“In the end, the tutu won.” That is Pat Field recounting the minor tussle between herself (and partner in tulle, Sarah Jessica Parker) and “Sex and the City” creator and executive producer Darren Star, about the iconic opening of the HBO series.
“It was very difficult for the producers to understand the tutu,” Field told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “Sarah Jessica and I were fighting for it.”
Starr, then-1990s TV wunderkind (“Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place”) insisted on shooting a second, more conventional opener in which Parker wears a periwinkle blue dress. When the bus with her picture rumbles past, instead of getting splashed by fetid New York City gutter water, she trips. Starr was going for a slapstick vibe, an homage to golden-age, single-girl sitcoms including “That Girl” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Field and Parker were operating on a different level.
The debate over the tulle skirt is a metaphor for the show that — more than 20 years after it debuted, and as the anticipated where-are-they-now redux “And Just Like That” is set to premiere Thursday on HBO Max — remains unrivaled in its influence on fashion and feminism. The debate about the series opener was good-natured enough; Starr was by no means dug in. But Field and Parker, who, like her character, sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, has a highly original, idiosyncratic fashion radar — understood the convention-busting potential of tulle.
As Starr later told EW: “It was one of many times where they’d have a wardrobe and I’d look at it and say, ‘I don’t get it, but go for it!’”
By the second season premiere in the fall of 1999, “Sex and the City” was as influential as Vogue. In the pre-Instagram, late-’90s-early-Aughts, it was a living, breathing, 3D fashion magazine. But it also shifted the notion of fashion as a patriarchal tool of objectification and oppression. Yes, Parker, with her sinewy limbs and dancer’s carriage, looked amazing in so many bodycon dresses. But Carrie Bradshaw very deliberately did not dress for the male gaze. Her style was edgy, whimsical, at times confounding. If the characters on “Melrose Place” shopped at upscale mall stores, Carrie frequented lower Manhattan’s vintage shops.
Post #MeToo, and in the current era of unprecedented economic and social inequality, it’s easy to dismiss “Sex and the City” as a relic of a pre-woke, exclusionary era. And certainly, there are aspects of the show that do not age well; it’s pronounced lack of diversity, crass racial and gay stereotyping, abject consumerism, all that smoking. (In the early seasons, before her career really takes off, Carrie laments her “maxed-out credit cards.”)
“And Just Like That” has an opportunity to correct some of the original show’s oversights. The writers room has several women of color and the characters more accurately reflect the diversity of New York City. And doing a show about middle-aged ladies is a bit of a risk.
Parker, 56, has been clearly bothered by internet comments about her gray hair. “I know what I look like. I have no choice,” she told Vogue. “What am I going to do about it? Stop aging? Disappear?”
But, series finale and two movies notwithstanding, “Sex and the City” was the first series to explore the messy inner lives of women and bluntly address gender power dynamics. In season two, when Charlotte tells her friends that she has signed up for a tantric sex class called “How to Please a Man,” Miranda acidly quips: “I know how to please a man. You just give away most of your power.”
The characters are aggressive, complicated, selfish. They use men for sex and lie to them, even the ones they claim to love. When Carrie couldn’t bear to put on the ugly engagement ring Aidan (John Corbett) gave her, she wore it around her neck, hidden behind a veritable bead curtain of fake pearls. She told him it was closer to her heart that way. But they are also unfailingly loyal to each other.
“There’s a lot of feminist messaging within the clothes,” observes author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, who has written several books about pop culture, including “Sex and the City and Us.”
“Think of the crazy stuff [Carrie] wore. I remember when she wore a belt over her bare midriff. She’s wearing it for herself, but also for other women. And this was so new at that time. The women on ‘Melrose Place’ were definitely dressing for men and so was every other woman [on TV].”
The show, says Molly Rogers — who worked with Field on “Sex and the City” and is the costume designer, along with Danny Santiago, on “And Just Like That” — used fashion to signal female empowerment and agency at a time when that concept was not in circulation.
“Whatever you’re wearing should make you feel good,” says Rogers.
Rogers and Santiago spent pre-production scouring consignment shops in Florida, where, Rogers jokes, “New Yorkers go to die. And they can’t take their closets with them.”
Apparently there are a lot vintage furs and evening wear in the secondhand shops of Palm Beach. Paparazzi shots from production of “And Just Like That,” which began last summer in New York, reveal that many of the show’s signature pieces will make a comeback, including Carrie’s “Roger” belt and purple Fendi baguette bag. And Rogers teased that Carrie’s fur coats also will return, but in an unconventional way.
“I’ve always said, the one rule is there are no rules,” says Rogers. “And that says a lot about the freedom women have. If you feel confident in what you’re wearing, that’s empowering. I think it’s really important that the clothes don’t wear you. You wear the clothes. I don’t think Carrie could have run around New York City in a halter top with a belt around her waist if she didn’t feel good in it.”