News and Notes

2013: Up Clothes and Personal

How this year's film and TV style reflected larger pop culture trends

Image credit: Clay Enos

Rarely am I asked to write about matters of style for Entertainment Weekly, and I accept that. See that picture of me up there? There's a reason it cuts off where it does. I'm not a clothes guy. I work at home, a process that does not necessarily involve wearing pants. Nevertheless, when my editor suggested I compile a list of 10 big pop culture moments over the past year, what people wore and how they wore it came to mind. Style and substance were inseparable in 2013. Let's count down:

10. Superman's New Look
I'm not talking about the abandonment of the red undies. In Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, the blue and the red in Superman's costume were both cheerlessly dark — as if black oil had spilled into the dye — and scaly. The muting of primary colors spoke volumes about Christopher Nolan's influence and the Dark Knightization of Superman for an age in which ''truth, justice, and the American way'' are all followed by question marks.

9. Tony Stark's Old Look
In one of the funniest scenes in Iron Man 3, the pieces of Stark's heavy metal costume fly at him and almost knock him flat. Bam! Pow! Creak. Ow. It's a meta-reminder that at 48, Robert Downey Jr. has just about aged out of the game, and that Marvel will need someone new to take lunch while the stuntman fills the suit.

8. The ''Gentlemen'' of ''Blurred Lines''
Was 2013's must-hate-watch video a sendup of the degradation of women, or a fresh example of the same? The most damning evidence wasn't the white two-pieces and sheer plastic that turned the ladies into inflatable sex dolls; it was Robin Thicke's tux and open shirt — a power-bro look that suggested he'd just come from the VMAs, tossed his tie, and asked the limo driver to take him on a hooker run.

7. Kerry Washington's Coats
Scandal broke so many sexual, racial, and structural rules of network TV that it would be easy to overlook the incidental glee it took in turning Washington into TV's most influential fashion plate in a decade. Her spectacular costuming — especially the luxe, huge-lapelled, big-enough-to-hide-a-baby outerwear — is a wink to the audience: High-end fabrics are the new gladiatorial armor.

6. Melissa McCarthy's Vest
As the no-nonsense, no-class cop opposite Sandra Bullock's pantsuited priss in The Heat, McCarthy wore a vest that looked like she had stolen a greasy tarp, sewn on oversize pockets, and stuffed a dead badger in each one. What she did not wear was anything that gave the movie an occasion for a fat joke. Because with a successful sitcom and two hit comedies this year alone, McCarthy doesn't have to put up with that kind of crap. That vest was the look of an actress doing things her way. That vest was power.

5. The Heisenberg Hat in Breaking Bad
It sounds too schematic: Whenever a family man named Walter White decided to play bad guy, he'd put on a black hat. Plus, who wouldn't sympathize with anyone in chemo who opted to take the stylish-headwear route? But in the show's nuanced moral universe, we were challenged to ask if Walter was escaping or becoming himself. As a symbol of his journey into both self-knowledge and self-deception, that lid was an elegant bit of sartorial shorthand.

4. The Hair don'ts of Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper
I don't want to spoil any of American Hustle, a wonderful dark comedy about money, ambition, and men and women on the make, but what Bale does with a Tribble-like rug and Cooper does with dozens of tiny pin curls are apt expressions of the vulnerability of hungry, greedy guys struggling to give themselves an edge. Both in top form, the actors make a great pair of not quite mirror images in a movie that's all about mirrors and images.

3. Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker get funky
The Butler, a big, weird hit too easily misunderstood as ''Oscar bait,'' consistently undercuts piety with humor and humanity. In one scene, the two stars groove to Soul Train in matching waffle-cut Jet-magazine-gone-mad leisure wear. We laugh with but never at them, since they're also laughing — middle-aged grown-ups having a private dress-up. Then tragedy strikes, and their costumes — ideal symbols of how we look when bad news catches us with our guard down — make them even more human.

2. Christine Baranski, Warrior Princess
Enjoying a fifth-season creative renaissance most series can only dream of, The Good Wife dynamited its foundation this fall — the law firm shattered, friends became foes, and the impeccable Baranski became a sleekly badass woman warrior. In sheath dresses that make her look like an alien stalking her prey, jewelry that could deflect bullets, and killer shades that she removes to unleash the best thousand-yard stare in pop culture, Baranski makes everything she wears an act of calm, mature self-expression.

1. Cate Blanchett's Pit Stains
We talk about how ''brave'' actresses are when they skip the makeup and let the wrinkles show. But sweat stains to represent a broken spirit? That's new turf. In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett, Woody Allen, and costume designer Suzy Benzinger represented Jasmine's vanity, desperation, and lack of self-awareness with deepening baked-in crepe de chine rings of underarm perspiration. The look was in perfect sync with the script and with Blanchett's bold performance. This wasn't costuming as a substitute for characterization but as a reflection of it — an ugly, beautiful choice.

Originally posted Dec 13, 2013 Published in issue #1290 Dec 20, 2013 Order article reprints