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In what is arguably the most pivotal scene in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Meryl Streep — as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham — makes a monumental decision. Though there are quite literally a number of male voices in her ear, Kay’s alone in a room on the phone. The question: Should the paper go ahead and publish further information from the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon administration had already barred the New York Times from doing so? All the while, she's wearing the most spectacular golden-hued caftan you’ve ever seen. It shimmers without being ostentatious, lightly billowing as she walks. Down the front and back there’s a subtle brocade pattern; the sleeves have jeweled accents. It is one of 2017’s best costuming decisions, perfectly suiting the moment in the film, the character, and the huge star who dons it.
Almost immediately after critics began seeing The Post, the caftan became a subject of discussion. “Whomever described Meryl’s gold caftan in THE POST as the green dress in ATONEMENT of caftans, by god, no one has ever been more right,” Decider writer Joe Reid tweeted. Screencrush's Britt Hayes declared: “Meryl Streep’s magnificent caftan in The Post makes her look like the angel from Nancy Meyers’ christmas tree came to life to teach us a lesson about the first amendment.” Even before the movie's official release, it has become loungewear of legend.
Spielberg’s film operates as a political statement about freedom of the press, but also a portrait of Graham in a state of transition. Handed the reins of the Post after her husband committed suicide, she’s largely respected by the men around her but also perceived as being out of her depth. She’s come to internalize some of those doubts about her qualifications. In an early scene where she's meeting with board members about the paper’s public offering, she can't manage to articulate her well-rehearsed speech. She’s more comfortable in the traditional role of the hostess, but there are even strains on that. Her dear friend Robert McNamara is responsible for the Pentagon Papers, and she must call into question her relationships with these figures.
The movie has no reason to go into detail about Graham’s connections to the fashion world, but it is a compelling side note to her story, even if she downplayed her interest in those matters in her autobiography, Personal History. Writing about the changes in her life once she became publisher, she explains: “High fashion was certainly new to me.” Her friends, she explains, floated the idea of working with Halston, who had moved from designing hats to dresses. “I did try him, and our relationship was a great success: for fourteen years, until he went out of business, he made my clothes: I felt I looked better than I ever had.” Her Post obituary also noted her collaborations with Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass. But this was the woman for whom Truman Capote held the famous Black and White Ball, one of the most memorably stylish events in American history. After it took place, Diana Vreeland asked Graham to put back on her dress (a Balmain copied by Bergdorf Goodman) for a Cecil Beaton photoshoot.
The caftan on screen, however, isn't a vintage designer piece. Rather, it's an invention of costume designer Ann Roth, who made it from a fabric she found in Edison, New Jersey. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Roth seems almost surprised at how taken people have been with the item. “I got a text from an unknown person saying the caftan was the greatest thing they’d ever seen,” she said, “but caftans aren’t that odd, they are everywhere.”
But this caftan does stand out. In most of the film, Streep as Kay is outfitted in suits and form-hugging dresses, which — despite some unavoidable ’70s whimsy — are for the most part straightforward business attire, full of constricting lines. The caftan, on the other hand, is like a sea around her body. It looks like it would be heaven to wear: the ultimate in comfortable luxury. And indeed, Kay expects to be in her element donning it, hosting a genial retirement party. But while she’s making her goodbye speech, she’s interrupted. Suddenly the outfit is at odds with the circumstances, and Streep looks uncomfortable. She’s not in the stuffy battle armor that she typically must wear to fit in a male workplace; She’s in something soft and feminine. The camera begins to hover above her and circle almost like a vulture. It zooms in on her face as she nervously finds her resolve to declare, “Let's go.”
By putting Kay in the caftan, Roth and Spielberg defy the notion that a female leader must look hard or dispose of her femininity. Instead, she looks like a Grecian goddess, and wields the power of one. That’s even more evident in a later scene when she reaffirms her choice to six men, almost all in suits. They stand behind her in a tableau of various reactions, while she’s in the foreground, back turned to them.
The costuming works on a meta level too, one that slyly references the real woman wearing it. There’s something inherently Streepian about the garment. The actress is a menocore queen, who shows up to red carpets looking elegant but understated with a hint of a cool schoolteacher vibe. Something this lush but a little bit passé directly plays into the image we have of Streep as someone who is both motherly and fierce. She also looks like an Oscar. And, well, she’s familiar with that guy.