Dressing for Power and Purpose on ‘Shirley,’ ‘Palm Royale,’ and ‘Nolly’

Not all superheroes wear capes, but Shirley Chisholm certainly did. In 1969, shortly after becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress, Chisholm strode through the halls of power in a houndstooth cape coat. The coat was stylish, tasteful, and clear in its message: The Congresswoman would not be ignored.

That look is recreated in “Shirley,” Netflix’s biopic about Chisholm’s early years in the House of Representatives and her eventual run for president. In fact, it’s the very first thing we see Chisholm wearing as she poses with her fellow representatives for a Congressional class photo. For costume designer Megan “Bijou” Coates, this piece was perfect for introducing Chisholm (Regina King) as both a historical figure and a dramatic character. “It’s the cape,” she told IndieWire. “It’s all the elements of the costume: The gloves, the little fascinator, the boots. It evokes the power she had and the confidence she had in herself. It feels like she’s a superhero coming to save the day.”

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The film premieres in a spring that’s chockablock with women whose costumes communicate their authority. Taken together, they offer a televised graduate course for anyone trying to understand how the right necklace can make you seem bulletproof.

Allison Janney Palm Royale costumes apple TV+
‘Palm Royale’Apple TV+

Just look at the necklace that Evelyn Rollins (Allison Janney) wears in the first episode of “Palm Royale.” The Apple TV+ series follows desperate striver Maxine Simmons (Kristen Wiig) as she attempts to infiltrate the posh society of Palm Beach in 1969. Evelyn sits at the top of the social pyramid, which is apparent when she’s introduced while eating lunch at a country club. She’s got a double strand of pearls around her neck, and the pearls are the size of billiard balls. They’re paired with enormous blue sunglasses and a diaphanous gown with a print that suggests the ocean at dawn.

This ensemble implies wealth and, just as importantly, a type of perpetual relaxation. Evelyn’s life “doesn’t require any manual labor,” said Alix Friedberg, the costume designer for “Palm Royale.“ “There’s never a need to get one’s hands or clothes dirty.“ She added that Evelyn was styled to be the obvious queen bee: “Most of her clothes are custom made. We used a lot of printed silk chiffons and organzas, so she would give the appearance of floating into a room.”

But sometimes power means stomping, not floating. Hence the way Noele “Nolly” Gordon (Helena Bonham Carter) barrels through scenes in “Nolly,” the PBS Masterpiece series about the rise and fall of the beloved British soap opera star. Aware she’s the reason her TV series stays on the air, she ignores the expectation that an actress will smile gratefully at the male executives who permit her to work. That’s symbolized by the floor-length fur coat she wears scene after scene, including when she opens the door to unexpected guests late at night. She might have her pajamas on, but she girds herself in her signature, opulent garment.

Nolly costumes PBS Helena Bonham Carter fur coat

It matters, too, that Nolly is surrounded by men in bland suits, just like Shirley is the only one in patterns and colors while the rest of Congress wears gray. The contrast underlines the central character’s verve.

Likewise, Friedberg reinforces Evelyn’s sartorial control on “Palm Royale” by making sure Maxine can never quite replicate her style. “There is always something a little off,” she said. “[Maxine’s] bows and bags and shoes are always perfectly matched, like a doll. No matter if it’s on the tennis court, at a gala, or at a funeral, it always feels like she’s trying a little too hard.” This recalls HBO’s “The Regime,” where Chancellor Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet) never understands that her clothes tell a different story than she thinks they do. Instead, they reflect her boundless political ignorance.

By contrast, there’s a crucial scene in “Shirley” when Chisholm sits down for a tense conversation with Huey P. Newton (Brad James), a leader of the Black Panther Party who is skeptical of her presidential run. She perfectly understands the situation, so she arrives for the meeting in a mint green jacket with gold buttons that’s like a Southern California spin on a general’s uniform. “I wanted it to feel somewhat militaristic because she’s opposite Huey Newton,” Coates said. “He was militaristic in his thinking, so it was important for her to feel strong and powerful, playing opposite him.”

But then, early in their talk, Chisholm takes the jacket off, revealing a brightly patterned turtleneck blouse. She’s no less authoritative, but now she’s vibrant. It’s a sign she’s about to turn the encounter to her advantage by upending the rules of engagement. It’s also a reminder that Shirley’s clothes don’t just reflect her strength: They help her enact it.

“Shirley” is streaming on Netflix. “Palm Royale” streams Wednesdays on Apple TV+. “Nolly” airs Sundays on PBS.

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