The Transatlantic TV Uniform

Posted by on Feb 12, 2011

“Wel­come to Fox News. I’m blonde.” So spoofed Jane Krakowski on the hit television series, “30 Rock”.

I’m a “liberal” regular on the notoriously conservative Fox News – and – guilty as charged, I’m blonde.

However, from all the women I have spoken to in both US and UK television, I have not come across some grand conspiracy, on any network, about making women dress or colour their hair in a certain way for ratings.

What is true is that every woman in every setting puts on a metaphorical uniform that makes her feel secure, that allows her to forget about what she’s wearing so she can concentrate on the job – or the social situation – in hand. This focus is especially essential when you’re live on air – in HD.

Thus women on television tend to follow various sartorial conventions on the small screen in both the UK and US. Some are universal, while others are specific to country – and perhaps network.

A number of rules have always been sacrosanct on the small screen. Angela Rippon, who became the first female BBC News anchor in the late 1970’s, explains that “simple, classic, unfussy lines, in clear colours”, have always been in vogue. Patterns do not translate well on camera, to the extent that former Fox Business anchor Cody Willard, told me “there are some ties I can’t wear on television.” A whole dress and the viewer can be left dazzled for days.

Women on air continue to dress more conservatively than their high fashion counterparts. “What works on television is what usually what works in the boardroom for successful young women”, says Jonathan Wald, executive producer of CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, former executive producer of NBC’s Today and Nightly News, and former senior vice president of CNBC. However, Wald does note that clothing wise, “women have loosened up tremendously” over the years.

For decades it was all about the suit. When I was a small child, I don’t remember Anne Diamond appearing on TV AM in anything other than jacket with significant shoulder pads and a demure skirt.  Compare and contrast to today. Naturally, Barbara Walters looks now as she did then, with timelessly elegant suits, shirts and trousers. But sitting on the panel with her on The View you have Elisabeth Hasslebeck, who in her shift dresses and high heels typifies her generation of host’s approach to dressing.

There are areas where the Brits and Americans diverge. Boundaries seem to be pushed in different directions in the two markets.

The UK is regularly beset with the cleavage controversy. From Holly Willoughby’s plunging necklines on ITV1’s Dancing On Ice to Kate Garraway, a presenter on morning television show Daybreak. Garraway’s cleavage was so extreme during one programme that she changed half way through. Even the venerable BBC is not immune to such storms – Michael Buerk’s comment about Rosie Millard in her “best supporting dress” has gone down in broadcasting history.

American TV does not do cleavage in the same way. I quickly realised this when I turned up on Fox’s  Morning Show with Mike And Juliet in the same outfit I had worn for a segment for the UK’s GMTV. When I compared myself to my fellow guests, I felt my top was just a little too low cut, while my Kirsty “I’m perched on a Channel 5 news desk” Young style trousers, were completely out of place.

For women on American TV tend not to wear trousers unless they are Barbara Walters. If the British are about the boobs, the Americans are about the legs. I receive hate mail when I appear on the late night cult hit Red Eye and wear trousers or black opaques in the “legs chair”. (This is a stool almost exclusively inhabited by the show’s female panelists that provides a glimpse of their legs in long shots.)

The UK and the US approach to hair and make up is poles apart. Flick from the news on BBC America to an American news network and you could briefly assume you’ve switched to the Southern belle movie Steel Magnolias by mistake.

As Katie Nicholl, a regular on US and UK television as the Royal Correspondent for The Mail on Sunday and author of “The Making of a Royal Romance”, tactfully puts it: “the Americans definitely like big hair”, while in the UK “we seem a bit less worried about volume.” On one American appearance Nicholl says a “make up artist used pink eyeshadow on me and so much HD make up [that] I… looked like I had stepped out of the 80′s.”

Within the US itself, there seems to be a consensus that conservatives – or their network(s), are more appearance focused than the liberals. However, I have never been told by any producer, including those at News Corp, what to wear or where to dye my hair. If there is a variation, it may be budget based. I’ve been lucky enough to do TV on a number of US networks and what is true is that Fox employ some of the best hair and make up artists in the business. They always have separate people to do both disciplines, which those in the profession maintain makes for a higher standard. This doesn’t always happen at other networks, where one person is often responsible for both hair and make-up.

The crux of how a woman looks on air is not producer pressure, it comes from the women themselves. I researched my Single Girls book from over fifty women, across generations and on both sides of the Pond. Their message to me was: you perform better in every setting if you think you look great. As Rippon says, “most women have a built in sense of “style” – they know instinctively what suits them, and what to wear in specific situations.  The women who work in television employ that “sixth sense” to their work – and for the most part get it right.”

Women have throughout history worn metaphorical armour to get through the battles of every day life. Women on television, as all professional women do, wear what they think presents them in the best light, so the people they are talking to are concentrating on what they are saying, not how they are looking. Women have not always won this battle, but they will continue to try.