"But first, it's 'Today' on NBC," are words I hear coming out of host Matt Lauer's mouth roughly 15 times a day. I watch "Today" for the same ostensible reason my fellow 4.8 million viewers do, and that's to start my day with a healthy burst of breaking news, cooking segments and viral cat videos. Unlike its primetime counterparts, morning news shows are asked to balance an enormous spread of subject matter. It's no small feat to toggle between the latest ISIS raid and a bacon-wrapped turkey recipe, and it's certainly no easier to do it all with the breezy approachability a morning anchor role demands.
Clothes play an important part. During their respective tenures on the morning news circuit, Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira spun the traditional anchor stereotype on its head by trading in the sharply starched suits of the past for printed shifts and distinctive blouses. In her rocky, year-long tenure as the co-host of "Today," Ann Curry became known for her boldly cut and colored dresses. (On the day she was so famously booted from the show in 2012, Curry wore a bright yellow frock that was long in the back and short in the front, prompting Al Roker to remark on air that it was "like a dress mullet.")
The industry has now caught up to where Curry was three years ago. Since Robin Roberts returned to ABC's "Good Morning America" in Feb. 2013, she's carved out a uniform of sleeveless, color-blocked dresses and punchy statement jewelry. On the newly rebooted "CBS This Morning," co-hosts Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell often coordinate in solid, complementary colors in classic silhouettes.
But of the three major programs, it's Tamron Hall of "Today" who is certainly the most fashion-forward (see photo above, far left). Her on-air wardrobe is a game of designer who's-who, from mustard-colored Gucci skirt suits to floral-printed Dolce & Gabbana shift dresses. Her wardrobe, though adventurous, has resonated with viewers to the extent that she now hosts a fashion and beauty-related segment called "Tamron's Tuesday Trend."
While each show has its own style, the process for selecting clothing is similar across networks. James Swift, so-called "wardrobe guru" of "CBS This Morning," starts his days in the studio around 4:30 a.m. Though the show's co-hosts — King, O'Donnell and Charlie Rose — don't arrive for another hour, Swift takes that time to get his department set up so that when they do arrive, he can pay all his attention to their needs. "Most often, Gayle [King] is the first one here and she picks the color she wants to wear for that day," Swift explains. King, he says, has a stylist who goes to her house and helps put together outfits for three weeks at a time. "When Norah [O'Donnell] shows up, we already know the theme for the day; we don't want to match too much, but we want to have something that works well with [King's outfit]. Norah then works off of what Gayle pulls." From there, it's all about the last-minute details: "I steam them, press them, whatever needs to be done to make them look as good as possible."
A similar routine is the case for Lindsay Albanese, a Los Angeles-based stylist who has worked on such programs as "Today," "Access Hollywood" and "Entertainment Tonight." In the past, Albanese arrived at the studio anywhere between 4 and 8 a.m. and left "a couple options" for the anchors in their dressing room, but there was an art to it: "If they see the same options a lot, then they get bored with them. You have to be very strategic. You have to sell them by saying, 'Pick one of these two! It's amazing!' instead of showing them five [looks] where they can say, 'Oh, I saw this yesterday. I saw this the day before.'"
As the 10-year style editor for "Today," Bobbie Thomas works closely with the show's fourth-hour co-hosts, Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, in both the show's content and what they wear (so closely, in fact, that she got married at Gifford's home in Connecticut in 2013). Thomas describes the pair's on-air wardrobe as being quite stationary, aided by a mutual appreciation for the sleeveless dress — a revered morning television staple. "There isn't a sleeveless dress that's been passed over," Thomas jokes. "They have two rooms on set for their work clothing and their personal clothing. The casual Friday shows can be fun because some their personal pieces will end up on them during the show."
By having a separate professional closet on set, the wardrobe department is able to ensure that there are no repeats — at least within a 30-day period, which is the standard for the "CBS This Morning" team. Swift takes a photo of the anchors prior to each show to keep a visual record for the month.
"They have a very practical approach about their professional wardrobe," Thomas says of the show's co-hosts. "They'll very casually ask each other from their dressing rooms what color the other is wearing." Kotb usually picks her outfit first, and Gifford will follow. "Just like you see them on-camera, they're girlfriends off-camera. It's really what two girlfriends would do when they're getting dressed together."
Giving the show a "family" feel while allowing the personality of each anchor to shine through is a challenge Swift confronts daily. "[King and O'Donnell] have completely different personalities, so you have to make sure that you let them be who they are when you're styling or working with them," he says. "Since Gayle is so colorful and she likes to wear a lot of jewelry, we as a news-oriented program sometimes have to ask her to tone it down, whereas Norah is a little bit more conservative."
Hall, whom Thomas affectionately calls "the morning Halle Berry," has eschewed traditional newscaster norms and used her love of fashion to her advantage. "Tamron is in the position where she's a personality and she's giving an opinion during [the 9 a.m. hour]," Thomas says. "I know that's a tough feat, because she's also supposed to be representing a role on a news show." But how can an anchor charm viewers with his or her personality while also remaining respectful to the stories on which they're reporting? Hall, Thomas says, has it down to a science: "She loves her fashion and is definitely comfortable with that. That's what's most important. What comes off as awkward is when someone is not comfortable in [their clothing], but she's comfortable in it."
Do the show's higher-ups, beyond the stylists, ever step in, especially with the more fashion-forward styles? "Ultimately, the execs have a lot of say in it,"says Albanese. "I've been on shows where I'd have to approve everything the host wore prior. I knew I'd get a yes if I kept it simplistic and in bright colors. Rich, vibrant solid colors always look radiant on TV — but for me, it got really boring, to be quite honest."
Given those dictates, I was curious to know if anchors were provided a clothing stipend. In many cases, the anchors are responsible for purchasing their own clothing. But Albanese recounts a different experience styling a "host on a leading network for her own show," for which she had a daily allowance of $2,200. "I could buy her $1,000 Louboutins and get her a killer dress for every day," she recalls. "That was workable!"
Every show, Albanese assures me, is as different as the anchors who host it — and that's all part of the fun.