Suiting up in the 1990s

In 1988 Candice Bergen, a former model whose parents were a Powers fashion model and the world-famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, began the long-lived comedy series Murphy Brown. Murphy was a hard-edged reporter, and famously the television show was criticized by Dan Quayle, vice-president at the time.

In 1992, Bergen, up for one of the many Emmys she earned for her work on the show, wore Karan’s cold-shoulder knit dress, the same dress worn late that year by Hillary Clinton.


Bergen blinged her dress out a bit compared to the severely unadorned Clinton, but the dress has the same interesting effect of opening the woman’s body to the public eye and cloaking that female body with the expanse of black knit covering the body from neck to toe, wrist to ankle.

Bergen’s character, Murphy Brown, herself is carefully cloaked. The early 1990s were the heyday of the wide-and-big-shouldered women’s suit jacket, usually paired with a pencil skirt, legs covered in “skin tone” hose, and medium-heeled almond toe shoes. Brown is introduced to the audience in an outfit that calls back to a heyday from the past — the very early 1940s world of career women in big-shouldered suits.


Murphy Brown, as played by Candice Bergen, is a gumshoe sort of reporter gal, immune to the emotional swings plaguing other professional women, unworried about anything a man might think about her appearance. Of course, in t.v. land, it’s easy to pose a beautiful woman, a former model at that, in the guise of a woman unconcerned with onlookers’ judgements of their appearance. But it is entertaining as all get out, to see Murphy in her wide-legged pants, tweedy jackets with cuffs upturned and her white tennis shoes. Later on in the series she stomps about in the more traditional professional women’s suit jacket, tight skirt, and heels, but for the first few episodes, Bergen is a Kate Hepburnese presence in every scene.

The costuming of Murphy Brown echoes the marvelous work of Robert Kalloch in the 1940 film, His Girl Friday, in which Rosalind Russell plays Hildy, the hard-cracking former gal reporter (and ex-wife) of slightly-smarmy Walter. Koalloch designed the costuming for an array of “strong” women with secretly-soft hearts, such as Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night.


The hat is the giveaway; any viewer worth their salt knows Hildy will end up back with Walter, because anyone who would wear such a darling, silly hat has a soft spot and a weak heart. Cary Grant, of course, was meticulous in his suits, careful with the tailoring and the drape of every shot. It is fascinating to see the ways Russell and Grant jostle for the camera, and Grant, renowned for his generosity towards his female co-stars when it came to screen time, tends to let Russell/Hildy and her suits take the stage.


In promo shots for Murphy Brown, Bergen wears what, after the election season of 2016, are familiar renditions of the suit jacket for powerful women, such as this cast shot.images-1.jpg

Bergen’s choice of the cold-shoulder dress in her public appearance as herself suggests that the costuming of her character Murphy Brown came about in part from Bergen’s input. Bergen’s choices of dress at awards ceremonies throughout the 1990s continue the theme of balancing the demands of audiences to “see the real woman” and Bergen’s steady message that while she might be an actress and might be a public figure, she would claim a degree of privacy for herself. In 1990, striding alongside her mother at the Academy Awards, her “nude-toned” sheer overlay dress hints, but does not reveal, the body beneath. Turns out Bergen practiced a sleight-of-hand throughout her acting career, suiting up as it suited her.440px-Candice_Bergen.jpg



2 thoughts on “Suiting up in the 1990s

  1. I am enjoying these posts immensely. It’s fascinating to see how fashion choices (in this case the 1990s) intersect with, and make a statement about, the larger popular culture of the times. Brava, Style of Resistance!

  2. Pingback: Donna Karan Suggests Harvey Weinstein’s Victims Were ‘Asking For It’ – Gothamist

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