Succession, which finished airing its third season on HBO in December, has been garnering the attention of media critics since its 2018 debut. Though there has been much analysis on various aspects of the satire drama, one particular topic has received more attention than others: the show’s fashion––notably, that of Shiv Roy, patriarch Logan’s only daughter.
It is undeniable that clothing in the material world of Succession takes on symbolic value––characters’ wealth and power (or lack of it) are almost always reflected by the clothes they wear. So when Season Three aired and Shiv’s clothes were noticeably more ill-fitting and from cheaper brands (well, cheaper relative to the designer to which the uber-rich Roys are accustomed), people predictably took notice. Jen Stevens of the Irish Examiner links this wardrobe downgrade to Shiv’s sidelining at the hands of the aforementioned Logan (who tokenizes her as Waystar Royco president––damage control in the wake of the company’s sexual abuse scandals). A tweet by Gabrielle Korn, cited in a Vogue op ed, speculates, “Convinced that they put Shiv in halter dresses to foreshadow her downfall.”
However, the jump from Shiv’s Season Two streamlined turtlenecks to her unflattering Season Three fare was not the first time her styling changed drastically between seasons. When Season Two aired, it became apparent that Shiv had traded in her Season One wardrobe of gem-toned blouses, soft cardigans, and loose ponytails of long curly hair for slate-gray powersuits and a sleek, straightened bob. Much of the writing on Shiv’s Season Two “makeover” framed her fashion transformation as empowerment. The suits are masculinizing, a signifier that she’s taking Waystar by the proverbial balls; her hair is cut blunt and flat-ironed, emblematic of a girlboss who’s poised to dominate; her high waisted slacks are figure-hugging, an indication that she’s ready to “embrace her curves.”
The rhetoric reflects a common sentiment in online (and offline) feminist spaces these days: taking care of yourself, a woman, is feminist because women should feel (and, perhaps, more importantly, look) their best! In what ways might you accomplish this feminist “care”? Well, to name a few: makeup, skincare, keeping up with current clothing trends, immaculate exercise and diet habits, meticulous body hair removal, et cetera. The key to liberation, is, apparently, as simple as buying into the exact preoccupation with patriarchal beauty standards and women-targeted consumerist ideals that has prevailed in society for years upon years––except this time with the label of “empowerment.”
But does the rush one gets from fulfilling society’s “girl who can do it all” role indicate any fundamental change in the arduousness of living up to those expectations? Critiques of what does seem to be a sly rebranding of the ever increasing demands foisted upon women and their appearances are often countered with the cry of, “Well, it’s her choice to wear makeup!” (Or depilate, or get fillers, or count calories, or spend ludicrous amounts of money on overpriced under eye cream.) And, it logically follows, that since she is a woman, making a choice, it is a feminist act, because any woman making any choice is a win for feminism and bodily autonomy. However, it’s convenient to ignore that these choices do not happen in a vacuum; they happen in the context of a society that shames women for not being attractive, that makes them feel obligated to put effort into their looks to an extent that men simply are not.
There’s nothing wrong with women capitulating to any of these standards, per se––I myself capitulate to a lot of them, as do the majority of us. But branding it as feminist praxis feels like an almost naive acceptance of capitalist, patriarchal rhetoric: one of the main beneficiaries of this permutation of choice feminism is the beauty industry, which often uses the language of “looking and feeling her feminist-best” as a convenient marketing technique with which to appeal to a new, socially conscious generation of consumers. Is the end result of this sort of thinking that much different than our status quo, except maybe with some friendlier buzzwords? And, more importantly, in what ways does this placid acceptance of often constraining beauty standards prevent us from pushing back against the impetus for women to be ornamental? (On top of being perfect wives and mothers, and put-together professionals, and whatever else fits our current conception of the feminine ideal.)
I assume that part of the reason that Shiv’s second-season look is viewed as empowering is that it’s narratively linked to her entry into the world of the family company––which, on the surface, does appear to entail greater access to power and wealth. However, the actual progression of the season tells a very different story: Logan (who is the epitome of an abusive parent: hitting Roman so hard he loses a tooth, viciously berating Kendall into a cocaine relapse, strategically withholding affection from Connor) does offer Shiv CEO, but once she’s in the company, providing much needed “diversity” in the midsts of a hostile takeover attempt and a sexual assault scandal, he seems more reluctant to actually give her power. When she presses him on whether this reluctance is due to her womanhood, he explodes, “Well, of course [being a woman] is a fucking minus!”
With this in mind, it seems highly unlikely that her style-change is due to some newfound power in her life. What seems more plausible is that, with her career now controlled by the whims of her abrasive, misogynistic father––she laments late in Season Two, “I’ve managed to get myself into this situation where ‘what does my dad think’ is my entire fucking universe”––with a new, pressing need to maintain complete composure at all times, her streamlined style functions as a suit of armor against the constant possibilities of attack and degradation. She can no longer afford to have hair fly-aways, to look occasionally frumpy in her cardigans, to not really care whether her shirts are perfectly wrinkleless. She’s already fighting a losing battle.
By the end of the season, Shiv is at a low point: the powers-that-be at Waystar have her exploit her status as a woman to convince a sexual assault survivor not to testify against the company. She does this in a gray suit-dress and towering black pumps. She has to take them off to traverse the playground where she confronts the survivor.
Which brings us to Season Three, where her fashion so aptly mirrors the further losses of power and agency she experiences at the hands of her father. She’s pressured into appearing in a photo op with a white supremacist presidential candidate (tanking any possibility of a further political career outside of Waystar), she’s berated by Logan in front of other executives despite her successful maneuvers to stop a risky shareholder vote, and by the penultimate episode, finds herself exploiting the vulnerability of yet another harassment victim (this time, Waystar general counsel Gerri Kellman).
She does all of this in increasingly more awkward-looking, ill-fitting clothes, culminating in a season finale where she sports an off-the-rack Ted Baker dress so tight it looks like a vise––a definite departure from the more comfortable shirts, slacks, and blazers of the first two seasons. It becomes clear that the sartorial suit of armor (like her attempts to make Waystar’s patriarchal hierarchy work for her) is simply not sustainable. The third-season halter dresses Korn’s tweet laments don’t foreshadow Shiv’s eventual downfall; they perhaps reflect a process that had begun with the style changes so lauded during the airing of Season Two. Similarly, Shiv’s powerless despair in the third season’s final scene is not a departure from her second-season power moves; it is simply a continuation of the downward spiral that started as soon as she said “yes” to a power structure that seeks to destroy her.
Herein seems to lie the central fallacy of not only Shiv’s logic, but also much of today’s pop feminism: the wealth and power women seem to be offered by capitalism are often illusory or fleeting. Women often sacrifice more than they stand to gain. Shiv’s fashion could only have ever been viewed as empowering if you feel as though empowerment is as simple as booking a Drybar appointment; her fashion could only have ever been viewed as empowering if you believe that her presence in a misogynistic company run by a misogynistic man is in itself a path to empowerment.