IN 1996 PERFORMANCE ARTIST Marina Abramović created The Onion, a video installation in which she eats an onion while her own voice-over repeats, among other things, ‘I want to understand and see clearly what is behind all of us.’ As she bites into the onion she smears her lipstick, a symbolic coming undone of her identity. The devouring of the onion goes hand in hand with the urge to destroy the many layers of cultural and social identity she is made of. Similarly, the voice-over for the opening monologue of The Honourable Woman, the 2014 BBC miniseries starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, recites:
Who do you trust? How do you know? By how they appear or what they say? What they do? How? We all have secrets. We all tell lies, just to keep them from each other and from ourselves. But sometimes, rarely, something can happen that leaves you no choice but to reveal it. To let the world see who you really are. A secret self. But mostly we tell lies, we hide our secrets from each other, from ourselves. So when you think about it like that, it’s a wonder that we trust anyone at all.
The voice belongs to the protagonist of the series, Vanessa (Nessa) Stein, an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who, together with her brother Ephra, has inherited her father’s company. In order to make up for their father’s Zionist beliefs and arms dealing, which led to his murder in the presence of young Nessa and Ephra, both have engaged in extensive philanthropic work to facilitate the reconciliation process between Israel and Palestine. As the public face of the Stein Group and a politically outspoken entrepreneur, Nessa carefully crafts her appearance. Costume designer Edward K. Gibbon spoke of Nessa’s clothes are ‘a protection layer.’1 Like the opening monologue suggests, there is more that lies behind her sophisticated armour; in fact, Nessa Stein is ‘not quite the woman she appears to be’ as Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, the head of MI6’s Middle East desk, observes in episode six. During the unravelling of the main plot of The Honourable Woman, which centres around the Stein Group’s attempt to build optical fibre cables in the West Bank, viewers also witness the peeling off of Nessa’s layers of identity.
The Honourable Woman opens with Nessa’s ceremony of ennoblement in the House of Lords, where she is given the title of Baroness due to her commitment for the Middle East peace process. At the party that follows the ceremony, she wears a Roland Mouret leopard print dress while giving a speech on a podium, her body language confident and relaxed, slightly provoking. The scene provides the blueprint for Nessa’s confident public persona and wardrobe. Whereas most political female figures seem to embrace Margaret Thatcher’s sartorial mantra ‘never flashy, just appropriate,’ Nessa’s outfit of choice for her public appearances is always a designer dress. According to Gibbon, ‘the untraditional dress choice was … a way to turn the idea of power dressing on its head.’2 Nessa’s fashionability sets her apart from the traditional establishment she is now a part of and, rather than being perceived as inappropriate or garish, lends her confidence and an enviable presence. Her style consciously bends the codes of power dressing and, in doing so, lets the audience know that she is perfectly aware of, and ready to challenge, the rules of power play. As journalist Sarah Chalmers observed, ‘everything about Nessa Stein’s demeanour screamed player, before she had even uttered a word.’3
While it is hardly a surprise that designer dresses clothing matter in an upper-class London setting, Nessa’s armour follows her on her official trips to the Middle East. In episode four, a flashback shows Nessa give a speech at the Stein Foundation’s university in the West Bank, her first time in Gaza as official representative of her company. For the occasion she wears a long, black dress with lace details, a sombre, safe choice which reveals that her fashionable armour has not yet been perfected. The flashback also discloses a crucial secret in Nessa’s life: her kidnapping during her first visit to Gaza. This tragic event radically affects her personal and professional life. It also hints at Nessa’s conscious use of clothing as shield and profound impact on her choice of self presentation. This radical change is marked, for instance, by her forgoing of jewellery post-kidnapping, a detail that suggests her conscious attempt to project a more controlled image.
Flash forward to present-day in episode seven and Nessa, back in Gaza for a press conference on her plan for the expansion of fibre cables into the West Bank, once again commands an audience in a draped, solid peach silk dress. The soft material and warm colour seem to suggest a more vulnerable side to Nessa’s personality. In the same episode, she is later forced to renounce her dress armour altogether and opt for a more practical trouser suit, as she prepares to make an appearance for the public groundbreaking that will symbolically inaugurate the Stein Group’s project in the West Bank. The conversation with Frances, her assistant and advisor, shows Nessa’s attachment to her public uniform:
Frances: I’m so sorry, I should have thought of this.
Frances: You can’t wear a dress.
Frances: Think about it. You can’t go climbing up a ladder, into a cabin, in a dress.
Frances: Really. You’re gonna have to wear trousers.
In fact, trouser suits are Nessa’s go-to garb for everyday life, when she does not have to appear in public, and are often worn with replicas of 1970s Yves Saint Laurent silk blouses.4 The suits are a second layer of Nessa’s personality, one that is only revealed to her family, colleagues and to the viewer. Her pared-down yet sophisticated style is shared by other contemporary female characters on TV, from Scandal’s Olivia Pope to The Fall’s Stella Gibson, who have all contributed to the redefinition of power dressing. Jo Ellison, fashion editor for The Financial Times, has observed how the wardrobe of professional women on TV has gone through a ‘Célinification,’ a progressive shift towards ‘sumptuously luxuriously spare tailoring, svelte silhouettes and form-skimming power skirts’ led by Céline under creative director Phoebe Philo.5 The ‘Philophile’ has thus emerged as a contemporary fashion archetype on the small screen and, as fashion historian Valerie Steele noted, Philo’s effortless, androgynous take on power dressing has ‘made a lot of other things look fussy and old-fashioned in comparison.’6
Yet it is in the moments when Nessa is completely alone, usually before she goes to bed, that her well-hidden self is revealed. Her nightgowns and pyjama sets by Belgian designer Carine Gilson help create a sense of casual intimacy between Nessa and the viewer. The luxurious tactility and visual appeal of silk also provide a striking contrast with the panic room Nessa sleeps in every night, possibly in response to the trauma of being kidnapped and held hostage. It is in this room that Nessa’s layers of identity are removed to reveal her fears and secrets. The all-white, clinical room evokes science-fiction atmospheres rather than those of a political thriller, and indeed the costume designer had initially intended for Nessa to sleep in ‘a Sigourney Weaver in Alien-esque tank and boy shorts set’ which, however, later seemed out of character.7 In the words of Gibbon, the scenes where Nessa is in the panic room show her ‘being covered, but uncovered.’8
This paradox is perhaps best embodied by silk, the material that ideally connects Nessa’s wardrobe, from her dresses and blouses to her night slips. The ambiguity of the material, which conceals the body while also following its contours, conveys the character’s desire to protect herself through layers of clothes and to still look attractive. But it also stands for the pleasure she takes in clothes, in wearing them and touching them, in the feeling of the fabric on her skin. The materiality of clothing is a powerful reminder that, in The Honourable Woman, fashion is not meant to be aspirational; or as Gibbon put it, for Nessa ‘fashion isn’t there to be pretty – it’s a layer between her and the world.’9
Alessandro Esculapio is a writer and PhD student at the University of Brighton, UK.