Fashion is often likened to armor, but at Fox News under Roger Ailes, it was more often used as a punchline. Bombshell, a new film that chronicles the 2016 Ailes resignation and the legal suits brought by Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly, and two dozen other female staffers at Fox, opens with a doozy. As an impressively uncanny version of Kelly, Charlize Theron walks through a bustling, brightly lit Fox newsroom wearing a too-tight sheath dress in red, white, and blue. Mid-tour, a male reporter eyes her up and down and yells, “Beautiful dress, Megyn!” Theron, in turn, deadpans to the camera: “He’s not horny, he’s just ambitious.”
The quick-witted, chatty dialogue in Bombshell, written by Charles Randolph of The Big Short, reflects a newsroom where chauvinistic rhetoric was the norm—but the opening lines are soft blows compared to the rest of the movie. In nearly every scene it seems a man is making a comment about a female staffer’s appearance, be it her hair, makeup, body, or hemline. The insults are mostly hurled by Ailes, played by a slovenly-looking John Lithgow, and by and large they were pulled from recordings and accounts of Ailes, the Fox CEO who was colloquially known as “the leg man.” The Fox dress code for women? Short skirts were required and pants were banned (Fox News has refuted this claim in the past and, according to a current Fox spokeswoman, still refutes this claim).
The film, which hits theaters on December 13, revolves around Carlson and Kelly’s unfolding story as well as the story of Kayla Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie. Pospisil is one of the only fictional characters in Bombshell, created to represent the young and ambitious, albeit naive women who were sexually harassed and abused by Ailes over the years. It’s her short, tight dress that is a key component of the movie’s most uncomfortable scene, in which Ailes summons her to his office, closes the door, tells her to get up and twirl for him, and then asks her to lift up the bottom half of her dress, first a little bit, then a little more until exposed; she then begins to cry.
The costumes in Bombshell, which were designed by Colleen Atwood and conceptualized by Atwood alongside director Jay Roach and Randolph, are significant in the telling of the story. They underscore the dangerous culture that permeated Fox’s studios and offices; a culture that, as Kidman’s Carlson says in the film, forced women to “dress the same so that we all remember that we’re replaceable.” It’s true that female newscasters across networks tend to favor brightly colored sheath dresses, heavy makeup, and big hair, but at Fox, as one of the film’s supporting characters says, the dress code was an amplified version of the “anchor Barbie” look.
The point of Bombshell is to keep every single detail, from office conversations to the setup of the newsroom, as close to the truth as possible. Atwood did extensive photo and video research when creating the costumes, much of which was conducted secondhand because many former and current Fox News anchors have signed NDAs in the wake of the Ailes scandal. The majority of the costumes were either vintage or high-street-store pieces that Atwood pulled together based on the images of various newsrooms around the country, Fox News and the like. Atwood used a few Roland Mouret dresses for Kelly’s character, but also specially recreated some of the outfits that she wore on air, including the simple black sheath she chose for the first Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015, which included then candidates Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump. That night as a moderator, Kelly shocked audiences and enraged the conservative Fox News contingent (Fox sponsored the debate) by confronting Trump about calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”
Because Bombshell presents a very realistic picture of Fox News at that time, Atwood hopes that “women coming into news and looking at the film might have a fresher perspective on how they’re being asked to dress. Maybe they will have more of a voice, which would be the ideal thing.” A voice isn’t something that was encouraged among the female staff at Fox News, whether they were tasked with paperwork in the office or seated behind one of the infamous clear-glass desks that Ailes installed in the studios so that the anchors’ legs would be visible to the audience.
Towards the end of the film, there’s another uncomfortable-to-watch scene. It’s mid-scandal, and in the newsroom female staffers are handing out “Team Roger” T-shirts and forcefully telling everyone to put them on. Then, the camera takes us inside the wardrobe closet where a flurry of attractive women are cherry-picking jewel-toned minidresses off a rack, all the same shape and silhouette. They’re trying on Spanx and push-up bras as well as platform stilettos that look like props from Hustlers. There are no men in the closet, just women. That’s the disturbing part to watch: professional, strong-willed women anxiously getting dressed in clothes that clearly make them uncomfortable. It’s in this scene that you really understand the sense of conflict that women at Fox were experiencing: How far is too far when it comes to advancing my career? If I don’t dress this way, will I still get ahead? According to director Jay Roach, as ridiculous as the scene seems, it was very real. “I personally spoke with multiple women who described the details of the real-life Fox dressing room, and they confirmed the scene’s authenticity,” he said.
Roach revealed that one of the working titles for Bombshell was Lucite Desk, a reference to Ailes’s obsession with legs and his penchant for selling salaciousness on air. The Bombshell team had an agenda of their own; they wanted to underscore the fact that mainstream media still uses sex appeal to sell headlines.
“I’m not sure the film will change anything in the culture, and we in the film business are in no great position to be preaching to anybody on the subject,” said Roach. “But I do hope people, especially men, can more easily imagine what this pressure must feel like. I hope we at least raise some questions about the pressures put on women in news organizations to be excellent at delivering news or opinions, and also at the same time be deemed ‘attractive’ by some marketing experts’ standards.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue