Friday, December 26, 2014






Style | Unbuttoned

Angelina Jolie’s Fashion Campaign for an Oscar


What to wear on the campaign trail?
This may seem like an odd question to ask on Christmas. After all, we just got through one electoral cycle, and the next doesn’t start until ­ well, 2015. We’re in the fallow period of the year, or at least we should be — except that I am not talking about political campaigns. Or not entirely.
I am talking about Oscar campaigns, and my question was sparked by the push that has been waged quite publicly over the last few weeks by Angelina Jolie, director of “Unbroken,” the movie based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book about World War II and the triumph of the human spirit, which opens Thursday.
The film has been generating nominee buzz all autumn, especially for its director, and despite being passed over for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild nod, it still has a chance at the Academy Awards shortlist, to be announced in January.
Presumably, a big opening weekend would help — and if your family is anything like my family, moviegoing may play an important role in this week’s holiday entertainment, especially feel-good, true-life epic moviegoing.
And yet, perhaps more meaningful is the way Ms. Jolie has been shaping her image in pursuit of her goal, edging it from look-at-me stardom to self-effacing behind-the-scenes-dom. It has been fascinating to watch.
And, it seems to me, it is as good a demonstration as any I have seen about how seriousness of wardrobe can be used to convey seriousness of purpose.
Consider her ingredients: muted colors; classic shapes; skirts that are strict, straight and to the knee; pumps, never platforms; long sleeves. Imagine a perfectly tailored high-fashion take on the librarian look of silver screen cliché and you’ll get the idea: soft power for the celluloid set.
And then consider Ms. Jolie on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter “risk-takers” issue in a simple round-neck white silk shirt. Or on the covers of both Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly in white shirt sleeves (there is nothing like a man’s white shirt, the building block of C.E.O.-style everywhere, to convey one’s getting-down-to-business side). Or, for that matter, the cover of Variety, in a black-and-white polka-dot pussy-bow blouse.
See Ms. Jolie on “Today” in a simple black sweater and black trousers, and at the British premiere of “Unbroken” in a white caped pencil skirt dress by Ralph & Russo. See her at Buckingham Palace, where the queen made her an honorary Dame Grand Cross in October, in a dove-gray Ralph & Russo skirt suit. See her in Sydney, Australia, this month in a draped gray Versace knee-length sheath.



See her, in other words, reject pattern and print and paillettes and anything at all distracting. (Remember her vials-of-Billy-Bob-Thornton’s-blood-around-the-neck days?) And opt instead for clothes that telegraph propriety and taste and very good manners; clothes that would, in another context, probably be called boring, but that pretty succinctly imply that Ms. Jolie is committed to the mission of being behind the camera instead of in front — and is, in fact, more comfortable there — and will do what it takes to be a credible contender in that arena.
To that end, even Ms. Jolie’s red carpet appearances have been relatively conservative (compared, anyway, with the 2012 Versace leg-baring moment), from her tux at the 2014 Bafta awards to the sparkly but fully covered Elie Saab she wore to the Oscars.
It may seem ridiculous to believe that drab colors and a lack of skin are required to convince the world of career commitment, but like it or not, in the eye of many beholders, playing into the stereotype is a shortcut to achieving the result. Gravitas through greige! It may be embarrassing to admit (O.K., it definitely is, largely because of what it says about our own knee-jerk assumptions), but it works.
Simply consider the words of the actress Kerry Washington, who told Glamour in 2013 of her own epiphany vis-à-vis public dress: “I was like: ‘I’m missing a really important tool. If I am the C.E.O. of the Kerry Washington Corporation, my marketing department is really lax.’ So I sort of developed a new character: Red Carpet Kerry.”
Ms. Washington’s goal was better parts, as opposed to directorial cred, but the way she used her appearances to make waves in a variety of eye-catching outfits was correspondingly geared toward achieving that end.

 Ms. Jolie on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter “risk-takers” issue in a simple round-neck white silk shirt, and on the covers of Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly in white shirt sleeves.


The theory is the same. After all, part of the business of film is creating characters out of costume, and that works equally well for public character. And I am not suggesting that it is not sincerely meant — simply that it is strategic.
Certainly, Ms. Jolie is not the first actress to use clothes as a tool to facilitate a certain impression and professional trajectory. I would venture to say that, along with understanding that many actresses were deeply insecure about their own taste and more than happy to cede that decision-making to someone else, a large chunk of the reason for Giorgio Armani’s success with the Hollywood set has been his ability to tamp down the sex side of the equation.
There’s a reason, when Julia Roberts testified before Congress way back in 2002, she wore a white shirt, black jacket and ­ eyeglasses. It’s just that Ms. Jolie has embraced the idea more comprehensively, and possibly successfully, than her peers have.
And the result has implications beyond the world of red carpets and Oscar nominations.
Indeed, in a truly weird turn of events, adding the “Unbroken” campaign to Ms. Jolie’s humanitarian work as United Nations special envoy has produced a not-entirely-ironic #jolieforpresident movement online, such that Vanity Fair raised the question of her (unofficial) political intentions in its December cover story in full seriousness. In case you didn’t read the piece, the actress replied, “I am open.”
Whether or not this ultimately adds up to an Oscar nomination for Ms. Jolie (and frankly, maybe she should get one for playing herself), her approach is worth studying as we enter that other campaign season, and questions of “appropriate” dress circle around politics. (See: the recent decision by Republicans in the Montana state legislature to create guidelines about what constitutes acceptable professional attire.) After all, she may be using it herself ere long.
Think of it as a primer for spinmeisters and candidates everywhere — even a present. Merry Christmas.




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