PBS Icons and the Outfits that Changed the World

The fashion industry is notoriously novelty-hungry. It often raises up garments and trends that are more outlandish than innovative. And yet Anna Wintour has her iconic sheath dresses, Michael Kors never veers from jeans and black tees and Donna Karan is eternally swathed in floaty, drapey layers. The tastemakers themselves know the value of signature style.

And so do many of PBS’s beloved icons. Television personalities and characters need to not only look good, but also be instantly identifiable. And consistency of dress is an easy shortcut to recognizability. Consider a few examples:

Julia Child and the Crisp Blue Work Shirt

PBS Icons

Although Julia Child shifted to softer looks featuring scarves and blouses in her later shows, when she was hosting “The French Chef” she always wore a crisp blue work shirt with a L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes insignia. And no wonder: “The French Chef” was one of the first cooking shows to be broadcast in America, Child was hosting it during the early ’60s as a woman (enough said) and she was talking about a cuisine mostly unfamiliar to her viewers. Her uniform helped her appear capable, focused and, perhaps most importantly, unfussy.

Norm Abram’s Flannel Manifesto

Norm Abram mixes it up a bit more than Julia, but the man is seldom seen on “The New Yankee Workshop” in anything besides a plaid shirt. Norm’s personal brand is that of a quintessential New Englander, an approachable guy’s guy and a no-nonsense expert woodworker. Plaid is classic, masculine and accessible, and these shirts make Norm seem consistent and trustworthy, but also relatable.

Mister Rogers and the Cardigan that Changed the World

rogers neighborhood

Fred Rogers never hosted a show in his neighborhood without a cardigan (or his signature indoor sneakers). Since his audience members were children, presenting a congenial and unvarying image only served to build trust and rapport.

Doctor Who and the Scarf that Goes On Forever

It could be argued that “Doctor Who” star Tom Baker‘s impractically long, striped scarf is one of the most iconic accessories ever to be worn on television. There have been 13 Doctors Who so far, and each one has had a specific and unique uniform that sets apart his personality from those of his predecessors. Even folks who’ve forgotten the specific adventures that Baker’s Doctor took will remember that stripy scarf and the whimsical character who wore it.

Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Dress

On each episode of “The Magic School Bus,” teacher Ms. Frizzle works to make science lessons adventurous and fun. Her wildly printed and subject-specific dresses help make her an appealing guide to young viewers. These dresses work double-duty: They are uniform enough to make her character recognizable to young audience members, yet also funky enough indicate that she is a lively, engaging personality who isn’t going to bore them to tears with dry facts.

Hercule Poirot and the Homburg Hat

When it comes to signature detective style, Hercule Poirot’s bowtie and Homburg hat are second only to Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker and Macfarlane cape-coat. A detective-for-hire must appear reliable, and consistency of dress conveys pragmatism and stability.

These days, TV characters and hosts wear a variety of styles—today’s audiences look to the stars of their favorite programs for fashion inspiration. By comparison, the signature pieces and styles worn by classic PBS stars might seem old-fashioned. But these were shrewd and intentional dressing decisions. We won’t remember what Katie Couric wore this week, but we’ll always remember what Mister Rogers wore. And what he wore helped make him an icon.