Look of the Week: Olivia Dunham's simple Fringe style

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Sep 9, 2018

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.

10 years ago, Fringe debuted on FOX, giving audiences a new FBI-led team to obsess over. Instead of aliens, the investigation centered on science-based mysterious events with a sprawling conspiracy behind it. The comparisons between Fringe and The X-Files came thick and fast in the early days — The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks were other clear influences — but Fringe very much came into its own with a jaw-dropping reveal in the Season 1 finale.

In terms of style, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) was a continuation of the Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) model of dressing for work, which isn’t all that surprising considering FBI agents have pretty much dressed the same since their inception. This is a workplace that doesn’t leave much room for adventurous attire. Luckily for Olivia, the suit silhouette of 2008 was a lot more flattering than 1993. “To understand the FBI’s style, you need to understand that agents think of themselves as something of a cross between a detective and a spy,” as this Atlantic federal employee style guide explains

For Olivia, this meant a lot of white Oxford button-down shirts and black suits for when she is on duty. Pattern occasionally sneaked in with some stripes, but that was about it on the non-plain front. If you’re looking for something a bit more snazzy, then Anna Torv in her Mindhunter role has got you covered. Swapping her badge for a role as academic consultant Wendy Carr gave Torv the opportunity to embrace the full ‘70s blouse experience. Back to the present day, in Fringe, Olivia’s look is office-ready for a variety of workplaces, not just ones that require you carry a gun. The bagginess of the ‘90s trench and suit shape actually help conceal a service weapon, with the Atlantic style guide noting that FBI agents typically wear their suits oversized for this particular reason.

Climate also played a role in the range of clothes Olivia had in her closet, and Fringe was very much a winter show. Weather impacted the mood; as with The X-Files and Twin Peaks before it, the lack of blazing sunshine was a vital component. Set in Boston — but filmed in New York for the first season, then Vancouver — the snow in the pilot set the tone. The baggy trench coats of The X-Files early seasons were replaced here by fitted ones. Knitted beanie hats and sensible flats were also part of Olivia’s wardrobe; you can look professional, stylish, and protect yourself against the elements. Costume designer Joanne Hansen set Olivia up with a look that didn’t betray practicality for fashion.

Pantsuits are very much on trend at the moment and if you’re looking for solid tailoring, but without the bold pattern or color a la Hannibal's Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), then look no further than Agent Olivia Dunham. Everlane has you covered in the blazer department, and this is a look that can be dressed up or down.

In the early promotional appearances by the cast, Torv opted for several very Olivia looks — with a bonus cow. 

A sheet and a smile are all Olivia Dunham was wearing when she was first introduced on Fringe, but this being a J.J. Abrams-written pilot meant this initial relationship is doomed — see also: Alias. There is a clothing symmetry with John (Mark Valley) in part because he was also an FBI agent, but also because he was her boyfriend.

John wasn't the only person mirroring Olivia’s style over the course of the show, as Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) also became her closet twin. This was more notable because Peter wasn't part of the Bureau, nor was he her beau (at that moment in time, at least).

Olivia traveled to Iraq to enlist Peter’s help — he was required to get his father, Walter (John Noble) out of a mental institution — and the subtle mirroring began. While Olivia was dressed casually, wearing a brown t-shirt and khaki cargo pants, Peter was a little more dressed up in linens of a similar shade. When he returned to Boston, his cold weather clothing matched Olivia’s; neither wardrobe was an explosion of color, instead favoring blue, grey and black.

This symmetry continued in the following episode, so while they weren’t exactly on the same emotional page just yet, there was an instant visual bond. Fringe fans know it wouldn't be an easy ride, but while there will be conflicts and obstacles, the foundation was strong — and this was one way of laying down the groundwork for an OTP in the very first episode. (Chemistry, including how they smile at each other, also helped.)


Credit: FOX

An early indicator that Fringe was going to mess with the minds of its audience and lead characters occurred when Olivia agreed to an unorthodox method of retrieving a vital piece of information. This procedure had Olivia dropping any inhibitions in order to save the man she loved in front of her soon-to-be new team. Foundation garments made up an important part of costume design — even when they aren’t seen.

In a period setting this will impact an actor’s posture; in a contemporary one, it can also say a lot about character. The underwear worn in this later scene matched the style seen in the opening scene. This is a practical, no-frills matching set, which makes sense considering the rest of Olivia’s attire. It is functional, comfortable, but not at all dowdy. This description fits everything we saw Olivia wear in the pilot, from her work attire to casual jeans, tank, and hoodie.

Even in Olivia’s drug-induced memory state, she wore something that was neutral in color. The halter dress was the most feminine garment worn in the pilot and it was both unlike anything else we had seen her in at this early stage while also looking like it could realistically sit in her closet. Maybe this was what she wore on her first date with John, which would explain why it appeared in her memory landscape.

A pilot episode lays the groundwork in both story and character; costume design is a vital part of this. There isn’t a whole lot of scope with what can be done with the clothing of an FBI agent because their look is standardized, but so much can be gathered about Olivia Dunham from every outfit worn in the Fringe pilot. Her link to Peter was subtle but present from the start, and rewatching this pilot after all these years was definitely a very good experience — face-melting aside.

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