Elementary My Dear Watson: Lucy Liu, Gender Roles, and Power Suits.

I really don’t know shit about fashion. I won’t pretend that I do. I basically live in lounge wear, and though I wish I could step out of my (literal) comfort zone, I feel intimated and overwhelmed whenever I consider trying (but nonetheless, I am trying. I bought a necklace at the thrift store the other day, which, if you knew me at all, you’d know what a big deal that was!), but that doesn’t stop me from scanning through Instagram appreciating other people’s fashion sense. The same goes for Television.

We know I watch a lot of TV, and expert or not, there’s plenty to both love and loathe when it comes to television wardrobes. I (mostly) enjoyed watching Sex and the City, but oh goodness, I feel like I was the only one to hate Carrie Bradshaw’s outfits!! Who walks around in a tutu?! On my past blog, I wrote an ode to the fashion of Frasier character Daphne Moon, and recently on this blog, I wrote about Roz Doyle. All of these characters, presented a more or less typical femininity when it comes to what we expect from television. Different styles, yes, but these characters all portray strong females.

Wardrobes are a very mindful choice. They’re put together to give a certain vibe for a character, or to reflect different emotions. Sometimes wardrobe is used to reflect or foreshadow (for example, how Meredith Grey wears Derek’s ferry boat scrub cap following his death). The idea that we shouldn’t judge others on their appearance goes totally out the window when it comes to TV because we not only can’t help it, but we have to. Television has to portray to us an entire world, and unlike a book, there aren’t unlimited pages for character development and background stories. How a character dresses can help to tell us more about them.

I’ve always adored Lucy Liu’s wardrobe as Joan Watson on Elementary. From the very beginning it has been perfection. She pretty much lives in clothing that goes beyond my comfort zone, but which is still absolutely my style if I didn’t have said comfort zone. Even when an ensemble might have been a bit out there, it worked. Watson is strong and confident enough that she could likely make anything work. As the show has progressed, we have seen an evolution in her clothing choices. As Joan has gone from sober companion, to Sherlock’s partner and fellow consulting detective, she has largely dropped the more flowy, distinctly feminine outfits in favor of suits that many might consider more masculine. Yet, that’s just the thing: I’d argue that in the suits Watson has been opting for in past seasons, as well as this current one, she’s even more feminine, because through wardrobe choices, she is challenging the idea of what is femininity. 

I’ve been watching Elementary from the very beginning and I seriously love the show. Honestly, I think it’s super underrated and I don’t understand why more people aren’t watching it?? Lucy Liu kills it in every episode (metaphorically of course, as she’s usually the one figuring out who did the killing), and her wardrobe just amplifies her power. A suit is typically representative of masculinity right? WRONG. I mean, Joan Watson isn’t the first one, or the only one to rock a suit. I feel like the first place I personally remember seeing women rocking suits was on Seinfeld with Elaine Benes, in all her 90s wonderfulness.


Then, of course, there is Bette Porter on The L Word (though to be fair, there’s a LOT of examples from this show, I just feel like Bette is the first person I think of), who I really shouldn’t have to elaborate on. If you haven’t watched the show, consider it recommended viewing.


Oh, and all hail Lieutenant Olivia Benson who I ABSOLUTELY shouldn’t have to introduce to anyone. I mean, she’s the queen. If you don’t know, turn on your TV and keep flipping channels until you find an SVU marathon (which you invariably will) and EDUCATE YOURSELF.

But we’re here to talk about Joan. Have these characters “opened the door” for Joan Watson’s style? I could see why you might make that argument, but I sort of have a feeling that even without other characters challenging the assumed norms of gender roles in fashion, we’d have arrived here anyway. Television has been challenging stereotypes, since it began, so in many ways I suppose Joan Watson is doing nothing new. Yet Watson’s wardrobe choices still stand out, especially when you look at other current shows.

