Dressing to Play a Power Woman

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LONDON — In 1977 Sidney Lumet’s film “Network,” about the struggles of a fictional television group, won four Academy Awards, including a best actress Oscar for Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of a producer, Diana Christensen.

Morally bankrupt and of “psychopathic ambition,” as Vincent Canby said in his review in The New York Times, Ms. Christensen was also perfectly attired in pussy-bow blouses, pencil skirts, knee-high boots and heavy camel coats. Her style helped herald the advent of “power dressing.”

Now, 40 years later, Ms. Christensen and her wardrobe are getting a makeover. The look of the female executive has been redefined on the stage of the National Theater in London, where the Tony Award winner Ivo van Hove is directing Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) as Ms. Christensen in the first stage adaptation, a “Network” for the 21st century.

The key ingredients this time around, according to the Belgian costume designer An D’Huys, 53, whose 30-year fashion career has spanned television, movies, opera, dance and theater along with 11 years working with the Antwerp designer Ann Demeulemeester

Bright, clashing colors, strong lines — and pants. “The colors show that Diana is not working with the rest of the people and not a team player,” Ms. D’Huys said. “It’s not a choice of everyone; it’s her own choice. And a signal that ‘I can wear what I want even if the colors aren’t matching together.’ ”

“I put Diana in pants, oversized blouses and men’s coats,” she said. “The most important thing is how a man’s cut can be very feminine and very powerful. The silhouette is more modern, closer fitting.”

Ms. Dockery wore 20 costumes during rehearsals, but by the first preview, there were six.CreditJan Versweyveld

Prada’s recent collections, with their pops of orange, green, red and other bright colors, were an inspiration, according to Ms. Huys, who said Miuccia Prada herself was among the women who served as a model of sorts: “the kind of woman, like Diana, who is personally powerful and rich, not just a business woman.”

It took Ms. D’Huys nine weeks to settle on Ms. Dockery’s final looks; of the 20 costumes initially selected and worn during rehearsal, six outfits made the first preview. They created “the strongest images of Diana,” said Ms. D’Huys, who found many of the pieces in vintage shops, including the hip Retro Woman in the Notting Hill area of London, and in the National’s own costume stores to keep the look within budget — and believability.

That whittling process helped Ms. Dockery create her character. “I’ve never done a play before where are you in costumes from the very first day,” the actress wrote in an email, “so I was in character from the start.”

Thus platform peep-toe heels were swapped for simple black leather round-toe court shoes from Selfridges, because the first style hurt Ms. Dockery’s feet and “it’s important to be comfortable to show strength,” Ms. D’Huys said.

Ms. Dockery agreed, adding that the physical demands of playing an executive in today’s media world mean that lower heels are the modern power shoes.

“You can immediately see what works and what doesn’t,” Ms D’Huys said, adding that a Chloé minidress was too girly (army-inspired though it was).

The only scene in which Ms. Dockery does wear a dress — a low-cut, black Diane von Furstenberg wrap with layered satin frills — is in a steamy restaurant moment with her former colleague and soon-to-be lover, Max Schumacher (played by Douglas Henshall). It made sense, Ms. D’Huys said, because “it is easy to pull up and with one popper easy to open.”

Ms. Dockery’s character is Diana Christensen, the role played by Faye Dunaway in the ’70s film. “I put Diana in pants, oversized blouses and men’s coats,” Ms. D’Huys said. “The most important thing is how a man’s cut can be very feminine and very powerful.”CreditJan Versweyveld

Red, flared trousers from Zara also made the final cut and are central to the character’s new look as “they are masculine and Diana has to fight in a man’s world,” Ms. D’Huys said. “They even help her stand in a more powerful way.”

Along with the flares came assorted silk shirts, including one McQ tie-neck bib-front style that Ms. D’Huys dyed a vivid orange (originally made in cream, the color was too washed-out for Ms. Dockery’s complexion), and a bright purple from Diane von Furstenberg.

Military-style coats play a significant role, including a belted beige trench with capelike shoulders, and a double-breasted Burberry wool with epaulets and leather detailing on the sleeves.

“Everything is loose fitting and not too styled, so Diana is relaxed,” wrote Ms. Dockery, noting that not-trying-too-hard was the essence of her character’s look.

As Ms. Christensen’s power fluctuates through the play, so does the vibrancy of her clothes. She makes her entrance in a neutral tobacco-colored honeycomb-print blouse, for example, but dons a luminous yellow shirt when she believes she has hit the ratings jackpot when her increasingly unmoored anchorman Howard Beale (played by Bryan Cranston) delivers his famous live broadcast announcing he is “mad as hell” and can’t take it any more.

Later, as her personal and professional lives go awry (her lover leaves and ratings plummet), more subtle, smudged colors appear in the form of dark green, wide-leg pants bought online from Theory a week before the first preview. “I wanted another color for the ending as everything goes down,” Ms. D’Huys said.

What Ms. Christensen never has: “It” bags or other logo-laden accessories. As to why, well, Ms. D’Huys said, “most of the people I have met who are very important and powerful don’t show labels.”

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