Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!
Janelle Monáe has threaded science fiction influences into her music and red carpet attire, as well as choosing genre film and television roles in her acting career. The multi-hyphenate star wore sci-fi- and horror-inspired looks earlier this year at the Oscars (both on the red carpet and in her show-stopping performance), attending the 2019 Met Gala, and in music videos — including the exuberant "emotion picture" featuring Tessa Thompson. Later this year she will star in horror movie Antebellum (the release date is still currently set for August 21). Before that, she is currently leading the second season of Amazon Prime's Hitchcockian-style psychological thriller Homecoming. Based on the podcast of the same name, it follows a fictional company that has been performing disturbing drug trials on military personnel returning from war.
The twisty first season starred Julia Roberts as Heidi Bergman, a social worker employed by the Geist Group at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center. Her role was to monitor the program, which was "assisting" veterans back into civilian life. Little did they know that the drugs they were being treated with were impacting their memory of their time at war, so they could effectively return to combat without any PTSD or other psychological scars. Working with young vet Walter Cruz (Stephan James), Heidi found herself at odds with what her corporate bosses had tasked her with.
Enter Janelle Monáe as the figure at the heart of the follow-up mystery. She wakes up in a rowboat set adrift, unclear as to how she got there and unsure of who she is. From her outfit alone, her character fits a specific profession, but costume can help mask the truth as well as reveal it.
Detailed spoilers ahead for Homecoming Season 2.
Classic jeans, boots, a white tee, and a sensible jacket combination suggest Monáe as Jackie is the veteran her ID tells her that she is. It is a look signifying function over fashion and implies comfort and routine are important to this character. This being Homecoming, there is much more to the story than how things first appear.
In the same way, Geist employee Audrey (Hong Chau) reads as powerful through her expensive-looking dresses, but it only tells a portion of the story. While Jackie thinks she is on the run from Audrey — though she doesn't know why — when the supposed antagonist kisses her at the end of the second episode, Jackie's story turns on its head.
The name and ID she found in her belongings are fake; rather they are part of the cover story she used to get close to Walter Cruz in a bid to save the company her girlfriend works for. Alex is her real name; she is a crisis manager who will take on a specific persona for a price.
Experiencing a drug-induced memory wipe doesn't take away her culpability, even though she is no longer aware of how much shady behavior she has covered up for stone-cold cash. Saving greedy corporations has been Alex's job, for which she has a home office full of research, clothing, and Photoshop skills to aid her business. She is very good at her job, which is why she has so many resources at her disposal.
When she wants to come across as sympathetic and as a friendly figure to a woman accusing a boss of sexual harassment, a baby blue suit that says strength and warmth is her tool. It is an outfit that is delicate and powerful in equal measure; striking a balance is how she earns a living. She uses a photo of when she "found herself" traveling in India after a similar case of harassment caused her to quit her job. It is all part of the masquerade showing the power of perception through clothing and other props to make her seem trustworthy. Designer Molly Maginnis uses Alex's clothing to signpost assumptions we make about a character, and as soon as this plot twist is unveiled, it underscores the value and role of costume beyond making an actor look good or authentic.
In the third episode "Previously," we see Alex at home pouring a large glass of red wine, attempting to relax in an oversized shirt, jeans, and tee as she hangs out with her girlfriend. She encourages Audrey to seize this opportunity at work to climb the corporate ladder from assistant to a woman in charge. She can take the negative and spin it into gold via a few emails and changing her clothing from soft patterns to a stronger silhouette.
"So basically, my role is prophylactic. I go in before litigation before things get messy, and I make contact with the complainant and find an off-ramp. I help them see that that is their best option," Alex explains on the phone to a possible future client. During this scene, the heart of Alex's work operation is revealed, the camera panning to reveal a bookshelf full of helpful volumes to aid her preparation and find an in to gain someone's trust. An arts and crafts station to make a fake ID for whatever role she is taking on and a filing cabinet full of important documents show the scope of her business.
Everything from copyright, wrongful termination, and personal injury are examples Alex gives of legal disputes she can make go away via her interpersonal skills. Interrupted by Audrey arriving home from a very successful day at work, we never find out what this potential client was going to ask her to do. Instead, she takes on her girlfriend's work issue.
Her look in this sequence is the most covetable and commanding; it isn't intentional, but she is trying to persuade Audrey that she can lead. A black turtleneck, check high-waisted pants, and suspenders paired with glasses (which she removes when Audrey comes home) and gold hoop earrings give off a Succession aesthetic — it looks expensive. It is hard to get a read on who she is because of these shifts in persona coupled with her own identity confusion in the first two episodes, which takes place before the layers are pulled back.
However, Alex's comfort zone is either oversized shirts as loungewear or luxurious masculine-meets-feminine tailoring. In these outfits when she is with Audrey, she is not playing dress-up as someone else. This is the first time Monáe (who identifies as pansexual) has played a queer character, and the intimacy of the home and restaurant scenes are underscored by the costumes.
"I perform," she explains when Audrey shows concern about Alex pursuing the Walter Cruz thread. Audrey's point is this is not the usual corporate battle taking place within the comfort of a boardroom setting. She thinks that the right boots and a fake tattoo are the tools she needs to pass for someone with a military background. However, her confidence is also her downfall, as she uses the wrong terminology. She might look the part, but Walter instantly clocks her as an impostor by her civilian slip of the tongue. A Photoshopped image and a perfect story are quickly undone by a simple mistake.
Shifting in and out of performance has worked for Alex in the past, but this case ends up cracking her identity wide open. The essence of her being is taken in the blink of an eye — or rather a split-second injection — and the relative anonymity of her first look constructs a person she was pretending to be now made solid. An outfit can help sell a story or how you want to be perceived, but in the case of Homecoming, a simple ensemble did more than that. The glamorous trappings of her expensive clothing are stripped away; she has become Jackie.