Em Poncia takes us through the classic film Erin Brockovich and what the wardrobe department told us through their styling choices for Julia Roberts.
What a woman wears is taken as an indicator of who she is.
In the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, director Steven Soderbergh and writer Susannah Grant explored the dynamic between clothing and perception through a character who cannot be easily typified. Played by Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich fulfils the traditionally opposed roles of the working woman, mother, and object of sensuality, oscillating between them and undermining perceptions of femininity as immutable.
This true story – fair warning for spoilers here – is one that deals with the problem of expectations of femininity, couched within Erin’s immediate task of securing justice for the inhabitants of Hinkley, California.
Clothing and its effect on perception are set up as themes relatively close to the beginning of this film. At around twenty minutes in, Erin is told by her boss that her revealing clothing makes the other women in the office uncomfortable; she wears a cream mini dress showing her décolletage and arms.
As her boss poses the idea that she should wear something else, she defends her corner, asserting that she wears what she feels nice in.
A problematic addition to this determinedly feminist display is Erin’s profession that she will wear what she wants “As long as I have one ass instead of two”, insinuating that only slim women should wear revealing outfits.
Here, the dynamic of female competition surrounding looks is set up. Erin is viewed as ‘other’ by the women in her workplace because she is younger and dresses more revealingly. There are perhaps two elements at play here: firstly the competitive, where her colleagues feel pushed out of their own environment by a younger model. Equally, there is the possibility that they feel as though she challenges their respectability: they have established themselves as professional women and moulded their aesthetic to suit this. Perhaps Erin challenges their narrow perception of female professionalism, and thus presents a trial to their identities.
Equally, Erin’s sizeist response, while wrong, could perhaps be read as the internalisation of the alternative feminine aesthetic: that of the young, slim, sexy, woman. Although Erin is presented by Soderbergh as professionally capable and determined, it feels as though she is taking this job out of necessity to look after her family rather than with a desire to break down female stereotypes. The characters do not allow the two conceptions of feminine parameters to merge.
The outfits in the scene not only set up a visual difference but also allow for the exploration of female identity politics.
A second example where Erin is characterised by her outfit occurs about thirty-two minutes into the film. Her green top paired with an orange belt and orange skirt throw her into contrast against the neutral tones worn by the scientist she is talking to, as well as the people crossing the background. The effect of this could be argued in two ways: she is at once made distinct from the scientist and thus made to appear less intelligent, and yet the bright colours invite the viewer to assume her sharp wit and boldness.
Her persistent questioning and clear concern for the safety of the Hinkley inhabitants once she learns about the dangers of hexavalent chromium causes the viewer to lean towards that second interpretation. Soderbergh is perhaps trying to show that clothing choices do not articulate a woman’s capabilities. However, by using colour to make Erin stand out, there is also an argument to suggest her distance from the academic world that she enters in this scene.
Although the breaking down of female stereotypes is positive, there is still a visual binary created, similarly to how Erin is aesthetically separated from the women in her office.
Furthermore, although Erin’s questions demonstrate her concern, there is also an information power dynamic that is clear which, although not exploited by the scientist, is a theme that carries through Erin’s interaction with most men in the film. A dynamic that she, more often than not, is able to overcome, but which is nevertheless apparent.
Another example of this power dynamic occurs around the forty-seven minute mark. Erin is wearing a red and white top with a corset back with denim shorts. The look is similar to one she wore earlier in the film, and both are used in the same way: to gain entry into the public water records so that Erin can confirm the levels of water toxicity.
Both outfits feature red, a famously sexual colour, and in both scenarios, Erin either visibly uses, or says she is going to use, her looks to convince the proprietor to allow her into the backroom. Here, Erin’s femininity as shown through her outfits prioritises her sexuality, which, although embracing taboo portrayals of the female body, is perhaps slightly unfeminist.
However, I would argue that Erin’s use of her body to get what she wants speaks to her disenfranchised view of herself. At the beginning of the film, she is asked for her number, and in reply, she lists the ages of her young children, assuming that no one will want her because of them. This pertains to the common trope that women are undesirable after having babies, and further that Erin is perceived as less worthy of attention because each of her children has a different father.
Her looks are also revealed to have been a mainstay of her youth, as she reveals that she was once a prizewinning beauty queen. Thus, although unfeminist in its objectification, Erin’s use of her body here shown through the clothes she wears can be seen as a result of her past experiences, rather than a demonstration of anti-feminist sentiment.
Finally, by the end of the film, Erin’s outfits have not changed, sending the message that her victory over PG&E in the legal case has nothing to do with the way she dresses. The outfit she wears when she gets paid for her work is reminiscent of a corset, tight-fitting and with sheer sleeves.
Her $2 million payout here functions as a stark reminder of her professionalism, competence, and ability that has nothing to do with her fashion sense. In much the same way as in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts’ character proves that outward appearance has nothing to do with circumstance or personality, and that to think so would be a big mistake. Huge!
According to interviews, the real Erin Brockovich had a similarly judgemental experience to the Erin in film. She says that her non-traditionalist, non-conformist attitude to workplace clothing is down to a refusal to compromise herself for the sake of others. Within the context of the 1990s when she was working, this attitude is progressive, and even in the 2020s, we haven’t entirely accepted that clothes are no indicator of inward character. The film encourages us to be less judgemental of clothing choices, speaking particularly to the female experience of workplace hostility relating to style.
You can read more of Em’s work on her Twitter @emponcia