Clothing Personal work

Mindhunter and the expressiveness of Dress Code

During the Covid-19 lockdown, I’ve binged the first two seasons of Netflix’s Mindhunter, a historical drama about the birth of criminal pyschology and profiling during the late 1970s to 1980s. While there are many aspects of the show that captured my interest and inspired thinking long after I had finished the first two seasons, one particular detail of the show remained with me longer than the rest:
FBI Special Agent Bill Tench’s work uniform.

Bill Tench is one third of the trio of protagonists in the show, the other two being Ford Holden, the rookie with big new ideas, and Dr Wendy Carr, a university professor who brings a scientific outlook to the outdated mindset of the FBI. Tench rounds out the trio by being the unfailing pragmatist of the group. He has the most experience working for the FBI, and knows which hoops to jump through to get things done. He’s also worked for several years before the start of the show pursuing the kinds of criminals the show focuses on, who commit acts of extreme and often sexual violence. This gives Tench a world-weariness, the sense that he has lost any idealism he once had and is now merely going through the motions of his job until he meets Ford.

Compared to his more green partner Holden Ford, Bill Tench wears his uniform barely and begrudgingly. He prefers a militaristic crew cut hairstyle, and wears short sleeved shirts and side-zip boots. What I found to be one of Bill Tench’s most pronounced traits compared to the other two protagonists of the show is his all-around lack of concern for appearance. Paradoxically, this lack of concern with choosing how to express himself through his clothing speaks volumes about his personality to the viewer. Tench’s outlook on his career, weathered and battered by years of dealing with the chain of command and witnessing perverse murders, is reflected directly by his attire. So, to illustrate this point, I would like to compare Bill Tench and Ford Holden’s choice in work clothes.

Holden’s too-short tie and high waisted trousers give the appearance of ‘playing grown-up’ compared to Tench’s relaxed and routine ensemble.

In the image above, the two are wearing what are very similar outfits on first glance. But as with most outfits, the devil is in the details.

Holden is wearing a full greyscale ensemble, whereas Tench goes for navy. Navy is commonly used for both casual and formal tailoring, able to be dressed up or down when necessary, whereas Holden’s charcoal brings to mind serious, business-related contexts. Holden is also wearing high-waisted trousers, fastened with a belt, and a grey tie that is shorter than conventional wisdom would advise. A tie is usually adjusted to be just long enough to go past the waistline of your trousers, as shown by Tench on the right. His trench coat also appears to be slightly oversized, with his sleeves bunching as he keeps his hands in his pockets. Altogether, it becomes clear that Holden is wearing his suit without understanding how; the combination of the belted trousers, the short tie and baggy coat makes his clothes look too big for him, like a child wearing his father’s uniform. It makes him look small and out of his depth.

(Upon re-watching the first season of the show for the purpose of this article, I felt quite vindicated by Holden mentioning in the first episode that his dad had in fact bought his suit for him.)

Holden attaches some portion of his identity to his choice of uniform. When asked what he would wear if nobody was looking, he blithely replies “I’d wear my suit.” He nonetheless looks uncomfortable whenever wearing one, mirroring Holden’s naivete and inexperience working with the FBI, his headstrong nature, and inability to account for his own lack of knowledge. Holden is wearing what he understands to be an ‘adult’ uniform, but ends up making himself look insecure and dangerously innocent.

The waist and belt of Ford’s pants betray his weak understanding of how a suit should fit.

Agent Tench, on the other hand, couldn’t look more at ease if he tried. His trousers sport a more contemporary lower rise, with an accompanying colourful, yet tasteful, tie. The top button of his shirt is unfastened, and even his collars are notably softer in shape than Holden’s stiff points. His long coat also sports epaulets, complementing the military motif of his buzzcut. The lapels on his coat are much larger than Holden’s, which give the illusion of making his chest look larger. These combine to give Tench an air of experience and masculinity, exaggerated by the greenhorn on his left. It also makes Tench feel relaxed and loose; while he has no love for his uniform, he wears it perfectly and makes him seem at ease when wearing it.
The irony of this pairing is that while Holden willingly embraces wearing formal attire and Tench wears it out of obligation due to his job, Tench ends up looking far less awkward and uncomfortable than Holden. During one of many interview scenes featuring the two, I was struck by how naturally Tench pulls off his short-sleeved shirt compared to the uptight Holden.

The most telling aspect of Tench’s dress comes from a later episode of Season 2, where we see him arriving home after an FBI retreat and removing the same side-zip boots he has worn for the entire show. The side-zip boot both represents Tench’s preference towards catch-all clothing that suits any situation and his nature as the ‘middle ground’ stance that he takes compared to the temperaments of Wendy Carr and Ford.

“[Side-zip boots] straddle the line in terms of formality. Side-zips have clean, minimalist lines that make them feel a bit like Chelseas, but also front panels that make them reminiscent of roper boots. They’re more casual than derbies; more contemporary than chukkas; and more refined than work boots.”

Derek Guy

The choice to wear work boots belies his nature as the complacent cynic, always following along but never happy about it. Though Bill is not shy about his misgivings when it comes to the more bureaucratic aspects of the job, he still obeys dress code, albeit with the least amount of effort possible. He represents a similar stance in his temperament compared to Wendy Carr and Ford. He sympathises with Ford’s need to go against protocol, yet chastises him anyway; he agrees with Wendy’s insistence on a more scientific method, but understands that adhering to strict guidelines doesn’t work in practise. He is here stuck in an uncomfortable middle ground, the same as his commitment to casual-formal clothes.

While Mindhunter’s nature as a period piece focused on the FBI presents serious limits on how its costumes can be designed, the show does an excellent job of using subtle choices to reveal and reinforce the personalities of its characters. While the details I have pointed out seem banal and possibly even imperceptible when viewing the show, together they make each character feel that much more human.

By William

A third year Graphic Design & Illustration student currently studying at De Montfort University. I enjoy creating both physical and digital design and dabble in various creative outlets in my spare time.

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