Mildred Ratched’s Horrifyingly Good Style

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The leading lady of the theatrical adaptation and prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Mildred Ratched’s striking style is somewhat of a distraction from her ill will. Appropriately named after the wicked character, the Netflix drama series Ratched follows a nurse, played by Sarah Paulson, who seemingly appears from thin air in pursuit of a position at California’s Lucia State Hospital. While persistence and a put-together appearance are certainly convincing to the psychiatric facility’s superiors, Ratched’s fashionable front is merely a cloak for her evergrowing evil intentions.

Ratched’s arrival to northern California in 1947 was anything but unintentional. An orphan with a traumatic past, the now questionably accomplished nurse tricked her way into the medical field, and eventually into Lucia State Hospital, where mass murderer, and later revealed foster brother, Edmund Tolleson awaits conviction. Under the guise of a caregiver, Ratched methodically induces chaos to rise in the ranks and set her sibling free. It is not long, though, before her charm gives way to a burgeoning darkness that manifests in her actions towards others.

Directed by Ryan Murphy, the storyteller behind shows of recent popular culture conversation like Hollywood, Pose, The Politician, and American Horror Story, Ratched emits a similar vibrancy and moodiness. Tasked with clothing such a complex character, Murphy enlisted longtime collaborator Lou Eyrich and costume designer Rebecca Guzzi. Together, the costumiers were challenged with adhering to the director’s strictly defined, cool-tone color palette while remaining authentic to fashions of the time period.

The vibrant cinematography in the series is enough to make it worth watching, but the bold costumes that accompany it make it all the more intriguing. Eyrich and Guzzi looked to the 1942 film Now, Voyager and fashion magazine covers from the mid to late ‘40s to properly portray styles of the post-World War II era and translate them for today’s television. The main character’s bold-shouldered dresses, waist-accentuating silhouettes, and statement outerwear were always accented by accessories or a pop of color. With such close ties to fashion’s conventions, we can’t help but wonder what Ratched would wear if she stepped onto a runway.

Our introduction to the villainess sets a stylish precedent for the series. Ratched turns up to her soon-to-be workplace uninvited, donning a sophisticated yellow skirt suit paired with a coordinating hat and a string of pearls. For the dazzling opening ensemble, the costume designer duo referenced Dior’s New Look, characterized by rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a full skirt with an abundance of fabric—a controversial element amid the wartime rationing of the 1940s. Ratched’s grand entrance not only paid homage to the iconic silhouette, but its connotation of poised disruption.

However, much of the con woman’s time is spent in nurse attire, carefully created to be both clinical and chic. Murphy’s utilization of color to convey emotion was channeled by costume designers for several of Ratched’s ensembles. Green, which represented a myriad of emotions from envy to lust, was materialized most prominently in Ratched and her colleague’s uniforms. Subtle shifts in this workwear also indicated status, with the main character sporting a monochrome, deep teal ensemble adorned with pins that affirm her dominance. In the scene above, Ratched can be seen leaving the hospital grounds in her nurses uniform topped with a crisp white cape.

A popular color combination of the 1940s, navy was coupled with the show’s staple color in this scene for an authentic, but perhaps elevated, display of post-war fashion. Emerald elbow-length gloves, an intentionally off-kilter hat, and a beaded brooch add sinful edge to the elegant look. There’s no doubt that the unexpected color scheme remains captivating—it has seen many interpretations on recent runways.

Much of the glamour in Ratched may coincide with aggression and gore, but nonetheless, the fashionable costumery adds a layer of visual interest worth examining. The many runway interpretations prove too that the leading lady of the series is, in addition to her dreadful deeds, in-tune with today’s high fashion scene.

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