How successful senior women are portrayed on TV (British version)

posted in: Inspiration, Style advice | 13

A recent discussion on Meghan Markle found all of us agreed that the outfits the women wore on Suits bore little resemblance to the workwear you might find in a modern lawyers office in NYC.

I guess that is true in the UK too, but it got me thinking.

What do successful, senior women wear in UK TV series and could you really wear these outfits to work?

Let’s start with Gillian Anderson, who plays the part of a senior police officer in The Fall. Although Stella is a senior cop she wears striking clothes – high heels; usually a pencil skirt; occasionally trousers. But her blouses are sexy – draped fabric, often shiny, looking more like luxury pyjamas than a businesslike shirt. Her hair is loose and long, with a bit of a wave, and her makeup is subtle, her skin dewy. I would say she is closer to the American style of senior woman, but her look is not that typical in the police service.

In London we now have a female police commissioner who is rather effective, and out of uniform this is how she dresses. Nothing wrong with a blouse, joggers, trainers, ruck sac and a week’s supply of bananas for a bit of colour. But Cressida is no-one’s style icon.

Cressida Dick on her first day as MPS Commissioner

The other professional woman we have seen recently has been Dr Gemma Foster, a General Practitioner. Her outfits are generally safe classics and the sort of thing you might buy at Reiss, Jigsaw or Hobbs. Realistic, yes, these clothes are the sort of thing and inner city GP would wear. Practical, comfortable, deep colours and neutrals, rather modest and unexciting. However when Gemma goes out she dresses in an overtly, and traditionally, sexy way. She likes lacey underwear, hold ups etc, but I would say the portrayal of her outfits was hyper-realistic. Which is more than you can say for the terrible storyline.

I enjoyed Happy Valley, a series focusing on Catherine Cawood as a front line police officer. She is decidely gritty, often getting punched and duffed up by the Yorkshire ne’er do wells. She bustles around in a big yellow anorak or a bulky high vis stab vest, giving as good as she gets. With so many items hanging from her jacket she reminds me of an Early Learning Centre activity centre. I love that she has ordinary-woman hair – not much of a hair cut, greying roots and a rubber band keeping it off the collar – and a very typical body shape.  She doesn’t do much out of uniform work, but when she knocks off at night she will put on a wooly jumper, or a zip up fleece and loosen her hair.

(I have never watched Broadchurch or Vera, but Karen suggests them as more good example.)

The female detective from Broadchurch appears to have bought a trouser suit at Next and worn it with a pastel blouse. This look was common in the offices of Britain a few years ago, but it is desperately dated now. Whereas Vera with her tweedy coat, Dr Who scarves and comedy headgear is just another English eccentric in the Miss Marple mold. I don’t think many women dress like this, and I don’t think she is a typical detective either.


So what is the punch line with these English dramas?

Apart from Doctor, there is just one role for an intelligent, professional woman on the TV, and that is Police Detective. If you are successful in your detecting career you will dress in unexceptional ways to blend in with the dark and dirty landscape. Although some towns, cities and seaside towns are featured to good effect, much English drama focuses on challenging social issues. I cannot think of a series where women have senior jobs in the media, the arts, construction or law. Occasional series feature female  senior civil servants or government ministers such as In the Thick of It, a series I much enjoyed. Nicola, the Minister, wears unremarkable political dress – the comedy is always in her attempts to manage the message. One of her advisors Terri is often put upon – but she can’t fail to be noticed in her terrible, huge-shouldered, jackets. I love the Terri character and always enjoy seeing her horrid outfits which are completely wrong for her. As a short woman with a large bust, a soft, rounded face and figure these jackets in toilet roll colours emphasis her shortness and girth.

Which leaves us with our British diet of stately home and costume drama. Which is a pity.

Stay posted for information on the 13th Dr Who, played by Jodie Whittaker. Judging by the hoody and overcoat this strike for women’s equality will not be accompanied by an interesting stylish look. Shame.

Jodie Whittaker





13 Responses

  1. Linde

    What an interesting piece and you included my favourite character Vera. I noticed that under her drab outer clothes she very often wore Liberty print dresses or blouses. I always found unusual against the rest of her loden green.

