Updated Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 07:31 AM
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 womenswear 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.”
What women should wear on television is an ongoing debate. In a 2011 interview with Katie Couric for Glamour Magazine, Rachel Maddow called the look of cable news “unbusinesslike.” 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.
“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.”