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Corporate Women's TV Wardrobes Have Gotten Way, Way Better Over Time

Each 2000s-created character — Pam Beesly, Liz Lemon, Leslie Knope — abandoned her aesthetic personality. It took until the following decade to right that wrong.
"30 Rock"'s Liz Lemon, in Season 3, Episode 9, "Retreat to Move Forward." Screengrab: YouTube

"30 Rock"'s Liz Lemon, in Season 3, Episode 9, "Retreat to Move Forward." Screengrab: YouTube

Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.

In 2011, I dressed up as Liz Lemon for Halloween. This, to me, was hilarious. I wore flared low-rise jeans, a plain V-neck T-shirt and a black blazer with Converse sneakers. Wasn't it funny (I thought to myself) the way I looked like a "normal" office employee? Wasn't it ridiculous (I believed smugly) the way I had to slick back my bangs to appear "business casual?" Wasn't it outrageous to dress so simply?

Of course, in 2011, I was smack-dab in the midst of hipster insufferability. My wardrobe consisted almost solely of wolf tees and novelty prints, and while I will still stand by the merits of 1990s-inspired everything, I then dressed solely to stand apart from anybody I considered "safe." (Remember: I was the worst.) And the office workers on TV? The safest. Whether Pam Beesly's button-ups, Liz Lemon's blazers or Leslie Knope's grey pantsuits, each 2000s-created character seemed to have abandoned any semblance of aesthetic personality. And it took until the following decade to right that wrong.

In "The Office"'s second season premiere, Pam Beesly wins The Dundy for the Whitest Sneakers — a moment that lives forever in our minds and hearts not simply for her speech ("I feel God in this Chili's tonight") or even her shout-out to Keds, but to her follow-up kiss with Jim Halpert in the wake of her many stolen drinks. After all, it was the first time we'd seen Pam act out. And while most of us dismissed the relationship between her wardrobe and acts of rebellion, her pastel blouses and drab pencil skirts were always abandoned in moments of personal growth. 

After all, on Casino Night, she wears a shimmery V-necked dress while flirting with Jim before he kisses her. In season three, she orders a red empire waist T-shirt that Kelly Kapoor champions mercilessly (before Creed's harassment reminds her why she dresses the way she does for work in the first place). A few episodes later, she wears a knit sweater with carefully styled hair to welcome Jim back from his stint at the Connecticut branch, and at her art show, she wears a plum sweater and a side ponytail. And as the series progressed into the 2010s, she leaned into black blazers (along with a sales position at Dunder Mifflin), into sequins (specifically, Diane Von Furstenberg ones) and fitted sweaters instead of untucked, shapeless blouses.

"The Office"'s Pam Beesly, in Season 2, Episode 18, "Take Your Daughter to Work Day." Screengrab: YouTube

"The Office"'s Pam Beesly, in Season 2, Episode 18, "Take Your Daughter to Work Day." Screengrab: YouTube

Pam is initially presented to us as a quiet, introverted secretary who finds herself over the course of the series. (Terrific!) But her personality seems even meeker when juxtaposed with the louder, more suspect women of the series. Jan lives in power suits and Ann Taylor. Karen's penchant for slacks inspires Michael to suggest she consider wearing a dress to Phyllis's wedding (as if she doesn't even own one). Kelly's own focus on fashion suggests she's more into style (and even comic relief) than she is into paper sales. (And, honestly, same.) But this tendency toward surrounding lead women with characters who do take style seriously was a go-to for TV in the 2000s. Mainly, if you were a female character in a corporate setting, your clothes couldn't compete with your storyline.

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Which explains the way we meet "30 Rock"'s Liz Lemon in season one — when her stye is so dowdy, so unacceptable, that Jack Donaghy stuffs cash into her hand and suggests she buys something "appropriate" for dinner. ("At a woman's clothing store.") Her penchant for blazers, sneakers and denim — easy, more androgynous fashion — paints her as a woman unable to get or keep her shit together, especially as her wardrobe often serves as a punchline unto itself. 

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Even on "Parks and Recreation," though quick to make Leslie Knope a woman capable of putting chic and interesting outfits together, first introduced us to her when she wore neutral pantsuits. And while Pantsuit Nation did go on to become a cultural tidal wave, Hillary Clinton's nod to the style only drew sartorial accolades in the 2010s. "Parks and Recreation" premiered in 2009.

This was also the year "The Good Wife" premiered on CBS and, well, helped change everything. In even the promotional poster for the show's first season, we immediately meet a woman who, while a powerful lawyer (who's also dealing with a media and marital shitshow — but that's worth another 1,000 words), had something to say in general, but also something to say aesthetically. We see her standing in a red dress and pearls, staring directly into the lens, and arguably daring us to say or do anything to challenge her. And the series progressed, not she — nor her contemporaries — strayed from pieces that conveyed the same type confidence and sense of self, even if they were personally flailing. On "The Good Wife," clothing became a type of armor. It wasn't something meant to take a backseat or to be peacocked by supporting characters, but a means of telling us even more about the ones we're clearly supposed to follow. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, "The Good Fight," the series's successor, does the same thing.)

"Veep"'s Selina Meyer, in Season 2, Episode 5, "Helsinki." Screengrab: YouTube

"Veep"'s Selina Meyer, in Season 2, Episode 5, "Helsinki." Screengrab: YouTube

This continued with the debuts of "Veep" and "Scandal," both programs set in Washington, D.C. and focusing on the full spectrum of politics. Upon "Scandal"'s premiere in 2012, Olivia Pope quickly morphed into a fashion icon, earning praise for her outerwear, her casualwear and her ability to not spill Bordeaux on any of it. Meanwhile, "Veep"'s Selina Meyer (whom we also first met in 2012) still has yet to wear an outfit twice, and arguably prioritizes her wardrobe as much as she does her role in office. (This isn't a good thing, but such is the trajectory of the anti-hero and, coincidentally, one of my favorite personas ever created). Finally, female characters in corporate and political positions were afforded the luxury of both a storyline and an aesthetic personality.

Of course, in 2011, it was still a faux pas to use "dressing normal" as a punchline, even if the punchline was a beloved fictional character. But while I was dressed as a tribute to the great Liz Lemon, I was also rebelling against my own corporate past, in which I'd used six months in 2007 as a bank teller to delve into my version of Pam Beesly's closet. I was miserable at my bank job and cloaked myself in ill-fitting sweaters and too-thin slacks to disappear. Mainly, I was Pam: so afraid to venture forth and forge a path that made me happy, I sunk into a job I hated because I wasn't ready to take a risk. So I nestled into too-short slacks and untucked blouses and told myself it would be fine.

And it was. Long after 2011, mind you. Where I learned that the only thing worse than lazily dressing up as a character whose go-to clothes were "normal" is having to explain your costume to everybody at the party because they just thought you'd come from work.

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