As the old saying goes, the higher the hair, the closer to God. In the case of Fox News, swap ‘hair’ for ‘hemline’ and ‘God’ for ‘Roger Ailes.’ The former CEO and chairman of America’s top conservative cable news network resigned in July 2016 following allegations of sexual harassment from Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson (multiple other women, including Megyn Kelly, would follow with charges). He died in May 2017. The lawsuit preceded the Harvey Weinstein exposé, which catapulted Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement to the mainstream. Regardless of political ideology, the Ailes case is an important fragment of the recent reckoning involving hundreds of high-profile men across music, comedy, food, politics, film, fashion, art, education, and more. And while Bombshell, the new Jay Roach-directed drama starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and John Lithgow, is a slightly more sensationalized—and far more glamorous—account of what went down at News Corp’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, the film nonetheless spotlights the complexities and risks involved in speaking up, particularly when the stakes are high.
In an environment like Fox, where the more pageant queen-like you are, the faster you’ll earn a coveted primetime spot, it’s no wonder that fashion plays a leading role. “Fox’s trademark was the see-through news desks,” costume designer Colleen Atwood tells CR. “It’s how they branded those women in a way that they were actual products. The blonde hair, the makeup, the whole thing was definitely something Ailes gravitated toward.” The disgraced CEO’s preference for such a look makes for one of the more powerful scenes in the film, when Ailes asks an eager but innocent junior-level employee, played by Robbie, to hike her dress so far up you can see her underwear. (You’d be hard-pressed to find a theatergoer who wasn’t wincing, as her unease was practically dripping off the screen.) The same goes for the scene in which Carlson records her segment barefaced—something she actually did four years ago to spotlight the over-sexualization of women—to Ailes’ dismay. “No one wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause!” he exclaims disgustedly. Dramatized or not, Ailes used broadcast television’s category as a “visual medium” to continuously justify misconduct among him and his peers (like Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling, two other prominent personalities accused of sexual harassment) and a general atmosphere of toxicity and fear. Below, Atwood talks her sartorial inspiration for the film and how she transformed Bombshell‘s star-studded cast into Fox News’ blonde, leggy prototypes.
What did you reference for the wardrobes? One would imagine you watched copious amounts of Fox News.
“I pretty much took it off of the real people to try to get it as close to them as possible, but I also humanized them a bit. I had off-camera clothes for the girls, too. They weren’t just always in their newscaster gear. Basically, my inspiration really was Fox News. That was where I started. And then I embellished it somewhat with the rest of their wardrobes at home and so forth. We put 10 pounds of body padding on Nicole and things like that to make her resemble Gretchen a little bit more. And of course with Roger Ailes, John wore a pretty big pad under his clothes.”
How did you source inspiration for their wardrobes off-air?
“Actual news footage. There’s a lot of documentation of those people. I mean, Margot Robbie’s character is a fictional character, so I made her up based on pictures of people in the room. I went to CNN a couple times to check them out and look at different people who work in news and how they were dressing.”
Did you go to Fox News’ headquarters?
“No, I did not. I didn’t feel like I had to go to Fox particularly.”
There seems to be a very formulaic way of dressing for women in the broadcast news industry—not just at Fox News, but across all networks. Certain colors, certain silhouettes. In your research, did you notice any trends of differences in the subjects’ wardrobes?
“I think Megyn Kelly had a little bit of an edge in the sense that she owned it in a different way. In her choices of color and cut, she was a little more fashion forward than Fox News was at the time. She had a different look than the other girls did.”
Did you notice any glaring differences between how the women at Fox News dressed versus the women at other networks?
“They’re all quite similar in a way, but Fox News helped foster the more ‘produced’ look of women in news. We had the Barbara Walters of this world, but that was a whole other league of news where women were incredibly fashionable and very tasteful, whereas this was more of a crowd-pleasing formula: a little bit sexier, a little bit more showbiz.”
What was the biggest challenge of working on this film?
“Honoring the women no matter what. Making it real without making fun of somebody because of where they work. It was really important for me to humanize these women—that was probably the biggest challenge. At the same time, when I saw the movie and I saw how great the performances were, it felt really good to be a part of a process [in which] you help create this kind of story in a contemporary climate.”
What role does clothing play in a story like this?
“These people are all power dressing in their own way. They’re dressing not only to look good in the room, but also to portray themselves as ultimate professionals: correct and put-together. It is, as Roger Ailes says, a visual media.”
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