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On the Basis of Sex: In Memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933 – 2020) was a formidable force, an inspiration, and a feminist icon who was dedicated to fighting gender discrimination. Ginsburg was the second woman to serve as a Justice in the U.S. Supreme Court, and to date, one of only four women to do so.

Cover of On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Director Mimi Leder’s (The Leftovers, Pay it Forward) On the Basis of Sex is a biopic that follows the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and her husband, Martin “Marty” Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). However, the film’s main focus is on the Ginsburgs’ representation of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) in the 1972 Moritz v. Commissioner. This case saw the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) deny Moritz’s claim for a tax deduction for the cost of a caregiver for his mother – a claim which would have been allowed for women and formerly married men.

The film follows the Ginsburgs as they build a defence for their client in which Ruth argues that the IRS’s denial of Moritz’s tax deduction was unconstitutional on the basis of sex – an argument which resulted in the Court holding that discrimination on the basis of sex constitutes a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This was a huge step forward for gender equality.

On the Basis of Sex is an extremely fulfilling film in which discrimination against women is highlighted and laid out in a way so as to provoke an emotional response from the audience: disbelief, dismay and disgust at gender inequality. This, ultimately, elevates the audience’s satisfaction when the Ginsburgs lay out a winning argument in the Moritz v. Commissioner case, and set a precedent for gender equality.

In a film with such a prominent and compelling moral argument, the importance of costume may be questioned. As costume designer Isis Mussenden (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Wolverine) has said of the film, 'this isn’t a costume drama'. Mussenden is not challenging the definition of a costume drama, but rather meaning that the costumes are not a focal feature of the film.

This is not to say that costuming is unimportant. In my (biased) opinion, it never is.

Throughout history, fashions have run parallel to social, political and economic events and changes, both nationally and globally. They reflect what is happening in a country, or the world, at any one time, and paying attention to these changing fashions can give an audience insights into the socio-political and socio-economic climates that a writer, director or costume designer is trying to communicate.

This is true of On the Basis of Sex which, set in the 1950s and 1970s, provides ample opportunity for interesting and informative costuming. Mussenden uses costume as a visual translation of what is being said in the film, the issues that it discusses, and the characters it represents. The most apparent example of this is the opening scene, set in 1956, in which numerous men are shown filtering into Harvard Law School as ‘Ten Thousand Men of Harvard’ plays in the background. Then, dissimilar to the dark colours, three-piece suits and ties worn by these men, Ruth is shown entering in beside them in a blue dress and jacket. The contrast is sharp and clear.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Ruth’s suit is indicative of the classic 50s silhouette, with a large skirt which boasts the post-war return to femininity, from the more masculine tailoring of the 1940s. This first glimpse of Ruth’s character is important. It sets the bar for what to expect from her, and it is a bar that does not bend.

Ruth maintains a fashionable and on-trend wardrobe throughout the film, and she does not once abandon the femininity we see in the opening scenes. Instead, she embodies it; in the 50s she wears full skirts and the classic ‘housewife’ pearls, in the 70s she adopts hair scarves, bows and mesmerising modern prints.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Mussenden’s research for the costuming of the film saw her referring to photographs of Ruth Bader Ginsburg from throughout her life, and the style of Ruth’s on-screen character holds an honest likeness. Though perhaps at odds with what an audience might expect to see such a character wearing, this femininity creates an even greater contrast between Ruth and her male counterparts. Just as Katharine Hepburn’s gender-bending donning of pants in the 30s and 40s was a feminist move, so too is Ruth’s devotion to her distinctly feminine wardrobe. Ruth never loses the feminine aspects of her style, and never dresses in a more masculine manner, but constantly fights discrimination on the basis of sex from the clear stance that gender equality should not be contingent on whether someone conforms to their traditionally prescribed gender role.

The main storyline of the film is interposed with fragments of socio-political information relevant to the era, including protests of the Vietnam War, and rallies where the likes of feminist activist Gloria Steinam spoke – a rally attended by the Ginsburgs’ daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny). The unrest surrounding these movements provides insight into the agitation of the era and the rapidly changing public opinion of the government and, as a result, the changing identity of America.

To show the generational contrast of paradigms and shifting values, Mussenden uses the way Jane dresses as a foil for what her mother wears. The voluminous costumes worn by Ruth – especially her 50s ensembles – are the antithesis of Jane’s shorter, tighter, more compact looks in the 70s. This speaks to the upheaval of the period, and the growing liberation of women in the latter half of the century.

Ruth and Jane Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex (2018)

One of the most striking looks in the film comes on the day of the Moritz v. Commissioner appeal before the Tenth Circuit, when Ruth wears what can only be described as a power suit. Ruth’s skirt suit is clean cut and classic. Based on an authentic 1970s Yves Saint Laurent piece, the black suit with striking white edging is completed with a lapel pin which Ruth is seen wearing throughout the film. Mussenden noted that she wanted this particular look to ‘connect [Ruth’s] robes and her judicial future in that room’, which this costuming choice achieves by recalling the black robe and distinctive white collar worn by the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a Justice in the Supreme Court of the United States.

left: Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1948) right: Ruth, On the Basis of Sex (2018)

On the Basis of Sex is a film whose focus is not on aesthetics, but rather on the changing attitudes and values of the American nation. However, costume still plays an instrumental role, functioning as an informative socio-political tool that highlights the contrast between the 1950s and the turbulence of the 1970s, an era that was instrumental in laying groundwork for the continuing movement for equal rights.


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