Inside the Feminist Fashions of 'Mrs. America': She "Looked Like a Fashion Icon"

11:30 AM 6/24/2020

by Emily Hilton

To tell the story of the contentious battle to ratify the Equal  Rights  Amendment, the stars and costume designer Bina Daigeler reopened the closet doors of '70s women’s rights icons  —  and their loudest detractor.

Sabrina Lantos/FX ; Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

  • Cate Blanchett

    Portrayed: Phyllis Schlafly

    Blanchett, Schlafly
    Blanchett, Schlafly
    Sabrina Lantos/FX ; Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

    Conservative activist Schlafly gained notoriety as a right-wing anti-communist before unsuccessfully running for Congress in Illinois. Through her grassroots organizing of conservative women, she argued that the ERA would force women into the draft and interfere with alimony.

    "In the end," said Blanchett at the 2020 TCAs, "how polarizing she became was the very thing that prevented her from getting in place in Reagan's cabinet. It was definitely a challenge to find those nuances and not to play one note." Schlafly's fame, however, gave Blanchett an incredible archive of speeches and interviews to draw from.

    For Schlafly's look, costume designer Bina Daigeler balanced the American housewife with the conservative activist. "I went [with] quite textured materials for the suits," she tells THR. "They look a little bit stiff because, for me, Phyllis is somebody who could never lose her ambition."

  • Elizabeth Banks

    Portrayed: Jill Ruckelshaus

    Banks, Ruckelshaus
    Banks, Ruckelshaus
    Sabrina Lantos/FX ; Bettmann via Getty Images

    President Gerald Ford appointed Ruckelshaus, a Republican and feminist, to help ratify the ERA. She was also a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus and served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during Ronald Reagan's first presidential term.

    "Any time you play a real person," Banks tells THR, "my hope in my heart is that they feel honored in some way, in whatever way, that they feel proud and honored that their story was told." Banks studied joint interviews with Ruckelshaus and her husband, William Ruckelshaus (the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency), and admired the mutual respect they had for each other, especially given that it was a time when women rarely worked.

    Daigeler says she enjoyed the challenge of dressing a feminist Republican. "Sometimes [I used] a little bit of Phyllis' blouses," she says, "but [Jill] was just much more fashionable, and that was what I wanted."

  • Rose Byrne

    Portrayed: Gloria Steinem

    Byrne, Steinem
    Byrne, Steinem
    Sabrina Lantos/FX; Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

    Steinem was (and arguably still is) the most recognizable leader of the women's movement. An outspoken supporter of the ERA, she co-founded Ms. magazine and helped form the National Women's Political Caucus.

    To prepare for the role on the FX/Hulu show, Byrne relied on books, articles and archival footage. "It was really ultimately a fun thing," she tells THR. "Nerve-wracking and terrifying, but it's fun … She's got an innate calmness and serenity to her and unflappability and sort of a sensuality, too."

    Re-creating Steinem's look, Daigeler tried to be quite precise with her designs. "Even in just a simple pair of jeans," says Daigeler, who custom-made every pair of jeans Byrne wore, "and a T-shirt with an amazing belt, [Gloria] just looked like a fashion icon."

  • Margo Martindale

    Portrayed: Bella Abzug

    Martindale, Abzug
    Martindale, Abzug
    Sabrina Lantos/FX ; Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

    Co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus, Abzug, who died in 1998, was a civil rights lawyer before being elected to Congress to represent New York. There, she introduced the first federal gay rights bill and lobbied against the Vietnam War.

    "She was the ultimate politician," explains Martindale. "She had to let go of things she was incredibly passionate about to focus on the thing that she thought was the most important." A New Yorker herself, Martindale was able to speak to several people who knew Abzug; some hated her, while others recounted funny stories about the activist.

    Abzug was known for her signature hats, which she sported whether in the office or heading to a party. "My inspiration was Mick Jagger going to a concert," Daigeler says of Martindale's look at a University of Illinois women's event depicted in episode seven. "She was a star. Everybody wanted to listen to her."

  • Tracey Ullman

    Portrayed: Betty Friedan

    Ullman, Friedan
    Ullman, Friedan
    Sabrina Lantos/FX; Photofest

    Famously a rival of Steinem, Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus and sparked the second-wave feminism movement with her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique.

    "I hope Betty would be pleased with me," Ullman tells THR of the late trailblazer. "I would just channel her and sort of call upon the gods as I do sometimes with characters. Like, 'Ah, help me out here, Betty. What do you want me to do? I want to make you proud.' " There were numerous interviews, speeches and books for Ullman to use in her research, but filling in the private moments was the real challenge.

    "The fittings with me were always important," says Daigeler, who chose bold combinations to allude to Friedan's fearlessness, "because [costumes] provide so much information for the actors, but also for the audience."

  • Uzo Aduba

    Portrayed: Shirley Chisholm

    Aduba, Chisholm
    Aduba, Chisholm
    Sabrina Lantos/FX; Photofest

    The first black woman elected to Congress and the first woman to run for president, Chisholm co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus and introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation as a congresswoman.

    "It was a reminder that strong women feel pain, too," Aduba tells THR of her research on Chisholm, who died in 2005. "I was happy to see in her that they have their own pain and their own hurt, and they're not strong all the time, which is, I think, an overly simplified way in which we are presented often, black women and many intersectional groups — this never-broken spirit."

    Says Daigeler, who stayed true to Chisholm's bold printed suits, "She was a woman, but really a woman on her way, in power, dressed like a woman and loud … and standing out between all the men."

    This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.