It's time to assess.
This fall's television season brings with it a whole new cast of professional female sitcom characters. There's a lawyer, a retail executive, several media professionals and an administrative assistant. NBC alone has four sitcoms under the banner "Must She TV" on Monday nights.
There's little point in contemplating how realistically these women go about litigating, reporting or pushing papers. This is television, after all, where people have so much down time at work that they fly to other cities for lunch, have emotional outbursts with lovers in mid-meeting and take frequent and protracted shopping breaks.
A better question: What are these women wearing?
Consider the wardrobe for Calista Flockhart, who plays a young lawyer on Ally McBeal (Monday nights on Fox). Last week's episode opened with with a close shot of Ally's behind as she tried to squeeze into a pair of tight jeans, and, as usual, her courtroom ensemble consisted of a micro-mini topped with a clever scarf.
Over at Working (NBC, Wednesday nights), Hal, an underemployed female administrative assistant, dresses for success in a low-cut body suit and tight miniskirt. In the first episode of Dharma & Greg (Wednesday nights on ABC), Greg wears the same suit and tie for the entire show, while Dharma changes into three outfits, two of which bare her midriff.
What would Mary Richards say? In the 1970s, her character, played by Mary Tyler Moore, personified the working woman of the day by sporting short hemlines, but she almost always paired her skirt with a sensible opaque tight and flattish shoe, and none of her clothes inhibited normal walking.
Is television dressing professional women like Victoria's Secret models to reflect a very real backlash in corporate America against the dress-for-success uniform, or is there simply no way to shop a working woman in a pants suit _ the fastest-growing choice of outfit for professional women _ to prime-time audiences?
The answer may lie somewhere in between. "This all goes back to Heather Locklear," said Richard Martin, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, referring to the actor who made the short skirt famous in the '80s during her Dynasty days. "She created this strange television version of the corporate woman, which is very sexual within some kind of template of business attire, a sort of distilled version of what people really wear."
On Melrose Place (Fox, Monday nights), where no one seems to work more than 30 seconds a day, wardrobes are part of the campy appeal, so it seems right that Ms. Locklear has extended her sartorial verve as an advertising executive given to ultra-tight leopard-skin outfits.
But what of the Monday night minx from Harvard Law? Stacey Scowley, a spokeswoman for Fox television, said she didn't find Ally McBeal's skirts all that short but added that the network's executives recognize that female sitcom leads have to bring home more than just bacon. "They want her to be intelligent," she said, " but they want her to be appealing too."
While television thrives on exaggeration, there is a small kernel of fashion truth in these wardrobes. Seventh Avenue has embraced lingerie-inspired looks in recent seasons, including camisole tops worn under suits, and several years ago working women tossed aside the ridiculous bow-tied suit in favor of more feminine clothing.
Molly Haskell, the feminist film critic, said, "In L.A. Law, women were always soberly dressed at the office, then came home and put on their total woman outfit. Now, the idea is, why do we have to dress like men, and so now we have the seduction outfit."
As for McBeal, she would probably have difficulty winning many juries' hearts with her micro-minis. "Trial lawyers always want their skirts longer," said Dara Lamb, who owns Darabin Ltd., a clothing shop for women in New York. "They say "Look, I'm going in front of a jury and I have to bend over a table.' They are not there to sell their bottom."
Interestingly, the sitcom thatactually is about a workplace similar to Victoria's Secret features some of the most realistic office wear of the season. Veronica's Closet (NBC on Thursday nights) stars Kirstie Alley as the owner of a lingerie store chain.
True, there are plenty of nightgowns and low-cut tops to go around, but most of the female executives don sensible black suits and loose-fitting shirts.
In fact, the most underdressed, tightly garbed babes on the show have one striking thing in common: They are almost all men.