How to make a woman frumpy

17:00, Aug 13 2014
BUCKING THE TREND: Penelope Cruz, Elle Fanning, Sarah Jessica Parker: three women making the notoriously frumpy item look nothing but fabulous.

Quick, what's the best way to make a beautiful woman look as unattractive as possible? Throw a cardigan on her,  according to the Hollywood movie machine, which consistently does this to downplay an actor's allure. If the role doesn't call for an absolute overhaul (for example, a bigger nose prosthetic, a la Nicole Kidman in The Hours), but just a gentle nod at "real", they go straight for a drab knit piece.

I've always been a bit partial to a cardigan. They're the perfect trans-seasonal cover-up and can be thrown over anything from a dress, to jeans and a cami. Sure, they're not super sexy, but sexy isn't the aim of fashion. And besides, they're functional.

That's probably why filmmakers have chosen the cardigan as the standard item to make gorgeous women look frumpy. Downtrodden. Dull.

Take Anne Hathaway's character in The Devil Wears Prada. She starts off as the ultimate, daggy female, daring to wear - gasp - a blue sweater. Her boss, editrix Miranda Priestly, takes her down in a monologue few will forget, about the runway origins of her cheap jumper. And Anne ends up bowing to style pressure in slick blazers and pencil skirts.

In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Geena Davis goes from overall, sweater-wearing housewife to a gun-toting, newly blonded, action spy. Jennifer Lopez is too glorious for just one shabby knit to make her look average in Maid in Manhattan. They layered those babies up, one on top of the other, to get the undesirable effect. And as soon as Jennifer Grey traded her oversized cardi for a crop top, she turned into Dirty Dancer extraordinaire.

This trick is even used on Michelle Pfeiffer in Catwoman, who starts out as timid Selina Kyle in a brown jacket, and ends up as an overconfident, PVC-clad feline. While it's not a cardigan, brown is clearly meant to represent the dowdy colours a woman supposedly wears while in frumpy mode. The same can be said for Lindsay Lohan's brown jacket in Mean Girls, pre Plastics makeover. Filmmakers are sending us a message: wearing brown will render you invisible. Who knows what a brown cardigan will do!

It must be said that with each character's transformation, the leap from homely to hot is a big one. Everyone knows the fastest way to makeover your image is to change your clothes, even in real life. Just ask Angelina Jolie who went from black leather-wearing, blood-vial-necklace toting, sword-hobbyist weirdo, to global do-gooder, with the help of, you guessed it, a knit-led wardrobe. Or Kidman who years ago ditched her cardigan and floral dress to bounce straight to the top of the best dressed list in embroidered Dior.

The thing is, knits are having a moment. They're being paired with swingy skirts and skinny pants to create a modern look that girls are loving. It's high-comfort meets high-fashion - a woman's Holy Grail. And we've never been swayed by what's considered "sexy" in our sartorial choices, nor do we much care what men think when we get dressed, and whether they see it as drab or not.

As long as we're channeling Rose Byrne's cardigans in Bridesmaids rather than Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones' Christmas jumper, we're on the right fashion track.


Sydney Morning Herald