Violet Newstead

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Violet Newstead, played by Lily Tomlin in the 1980 film 9 to 5, is a boss. But she isn’t The Boss — instead, Newstead is an underling, the woman behind a puny man, Franklin Hart Jr., played by Dabney Coleman. Violet has been held back by the sexism, misogyny, and injustice of her employer, and most especially, by her boss, Franklin Hart. Jr. But the viewers know who should be the boss: the gal with the artsy jacket, a completely feminine, modern version of the men’s dark suit.

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When Violet first sneers at Doralee Rhodes, played by Dolly Parton, it’s because Doralee is yet another bimbo willing to sleep with the boss — a betrayal that Violet thinks has intensified the sexism of the job. But, as Violet and the timid Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) figure out, Doralee has her own battles she’s fighting — and she’s refused to sleep with the boss, by the way. Together, arm in arm, each stereotype joined together — it seems nothing is going to beat them. The hardass career woman, the sweet country gal, and the shy beauty queen — it’s going to be their rules now.

The costume design for the film was done by Ann Roth, a woman in her eighties who started in film in 1964. Jane Fonda has worked with Roth many many times, and has a lovely writeup on her blog about going to the Broadway production of 9 to 5 several years ago.  The costume design is a bit hokey: Doralee can’t really be wearing western-inspired shirts to work, can she? But Violet’s Asian-inspired kimono-styled jacket rings true: an aspiring career woman, just teetering on middle age, strong minded but blocked by the sexist work practices of the time… totally on target.

Most of Violet’s costuming is fairly tame and typical of the late 1970s: women’s blouses (note the costuming details in the promo shot below left: Three types of women = three sorts of “business” blouses: Doralee’s deep v-neck and tight bust; Judy’s faux-Victorian ruffles, and Violet’s menswear collar). Another promo image shows similar “typical” women’s workwear: Judy’s pussy-bow ditsy-floral soft dress, Doralee’s tight peach of a dress, and Violet’s mauve blouse.

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The premiere tells a story closer to the actresses’s style than Ann Roth’s costuming. Dolly is in lace, of course, and it’s an old-fashioned look remarkably kin to Doralee’s outfits; Fonda’s sleek sequined sheath dress is very buttoned up with a high neck, long sleeves, and floor length. Tomlin looks the most modern: black satin shirtdress and a mod furry cropped jacket, simple hair, simple makeup. In truth, Violet’s asian-inspired jacket seems to be a Tomlin touch to the character. Tomlin, like Violet, had her own battles to wage, as a female comedian, an actress with distinctive looks, and as a lesbian. (a sidenote: one of the two writers of the film, Patricia Resnick, was a woman and herself gay.)

At a LGBTQ fundraiser with Fonda Tomlin is wearing, intentionally or not, a remarkably similar getup to her outfit in 9 to 5 thirty years earlier and this time in real life. I have a suspicion that Fonda tries to get Tomlin to be riskier in her clothing choices, and Tomlin gently resists. The two of them have been terrific friends through decades, with Netflix’s Frankie and Grace just one of many joint projects they’ve worked on together. In each project they almost always channel their individual styles into the characters they play.

Tomlin’s style through the 1970s and 1980s tended towards black with touches of white and red, simple lines, simple “undone” hair, light makeup. She had the makings of a glam warrior, a wee bit of Cher and a wee bit of ethnic look to her (or what coded as “ethnic” in the bleak years of the 1970s). Here are two images from early in her career. Both highlight the sexiness, not often seen after 1975, and in the image to the left, Tomlin’s “ethnic” or eccentric style — she was a dish not often viewed that way.

One of my favorite images of Tomlin is one that is simultaneously private and public. In 2013 Tomlin and her life partner, Jane Wagner, announced they “might” get married (they did, in 2014), and Oliver Morris took the wedding non-announcement photos. Tomlin had never been especially coy in photographs, although she does seem to hold back in the images. If you look carefully at the 1970s photographs above, you can see the hesitancy, you can almost hear the photographer begging her to — look in the camera, and Relax. But in the portraits by Morris, it’s a different ballgame. This is a woman who knows her mind, always knew her heart, and now, game on. Tomlin is wearing a simple white wrap robe, posing in a dressing room. Game on, indeed.

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