit jackets, they often do, perhaps to show solidarity with their male colleagues, who are required to wear suit and tie when in the chamber covering oral arguments.
A changing age of news
Although some anchors, including Brzezinski and O’Donnell, prefer dresses to suits, the new wardrobe poses questions for television’s 20-something newcomers. Will sunny dresses and four-inch heels make them seem unprofessional?
Kayla Tausche, 26, a reporter for CNBC, is a relatively young face on the business network. Covering corporate finance and mergers, she balances dressing for television with looking appropriate for source meetings on Wall Street.
“If you’re esteemed, you can wear a bright-colored dress. But for younger anchors like myself, I worry that wearing bright colors might appear amateur,” Tausche said. She often wears the same sheath dresses that her colleagues wear but prefers muted colors and tweeds. Young newswomen also tend to make the mistake of dressing older than their years, a faux pas sometimes encouraged by journalism schools.
“In [journalism] classes, some of the clips professors are using to demonstrate a successful reel include interviews with Diane Sawyer from early ’90s,” Tausche said. “You’re supposed to focus on content, but students can’t help but wonder, ‘What was Diane Sawyer wearing? How can I recreate that?’ ”