In praise of assistant style in film and TV

From Glass Onion and The White Lotus to Ab Fab and The Devil Wears Prada, look past the boss and you’ll find the assistant has a starring style role of their own – good or bad.

By definition, assistants in film and TV are the supporting character – not the star. They play second fiddle to whichever alpha nightmare they happen to work for, and they often wear black. But take another look at your watchlist recently, and you’ll find the assistant is having a main character moment. In an era where chronicling (and mocking) the super-rich is very much a thing, the support staff are coming out into the limelight and finally getting their flowers.

Netflix’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is the latest example. Apart from the excellent cameo from a certain magazine, the most stylish thing in it isn’t Kate Hudson as the washed up It Girl Birdie swirling around in Sienna Miller’s 2005 castoffs, or Janelle Monae’s larping as Sheryl Sandberg wannabe Andi. These characters look – probably on purpose – comically bad. Instead, it’s Jessica Henwick as Birdie’s fame-wary assistant Peg that looks the business. She’s low-key in a simple slipdress, Teva sandals, Casio watch and barely concealed expression of pure cringe.

Then there is, of course, Haley Lu Richardson’s Portia of The White Lotus, assistant to Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya. This is a character who despaired of too much discourse” online but whose style dominated fashion feeds for the majority of the time the show was aired. From a perplexing choice of a knitted duck sweater vest and shorts for an Italian summer to printed club-ready co-ords and heels to go out-out in Palermo, she certainly, as Tanya might have said, had some cute things. Whether her style was cheugy or a representation of Gen Z’s chaos agent approach to fashion, it was certainly a hot topic, leaving Tanya’s attempts to channel Monica Vitti for dust.

Next up is Babylon, where the assistant is actually the main character. Damien Chazelle’s new film, out this month, follows the story of Diego Calva’s Manny Torres, an assistant to Brad Pitt’s actor Jack Conrad in 1920s Hollywood (Calva, a relative unknown, even prepared for the role by spending time as Pitt’s assistant). Wearing a tux and a trench coat very well, he more than manages to keep up with Pitt’s Jack, who looks a little past it in chunky knits.

Of course, these assistants join the previous fictional support staff propping up horrible bosses for the last couple of decades. See Jess Jordan, Kendall Roy’s assistant on Succession, played by Juliana Canfield. She has an army of stans on social media calling for an episode from her perspective, thanks to her impeccable side eye and corporate-core outfits. Honorary mention to mockumentary sitcom W1As hapless Will. He made the very hybrid-work friendly combo of a hoodie over a smart shirt happen way back in 2017.

The Noughties were bountiful with assistants who are main characters or scene stealers, too. Ugly Betty is a whole series dedicated to a non fashion” person (Betty Suarez, played by America Ferreira) becoming an assistant at a fashion magazine. The irony, of course, is that her thrift-store-in-the-dark dressing is very Alessandro-era Gucci – and far more high fashion than hum-drum shift dresses worn by the alpha fashion editors. Or there’s Anne Hathaway as Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada, a once frizzy-haired assistant in that bargain bin cerulean jumper, who, complete with montage, becomes the groomed, glossy type that Vogue (sorry, Runway”) might consider sending to Paris Fashion Week.

But the OG assistant sits a little further back in the TV archives: Jane Horrocks’ Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous. She didn’t blend into the background. Instead, she thought nothing of wearing a fluffy bra and white leggings or a Napoleon costume to the office, to work for Jennifer Saunders’ PR executive, Edina Monsoon. In a show where the fashion content is high (see: the snakeskin suit worn by Joanna Lumley’s Patsy Stone and Edina’s Lacroix, darling), Bubble might not be the best assistant (she’s famously hopeless with faces, names and people”) but when it comes to assistant style, she wins every time. White Lotus season three, and Portia, take note.

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