  2. Jenny

    I love the juxtaposition of real life senior woman Cressida Dick and Gillian Anderson and your other choices. With all the characters you selected, except Gillian Anderson’s, there was a realism about what they wore. It seemed the programme makers wanted clothes that fitted the context of the drama. Hence Olivia Colman was wearing an ill fitting budget suit because her character would have put what she looked like very low down her priorities. The same with the wonderful Terri, she’d try to look right but get it wrong, as with everything else she did. But the look they gave Ms Anderson, despite her excellent acting, took away from the realism of the programme that someone thought at all times she should look flawless. I haven’t had long hair since I was 13 but remember that loose it only looked good if it had been recently brushed and I was inside!! But then of course I didn’t have a stylist on hand at all times to flick through my hair before every scene.

    I don’t watch masses of US TV but what I have seen again tends to put style first, realism second. Your readers look forward to a US version of this Post…..

  3. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    Love it! I haven’t watched ANY of these, which shows how little TV I bother with these days I suppose. I think the last character I paid attention to, and that would have fitted this article was from Prime Suspect! [Where of course Helen Mirren dressed very like that character from Broadchurch as I recall] It’s definitely the way most senior women in education still dress!
    One of Gillian Andersen’s drapey pyjama blouses was the subject of hot discussion on a sewing group some months ago, as people tried to decide on a pattern that would be close to it. I think it was that ivory silk one in your 4th image.

  4. Victoria Line

    I watched ‘No offence’, a gritty but funny police drama and the women detectives mostly dressed like bank staff. The exception was ‘DI Viv Deering’ who had a nice line of black leather jackets an knee high boots. She also had rather bright, blonde hair that looked very expensive to maintain. Having worked in a law office, I can say that most of the professional women go for boring, but expensive, skirt suits and shirts.

  5. ceci

    SO not a TV watcher…..but its interesting how skewed the role models would be for those starting a career. Its been interesting here in the US watching the presentation of current political leadership’s representatives and some of their under indictment associates. Not inspirational, mind you, but hard to not draw some conclusions.


  6. felicia

    As a Canadian who watches a fair bit of both American and British detective dramas, I can’t tell you how refreshing I find the British versions, where the women usually look like human beings doing a professional job. In the American shows I’m always waiting for them to show the the woman’s bloody hair after it’s being hanging in the corpse. Who goes to work with long, loose hair?? And a street cop in stilettos? Give me a break.

  7. Summerflies

    You always have such great discussions. I have watched most of the shows mentioned (not Dr Who nor that political drama with the pastel clothes – yuk by the way) and I caught myself being distracted by Stella’s clothes.. pencil skirts and stilettos, with hair floating around is not very practical but if she looked like the Broadchurch character would the psychological tension be as dramatic? We had a politician who doesn’t wear pastels but does wear jackets that are too big and it’s so distracting although really it shouldn’t matter. A very high profile male television presenter in Australia wore the same suit every day for a year and no one noticed. He did this to highlight the pressure, sexism and criticism women in TV face. ( I like English and Australian (and Nordic) dramas and like Felicia I like they are more real particularly like Catherine Cawood. I really like her as an actor. I love the Dr Foster actor but yeah, the storyline went a bit weird….

    • fabrickated

      Lovely story about the man with one suit – thanks for sharing that Summerflies! Cawood (and her sister) are very realistic I find, and find it easy to identify with them (I come from the same part of Britain).

  8. Marijana

    I have never felt tempted to watch Dr Who but I might sit down and watch with daughter if the braces and stripy top outfit is a sign of things to come. Like the more interestingly dressed young women on the tube who look like they wear what they like.

  9. Brenda

    I haven’t seen these shows, but I’ve been very inspired by the Clair character in House Of Cards, the show about high level US politics. It seems like she dresses in classics with a twist. Sometimes it’s a very subtle twist, but I’m drawn to it.

  10. talliswoman

    There are a lot of strong, intelligent women (again, detectives) in Scott and Bailey. I think pretty realistic clothes, although probably generally a bit nicer than real life. But very excellent shirts/blouses. I think it’s a great program, but I would watch it for the blouses alone. I sometimes wonder if they’re the offspring of Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennyson, who also sports a stylish, but not ridiculous, work wardrobe. I suspect they’re quite conscious of the authority/accessibility access in that program too (although obviously the clothes are a bit dated now). Thanks for yet another interesting discussion.

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