Clothes minded: retro uniforms may be fashionable on screen, but they fail to show how far women have made it in the workplace.
Hollywood must think we love women in uniform, particularly domestic uniforms. Last August, Tate Taylor's film The Help brought us busloads of Mississippi maids sporting crisply starched pale blue dresses and white aprons. In September ABC's Pan Am served up a planeload of perky flight attendants decked out in royal blue stewardess uniforms, complete with white gloves and pillbox caps.
Meanwhile NBC trotted out The Playboy Club, giving us a quick peek at bow-tied and cottontailed bunnies before this show was cancelled in October.
Along with putting women into uniform, there is a distinctly retro feel to these costume pieces. The Help, Pan Am, and The Playboy Club were all set in the early 1960s, placing their heroines on the cusp of a cultural revolution that would transform American life. And the look and styling of Pan Am and The Playboy Club made these two shows feel like female versions of Mad Men, AMC's hit retro show in which the suit makes the man.
The difference, however, between Mad Men and its female clones is in the costumes. In Mad Men the dark suits, narrow ties, and snappy brimmed hats of Madison Avenue ad executives identify these men as liberated professionals who have escaped the humdrum tedium of domestic life and the backbreaking toil of factory and farm labor. For the executives of Mad Men, their work uniforms are markers of their separate and elevated professional status.
But the uniforms of the women in The Help, Pan Am, and The Playboy Club identify them as domestic workers. Although these women have entered the workplace as wage-earners, their jobs as maids, nannies, stewardesses, and bunnies are alternate versions of the domestic labor they do as wives and mothers. Their work costumes do not identify them as professionals but as domestic laborers imported into the workplace.
For these women the uniforms are not a sign of their liberation from the grueling work of their parents, but a reminder that they have a second shift of unpaid domestic work to do when they get home.
Still, these retro tales about working women in uniform are a reminder of how much things have changed since the early '60s. The women in the 1950s and '60s who went to work in the service sector were followed in the '70s by a massive wave of women going to college and entering the workforce in the tens of millions. And the women in this workplace tidal wave did not just take up transplanted domestic labors. They moved into offices, laboratories, clinics, university classrooms, banks, and executive suites.
In addition, millions of women traded in the uniforms of maids, stewardesses, waitresses, nannies, and nurses for those of firefighters, pilots, soldiers, surgeons, police officers, and clergy. And millions more traded in their domestic costumes for the classic business suit, identifying themselves as professionals and executives in a world their grandfathers would never have imagined.
We now stand on the other side of a cultural revolution that has altered our professional and domestic lives. Today there are more women than men in American colleges and universities, and they are there to prepare for professional careers, not to get an Mrs. degree.
Today there are more women than men in the workforce, and women have been doing better than men at holding onto their jobs in the current recession. Women are no longer a fad or a trend in the workplace. They are the majority. And they make up a growing number of workers sporting every sort of uniform.
And as women have entered the workplace, a growing number of them have become the primary breadwinners in their households. In more and more American families, husbands and fathers are facing the reality that their job and career are secondary to that of their spouse, and that family decisions need to be shaped by this reality. The man's paycheck is no longer the most important factor driving domestic life in many American households.
So it would seem that the costume change being overlooked, ignored, or denied by this sudden flurry of retro pieces featuring women in skirts and aprons is the fact that in millions of contemporary American households women are the primary breadwinners. Indeed, the very reason why Hollywood is suddenly trying to squeeze so many women back into domestic uniforms in the workplace may be that millions of today's working women are also the main financial contributor to their household economies.
No doubt this is an unsettling change for many men, and it might have a few hankering for the days when a working girl wore an apron at home and in the workplace.
Still, men could respond better to this costume change by following Jesus' example in John's account of the Last Supper. In John 13 Jesus teaches his disciples--married working stiffs all--to get up from the table, put on an apron, and do some serious domestic labor. Peter (an old-fashioned kind of guy) is not eager to dress up like the help, but Jesus tells him to suit up or get out. Grab a broom, boys, and pitch in. The times are a-changin'.
McCormick's quick takes
Films that show where a woman's job really is:
Blue Steel (MGM, 1989)
GI Jane (Buena Vista, 1997)
Amelia (Fox Searchlight, 2009)
By Patrick McCormick, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.