Watson is part of a team, yet she is incredibly independent. She is confident, intelligent, and she controls her life. Her suits amplify this attitude. She is not Sherlock’s secretary or understudy, she is his equal. Although, she is part of a team, she is also very much independent, which I feel is a theme we are frequently reminded of throughout the show. Like the squad that they consult with, both Joan and Sherlock have taken to wearing a sort of uniform of their own, and really, Joan’s suits just make sense. They’re professional, they’re functional, and of course, this is Joan Watson we’re talking about, they’re fashionable. They both make a statement, and yet also don’t entirely steal the scene (generally speaking of course). Wardrobe design can frequently make a character stand out, and Joan’s suits signal that she is in command and should be taken seriously.

As the show has progressed, Watson’s wardrobe has definitely evolved. For Watson, I think the evolution in her clothing style is very much representative of the path her life has taken. When she first met Sherlock, she was a former doctor working as a sober companion. It was a sort of transitional period for her and while she was still working, and filling an important role, I don’t think that that particular profession was meant to be forever. It was a state of flux in between more important roles for her. When she made the decision to become a detective, working with Sherlock formally, her wardrobe shifted signaling so. Once Sherlock had decided that she had been adequately trained, we saw another shift in her dress.



Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I saw her wear a skirt, or even anything super colorful. Joan now dresses is dark colors almost exclusively (my wardrobe is predominantly black and gray so I have no complaints), allowing her outfits to sort of become ancillary to her overall character, and her important role as a consulting detective for the male-dominated world of the NYPD. While it might seem that masculine dress would stifle femininity, in Joan’s case, it only amplifies it. She blends more traditionally masculine pieces with frilly blouses, or takes something super formal and pairs it with a t-shirt to take it down a notch. She frequently pairs her suits with heels, giving them balance (which feels like the wrong word to use when talking about heels…), and of course, she still accessorizes just as brilliantly, and seemingly effortlessly as she always has. The styling on this show is exceptional. Joan Watson is confident in who she is both professionally, and personally.

Focusing more on the personal for a moment, this season we learn that Joan is wanting to become a mother. She’s decided that she isn’t going to wait for a partner, and that she doesn’t need the traditional relationship in order to be given a green light in becoming a parent. She isn’t waiting on a man, or anyone – she’ll do it on her own. In a world of television families, that still overwhelmingly represent families in the more traditional sense, her attitudes toward motherhood are refreshing. I’m not saying, that single parenting, or the route she is taking is rare, but it is still valuable to see different family compositions, and that includes seeing varying routes taken to get there. It reminds me of The Golden Girls, when Blanche’s daughter Rebecca decides she isn’t waiting on finding a husband any longer, and opts to have a child through IVF. It takes Blanche some time to accept her choice, but she eventually comes around, as the four women always do in the face of anything new and different to them.

It does seem though, that Joan still has to prove herself worthy of adopting a child, and I can’t help but wonder if she is facing/will face additional scrutiny due to her living arrangement and her job. Back to SVU, when Olivia Benson wanted to adopt baby Noah, it seemed that she was seen as an excellent potential parent, as well as a liability due to her job and single status. At least for a brief moment, her abilities seemed doubted (Amanda Rollins also went on to being a single parent, telling her baby’s father, Declan Murphy that she was perfectly capable of raising their daughter independently). These are strong, independent females perfectly capable of raising a child, but it opens the door to a question: when women choose single parenting purposefully, as opposed to it being the consequence of other factors, are they treated and viewed differently?


I’m not saying that Joan Watson is breaking barriers or anything, but I do think that she blurs the lines. Her wardrobe amplifies the strengths of this character, while not ascribing to traditional gender stereotypes. She doesn’t exclusively dress any one particular way, but her incredible suits cannot be ignored. She is a powerful character, and yet: if Joan Watson were to show up to work the next case in a dress, would that make her less formidable? Less professional? Less capable? Personally, I think not.


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