Last week’s episode of The Honourable Woman had all the ingredients to make it the best thing on TV: pretzel-like plot twists, excellent swearing from MI6 chief Julia, and political skulduggery conducted in lifts. Told in a flashback to events eight years ago, the episode also offered up something else tasty for the eagle-eyed (or easily distracted, depending on your point of view). Nessa Stein – the protagonist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal – wore jewellery for the first time.
Hugo Blick’s drama makes compelling viewing with plot strands including – spoiler alert! – how Nessa’s child was passed off as Atika’s, and whether Stephen Rea’s Hugh will get back together with his wife, played by Lindsay Duncan, and stop hanging around outside her office. But some viewers can’t help wondering where Duncan got her coat from and whether they should get a denim shirt like the one Atika wears in episode three. The Honourable Woman is, you see, the latest example of Fashion TV, and has brands from Gucci to Roland Mouret as bit-part players.
Since the series hit our screens in June, Gyllenhaal’s wardrobe has been pored over by fashion insiders. She has been declared a style icon by Marie Claire, InStyle and Grazia – the latter having dedicated two pages of its latest issue to getting the Stein look. While not many of us would wish for a panic room to sleep in every night, the dressmaker’s dummy that greets Gyllenhaal every morning, with clothes laid out for the day ahead, is the kind of wardrobe solution you wouldn’t turn down. The clothes themselves aren’t bad either.
According to the costume design-er, Edward K Gibbon, this foregrounding of fashion was entirely intentional. “The show takes place in a rarefied world where clothes matter,” he says. “The whole way she dresses is about power.” The jewellery in the flashback is there to contrast to Nessa now, post-kidnapping. These days, says Gibbon, “fashion isn’t there to be pretty – it’s a layer between her and the world”.
The Stein wardrobe is simple – a polished version of minimalism. There are clean lines, classic blouses, very little pattern and the occasional sexy dress. She’s seen conducting meetings in an ice-blue trouser suit, giving speeches in leopard-print, and off-duty in a camel coat. While Gibbon made many of the pieces – like the strapless dress in the first episode’s chase scene – a lot come from catwalk brands such as Stella McCartney and Mulberry. Céline, the ultimate fashion insider brand, was on the moodboard – although, says Gibbon, “we could only afford a pair of sunglasses”.
In our boxset culture, TV is the new cinema with proper A-list stars and get-the-look features in glossy magazines. There’s now another shift: shows set in the present day are overtaking the retro – Mad Men, The Hour, Downton Abbey – for fashion relevance. This is partly down to a series of contemporary-set shows featuring strong female characters in the lead – doing impressive jobs, in nice clothes. While The Killing’s famous jumper was a kind of anti-fashion statement – I don’t know about your office, but eyebrows would be raised if you wore the same bobbly sweater every day in mine – many more recent heroines had a calculated look; one that felt authentic to who was wearing it. See the icy satin blouse worn by Gillian Anderson in The Fall, Claire Danes’ choppy bob in Homeland, Kerry Washington’s spotless white suits in Scandal, Robin Wright’s uniform of severe shift dresses in House of Cards.
Made-up working women need clothes that look the part – arguably more than real ones. But, while most of us don’t catch terrorists or fix political scandals, these clothes can be broadly described as workwear – ie what most of us wear most weekdays. The Honourable Woman takes this to the next level – Stein is a successful businesswoman on the public-speaking circuit so she can legitimately add high fashion to the mix. Her look is a formula for success. “Nessa offers up a modern version of power dressing,” says Hannah Almassi, fashion editor at Grazia. “The idea of being into a TV character wearing a trouser suit probably seemed unimaginable a few years ago, but it’s relatable – she’s not wearing a gigantic couture ballgown.”
The last show set in the present day to have the same fashion impact was Sex and the City – a world where ballgowns at breakfast were served with a series of arched bon mots from Samantha. This new lot don’t exactly lend themselves to “Which one are you?” magazine quizzes. They’re often doing something far more important than dating Mr Big. But – like most people in real life – they enjoy fashion, too. According to Gibbon, who started his career on Skins 10 years ago, the rule used to be: “Clothes in service of the drama”. But clothes are now allowed to be more than just background colour. “There used to be a patronising element that people can’t understand a complicated plot if there are nice clothes to take in as well,” says Gibbon, “that they would be like ‘Ooh, a pretty dress!’ and miss a murder.” And, as we all know, with The Honourable Woman, that isn’t really an option. Powers of observation at the ready – the next episode, chock-a-block with style and secrets no doubt – airs tomorrow.