Dressing Powerful Women: Cable Girls

Cable Girls is an original Netflix series, that tells the story of four women in Spain during the late 1920s until the late ’30s. These women start as employees of Spain’s first telephone company, and they all have one dream in common, show how capable and independent they can be. The late ’20s is still a rough time for women since they are just gaining recognition in society as respected employees and that is why working as an operator at the company was one of the few jobs available for them. Women were chosen to do this job only because they would be more polite and friendly when taking calls from gentlemen, and of course, they were paid a lower wage. In any case, it was a very important job for this period: it marked a difference in women’s history and the evolution of the communications since every single call had to go through their hands. 

The series is set in Spain in 1928 and goes all the way until 1938. Helena Sanchís, the costume designer did a splendid job and it is amazing the way in which research, passion, dedication, and talent can bring to life characters and time period by portraying this beautiful and yet bold world in its wardrobe. Costume design is not only about being accurate with silhouettes, fabrics and accessories form the period, but also about knowing each one of the characters and understanding their stories, goals, and dreams. The use of textures, colors, and lines are some of the elements used by Helena that made these costumes absolutely flawless. 

Lidia/Alba, the main character, is a very clever and mysterious woman. She is always trying to get something done without being caught, so her costumes are not only telling us about her personality but also trying to disguise it. One of her first costumes is a deep red knee-length day dress with a V neckline and fold-out collar with trim. She is also wearing a straw cloche hat with some flowers on top of it, and a brown leather purse, which absolutely enhances the entire look. Although she is wearing a typical day outfit as any of the other women did, the use of color is fundamental to show a little glimpse of her real personality. She is the only one wearing red among a group of women wearing pastels and earth tones.

“The use of color is a language itself that suggests different personalities. A person that wears deep red is not telling the same than a person that wears brown or gray” Helena Sanchís

Left to right: Carlota, Lidia/Alba, Marga. Cable Girls 2017. Season 1

One of the most important costumes in the series is the uniforms used by the employees. Operators had to put on their uniforms when arriving at the company every morning. This uniform design maintains the 20’s style and silhouette, and actually, the only difference to the original uniforms worn by operators is its color. Helena Sanchis chose a teal blue, with a dark blue collar, buttons, bow, and belt, while the original uniform was a marine blue with a white-collar. One of the main features of these uniforms is the dropped waistline, which, by the end of the decade was already around the hips. In spite of the knife pleats added to the side panels of the skirt, the straight silhouette is maintained perfectly, these pleats will only allow movement and comfort. While wearing the uniform, all characters are seen as equal, so their hairstyle and makeup is their main focus in order to express their personalities and desires. Lidia is always wearing subtle makeup, dark red lipstick, and mascara, and her dark hair always done up in curls.  

” It looks like a simple garment, but sometimes those are the ones that have more work. Luckily, photographs in the 20’s were very popular, so we have been able to look at archives and magazines to design the costumes. Regarding the colour, it is a very special blue. We wanted to reflect the vivid colours of this time opposed to the war that was about to come” -Helena Sanchís

Although day dresses were complex and fun, evening gowns were much more glamorous and exciting. The ’20s was definitely a fascinating decade full of delicate embroidery, beads, feathers, fringe, and lace. Cable Girls shows some spectacular outfits that embrace this glamour and make characters shine. Helena tells on an interview with Netflix that some of the evening dresses that appeared in the show are authentic 20’s dresses that they found in a small store in Rome. She said “when I saw the dresses tears came out from my eyes, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, they were absolutely beautiful… They were practically coming apart since they were extremely delicate. The fabric was so torn out, we spent a lot of time sewing all the beads back together and restoring the dresses again”.

Through the entire series, we see Lidia wearing some gorgeous dresses. For operators, attending company events, such as parties or dinners, was their moment to elevate their status and feel like they belonged. One of the most beautiful dresses she wears is a black tulle, knee-length embroidered dress with wide straps, a squared neckline, a shawl hanging from the back, and a nude foundation underneath. The accessories complimenting her costume fit perfectly and are absolutely accurate: long black gloves, necklace, and headband. This costume once again gives us the sense that she is hiding something but at the same time getting what she wants.

