When Samantha Bee was doing test shows for her late-night program, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” the Canadian-born satirist, feeling the pressure to conform to nominal precepts of TV show glamour, chose a sartorial statement completely antithetical to her essence.
“I willingly squeezed myself into a tube dress and really high heels,” she recalls. “I was tottering around the set. The heels were so spiky, they punctured the floor and got stuck.”
Observing this wardrobe misfire, network executives gently suggested she try wearing what she had on in rehearsals: a blazer and sneakers.
As anyone who has watched Bee’s TBS show knows, the blazer look stuck. And as the show marks its 200th episode on Wednesday, Bee has further galvanized the once-pedestrian men’s wear staple into a feminist power symbol. Whether it’s fire engine red for a Donald Trump screed, classic black in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots or canary yellow to call out corporate America’s record on paid family leave, Bee’s jackets are a sartorial cudgel to the patriarchy.
“There’s nothing I love more than a great blazer,” she says, during a phone interview this week from the Acela to Washington, D.C., where she hopes to have enough daylight to film a segment for the 200th episode.
“It’s like armor against the world,” she adds. “It’s protective but it says something.”
Coco Chanel first conferred legitimacy on the blazer for women back in 1914, when she paired an ankle-length skirt with a tailored jacket. Fifty years later, André Courrèges introduced the first women’s pantsuit. The 1970s pantsuit — bright prints, belted waists, bell-bottoms — gave way to the linebacker shoulder pads of the 1980s.
More recently, the pantsuit has endured periods of disrepute. Hillary Clinton’s frumpier monochromatic pantsuits became — to her detractors — a metaphor for her robotic phoniness. But in the post-“MeToo” era, the women’s suit has become a symbol of solidarity and agency. Think the sea of suffragette white suits at Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address.
“It’s a power piece,” explains “Full Frontal” costume director Erin Dougherty. “Sam feels good in it. It’s nipped at the waist. It has a shoulder on it. You can feel yourself wearing it. And because of the tailoring and the structure, it gives you an automatic burst of power. A sense of confidence.”
After six seasons, “Full Frontal” has about 100 blazers in rotation. Favorite labels include Alexander McQueen, Tibi, Saint Laurent, Rag & Bone, Dries Van Noten, the classic Balmain double-breasted and Stella McCartney, for the brand’s sustainability aesthetic and bright colors. There are also occasions that call for a bespoke look. Bee wore a custom Altuzarra ivory and black tuxedo for her inaugural Not the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2017, which was featured in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. For the 2018 dinner, they commissioned a custom jacket, designed by Fulani Hart. The fabric is an homage to John Galliano’s newsprint dress for Dior (famously worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in the third season of “Sex and the City”).
Bee admits to being somewhat obsessed with her blazers. “I have almost a near photographic memory about the blazers that have come and gone through the years,” she says. “It’s so weird. It’s like my one and only special skill.”
Several years ago, Dougherty sold about 40 blazers (plus a passel of dresses worn by Bee at press avails) to The RealReal, with the proceeds going to charity. “I probably got rid of too many blazers,” she laments.
That would include a navy and white polka-dot jacket from Akris. “Sometimes Sam will be like, ‘Oh go get that polka dot one that I like…’” says Dougherty.
But mostly, they have hung on to the “fave friends,” including a burgundy print jacquard Dries Van Noten; a bright yellow Stella McCartney; a velvet, crystal embellished Gucci (Bee also wore it to last year’s virtual Emmy Awards), and a Kelly green Balmain, which makes an appearance every March. “Everything can be reused in the right time and place,” observes Dougherty. “And so that’s another reason why I hang on to things. Everything has several moments.”
For her part, Bee is enjoying the post-Trump moment — even if it turns out to be but an interregnum.
“It was just too much,” she says of making comedy in such a dark and angry time. “It was literally like a scotch hose of bulls–t in your face every single day. I really do regret that we still have to talk about him somewhat, because he’s still a presence looming, lurking. But I do feel liberated since he’s not the president anymore. We’re having so much more fun. We’re living our lives, we’re able to look more expansively at the show. It has really helped us spiritually, personally.”
Bee won’t tease many details from the milestone 200th episode except that maybe she has gotten a tattoo to commemorate the occasion. The sixth season wraps next week; season seven bows Jan. 20. Bee has not decided which blazer to wear for the Dec. 15 season finale.
“I’m just really proud and happy to have gotten here,” she says. “There’s no way that you launch a TV show and think, Yeah we’re going to do 200 of these. You just can’t think in those terms at all.
“But I will say, we have an astonishing collection of really beautiful blazers now,” she adds. “Even if no one wears them anymore. I’ll still be wearing them. I’ll be that little old lady pushing my buggy, and rocking a great structured shoulder.”