Emma Thompson's New Movie Is Basically an Instruction Manual for How to Be a Woman Who Wears Suits

Emma Thompson wears 17 suits in Late Night, Mindy Kaling’s new workplace comedy out June 7. Seventeen impeccably tailored, beautifully bespoke suits in a variety of silhouettes and fabrics. She also wears one gown and one pair of jeans — but honestly, who cares? Unlike floor-length special occasion sequins and day-to-day denim, each of the 17 suits is more than an outfit; it’s a mood.

Thompson plays Katherine Newberry, a late-night talk show host trying to boost her image and her ratings. She fires the majority of the white men on her team and hires Molly Patel, played by Mindy Kaling, to join the writer’s room. Kaling’s character, for what it’s worth, doesn’t wear a single suit in the entire movie. In this instance, the sharpest lapels are reserved for the sharpest tongue, and Thompson’s acerbic and deadpan character has both.

As it turns out, finding those 17 beautiful suits was no easy feat.

“At the time we were making the film, women’s suiting was basically runway only,” Late Night costume designer Mitchell Travers tells InStyle. “There were only so many in the world, so it was a blessing and a curse. The ones out there were really beautiful, but there were only so many. Suits weren’t as accessible as they’ve become in the last year-and-a-half or so. To try and get a little variety cooked up took quite a bit of digging — and quite a bit of tailoring, actually.”

Travers worked with designers like Brandon Maxwell, Armani, Akris, Stella McCartney, and Suit Supply to dress Thompson for the film, and even in the trailer, her aesthetic feels incredibly current. That’s because in the time since the movie was shot, suits have become a full-blown trend. Oversized blazers; wide, cropped legs; prints, and a range of fabrications are now ubiquitous across designer and contemporary labels, and even via mass market brands.

“The interesting thing about women's suiting is that you can take it so many places,” Travers says. “You can do sex appeal, where you're doing like a bra with a jacket and a high-waisted trouser or a wide leg. Or you can do sort of play on menswear where it's really not about fit, it's about fabric. For this movie, I could really tailor it to the specific scene that the character is in and echo what the character was going through, based on the cut of the suit. I haven't really had an opportunity like that [dressing male characters] in menswear the way I did with this character.”

Women’s suiting is often described as “menswear-inspired,” but at this point women’s suiting stands firmly on its own. Men’s suits can far too easily fall into the realm of drab and uniform — and it doesn’t hurt that women look objectively better in them, not to mention we have more accessorizing options to play with.

“I looked at the relationship that men’s suiting has towards accessorizing,” Travers explains. “So pocket squares, cufflinks, high bars, all of that sort of stuff. For Late Night, I wanted to sort of color out of the lines a little bit when it came to the women's suiting and look at scarves, look at bras, look at jewelry, look at footwear. It’s dressing a women in a whole head-to-toe look, without it being a gown. For me, it’s fun to figure out the balance and relationship between all of those elements.”

Of course, Travers is talking about dressing a character in a movie — but what he’s describing can be applied to real women in the real world as well. Throughout his career as a stylist and designer, he’s seen women transform in front of his eyes when they step into  a suit, even if they previously resisted.

“Anytime in my life I've put a woman in a suit, she's always telling me how she probably can't wear it — until she does,” Travers says. “And then, there’s this little thing that takes over where she's like, ‘Oh, I can really wear this.’ I think a lot of women think of a suit as something that a bank teller wears, or a school principal. And then when you show them how far women's suiting has come and what's available to them, they feel kind of like gorgeous and they feel beautiful in a way that a gown doesn't make them feel, or knits or separates don't make them feel, and it’s kind of a new lane for women to try that I am really excited about.”

And after Late Night premieres on June 7, it wouldn’t be surprising if Thompson’s character inspires a whole new group of women to venture into that lane. Travers says that in the film, Katherine’s suits are a crucial part of her evolution — she’s always in suits, yes, but the kinds of suits she wears, and how she wears them, transition along with her.

“The character goes through so many different phases of suiting,” says Travers. “When we meet her, her suits feel a bit more like a uniform. I looked to influences like Paula Poundstone, and Fran Lebowitz, and other women who have done a twist on menswear as their own sort of iconic imagery. She uses suits to be instantly recognizable…but you don’t get a sense of her personality from them in any way. And then, as she evolves and allows herself to see fresh ideas and new perspectives, you watch that translate onto her clothing.”  

There’s a reason we love movies with any kind of makeover or style evolution. While a character does the hard work of growing and changing, viewers see the power and possibility that slipping into a new look can bring. And what’s more powerful than a suit?

“It tells the story of a person who is methodical and practiced in the way they get dressed,” Travers says. “And then you get to watch what happens to that person when they abandon the rules and allow themselves to find someone new in the mirror.”

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