Later, we see her wearing a totally different evening dress, since this time she is meeting her future in-laws. She has a beige embroidered knee-length dress with flowers and delicate sequins lines. The dress has short kimono sleeves and a bateau neckline. Her accessories are a headband and a fur shawl. Once again, Helena has managed to express through her costume a nice, friendly, and beautiful woman who is hiding her past but embracing her future with power and determination. In Season 2, she attends the company’s New Year party, and the costume wraps up the other two previous looks all in one. She combines dark and light elements, and of course embroidery and jewelry to show the 20’s style. This dress is also knee-length, nude color, with a deep U square neckline and completely embroidered with silver beads forming spiral shapes. Through all these similar but different looks, Lidia seems delicate, classic, but at the same time bold and strong. 

Left to right: (1) Lidia/Alba S. 1 Ch. 1. (2) Lidia/Alba S. 2 Ch. 1. (3) Lidia/Alba S. 1 Ch. 5. Cable Girls 2018. (4) Flappers walking on the street. 

As the series continues, styles and trends evolve with the characters. In Season 3, which is set around the 1930s, Lidia gets married. In order to design her wedding dress Helena took something absolutely vital into account: the Great Depression consequences. During this time, all industries faced major changes, and this made wedding dress designs change too. By portraying an accurate simple but elegant style, without an excess of lace and embroidery, Lidia’s wedding dress is a success.

The dress is made in a lightweight velvet, with a high, draped bateau neckline creating a cape-like effect on the back, and long sleeves. It seems like it is bias-cut, which has just become popular thanks to Madeleine Vionnet. The dress has small embroidery detail on the shoulders, a voluminous veil attached to a white tiara, gloves, and earrings. The waistline is a bit high for the period, but in this case, it works perfectly fine since it enhances her figure and the high neckline is also elongating the silhouette (waistlines by this time were already beginning to rise up). The dress is floor-length, which probably was more a logistics decision, since there is going to be some action in this scene, and it keeps the straight silhouette the previous decade. Her makeup is subtle, with strong red lips, mascara, and nude eyeshadow. Lidia has always preferred to keep secrets and do her own things privately, she is a character full of mystery. Even at her wedding, when she is supposed to be the main focus point, she stays modest and classic. This design is as successful for the character as it is for the period. 

Left to right: (1) Lidia/Alba S. 3 Ch. 1. (2) Lidia/Alba S. 3 Ch. 1. Cable Girls 2018. (3) Photo from Getty Images – 1930’s wedding.

Finally, wrapping up a little bit of the amazing costumes that this series has given us, in the last seasons (late 1930’s) we get a new silhouette whose main feature creates a long and lean figure. The styles have transformed, as well as the characters, and this is perceived by the audience through costumes immediately. The principal characteristics that this period has are longer hemlines (below the knee), shirt-waist dresses, narrow skirts, higher waistlines, vertical lines, peplums, bishop and caplet sleeves, V necklines, ruffles, tucks, pleats, gathers, pockets, and belts.

By the end of the series, Lidia’s life has changed quite a bit since the beginning. Her social status clearly defines a different way of dressing, but regarding her personality, she has become a stronger woman with much clear principles and values. Lidia is now wearing tailored suits and blouses which make her look much more mature and confident. She is no longer hiding from society or avoiding her past, and the textures used in her last costumes represent this. No more satin or shine, but more use of mate and soft textures. However, the use of colors is similar to the ones used before, since this is a line that keeps the character connected within the entire show.

Even though the series has come to an end, we will forever remember these flawless costumes that made the show absolutely inspiring and outstanding. Thank you, Helena, for giving us the delight of living again this beautiful period, and for telling the story of such amazing and powerful characters through costume design.

Left to right: Marga, Angeles, Carlota, Lidia/Alba, Oscar. Cable Girls 2019. Season 4, 5 and 6

Bibliography: 

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