TV

Sartorial: Olivia Benson

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Here was our first look at Detective Benson, 18 (!) years ago:

SVU Season One, Episode One, "Pilot" (NBC/Universal)

SVU Season One, Episode One, “Payback” (NBCUniversal)

The guy in the back entertains me so. Is he staring at the victim? The television cameras? The already obvious sexual tension between these two? Also, all the visible background extras are wearing shorts and short sleeves and I imagine our heroes are hot in their button downs and suit jackets!

Anyway, Olivia is wearing her a version of “uniform” but it’s not quite her style yet. It’s more stuffy, less feminine. In this image she is wearing pretty much the same thing her male partner (Elliot Stabler) is. Or, what women in Law & Order wear.

Law & Order (NBC/Universal)

Law & Order (NBCUniversal)

Collared button down mostly buttoned and a blazer. SVU is a spin-off, after all, and the original certainly had a style, and one they emulated at first.

SVU Season One Promotional Image (NBC/Universal)

SVU Season One Promotional Image (NBCUniversal)

The above first season promotional picture is much more Law & Order-y than later ones and Olivia is dressed like “one of the boys”  especially compared to Detective Jeffries (Fin’s precursor, in yellow).

But Olivia didn’t stay so buttoned up, and her signature style soon evolved:

Detective Olivia Benson (NBC/Universal)

Detective Olivia Benson (NBCUniversal)

Here’s how to dress like Olivia Benson:

  • Low-slung black slacks with belt (badge optional)
  • Top that hugs curves and adds a pop of color
  • Badass jacket
  • ‘Fearlessness’ necklace(s)

This look is her armor, her Avenger suit. SVU is all about empowering victims and Olivia embodies that. This style accentuates her womanhood but it’s not soft or quiet. It makes a statement. “I’m a woman and I’m powerful.” And, not but.

Olivia's Necklace (Joyful Heart Foundation)

Olivia’s Necklace (Joyful Heart Foundation)

The necklace is available from Mariska Hargitay’s foundation for survivors of sexual assault, which she founded in SVU‘s fifth year.

Olivia doesn’t always dress this way (at 397 appearances and counting we wouldn’t want her to!) but it’s her default.

SVU, Season 7 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 7 (NBCUniversal)

The Little Black Dress is many women’s ’empowered lady’ look.

SVU, Season 8 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 8 (NBCUniversal)

Olivia was undercover for a handful of episodes in Season 8 (while Mariska was having a baby) and I like how this blouse (reminiscent of the one in the pilot) plus sweater plus bangs is a softer look as she’s vulnerable here. Still rocking the necklace, though.

SVU, Season 14 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 14 (NBCUniversal)

A rare super casual Benson proving women are totally allowed to wear sweats and drink wine. And even hook up with old boyfriends.

SVU, Season 16 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 16 (NBCUniversal)

And when Olivia fostered and finally adopted Noah she showed us women can have both a career and a child — and they don’t need a marriage or a man to do it.

SVU, Season 15 and 18 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Seasons 15 and 18 (NBCUniversal)

Here she is in more official gear. Olivia has been promoted five times in the series, now Lieutenant and in charge of the Unit.

SVU, Season 17 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 17 (NBCUniversal)

I love the glasses, the super stylish nod to aging. Olivia achieved the most growth in her personal and professional lives after the age of 40. And that’s why I want SVU, with Mariska Hargitay at its heart, to go on forever. Olivia Benson flies in the face of society’s rules for women.

SVU, Season 16, Episode 7, "Chicago Crossover" - Season 2 Promotional Portrait (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 16, Episode 7, “Chicago Crossover” – Season 2 Promotional Portrait (NBCUniversal)

And she’s a template for ‘kickass law enforcement woman’ as evidenced by Chicago PD’s Erin Lindsay wearing the Olivia Benson circa SVU season two — in CPD‘s season two. Olivia mentors Erin (women supporting women is a beautiful thing and far too rare) and it really drives home that she’s been doing this a long time, she’s been through a lot, and she’s not just still standing, she’s still fighting, still winning, and living her whole life.

Now: SVU publishes promotional photoshoots each season and there’s nothing more fun than overanalyzing promo pics. Especially as there have been some truly amazing (and in certain cases truly hilarious) ones over the years.

SVU Season Two Promotional Image (NBC/Universal)

SVU Season Two Promotional Image (NBCUniversal)

I love this a lot. I am highly amused that Olivia is in pink and Elliot is in blue. Just in case you were confused! I mean, she did cut her hair (Olivia’s hair deserves it’s own post). I also like that Cragen — the authority — is the only one sporting white and Munch is wearing black on black with a deep red tie like the devil he is.

SVU, Season 8 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 8 (NBCUniversal)

Here they are dressed to match. Notably in blue, Elliot’s (male) power color. Her hair is super feminine here so we can still tell she’s a girl (/eyeroll). Despite their matchy clothes, and though faced toward each other, they seem at odds — there’s so much space between them and his crossed arms read defensive. Season 8 is full of turmoil, but also Bensler trying to hold it together and stay in sync so it’s actually a really smart pic.

SVU, Season 10 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 10 (NBCUniversal)

Mid-series the cast got big. Too big, really, but here they all are. Elliot is still wearing blue. Huang is adorable in his argyle. Olivia’s hair is stealing all the attention. I want ALL of Olivia’s clothes but especially the velvet jacket of indeterminate dark hue! But I include this picture to show that while Bensler are united back to back and center stage, Olivia is the real center and the clear focus. This is two years before Elliot disappears but it’s interesting to note the groundwork being laid.

SVU, Season 13 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 13 (NBCUniversal)

Which brings us to my favorite best-worst promo picture EVER. The series had to reboot after co-star Chris Meloni/partner Elliot Stabler’s sudden exit. They brought in two new characters to replace Elliot — a tough but damaged woman with a troubled past and a good hearted family man with a temper, where did they ever come up with it? — and introduced the new cast in this completely absurd but utterly amazing promo pic.

So. They’re the heroes so they are all in white. And surrounded by white. Maybe they are avenging angels? I don’t know but even that lamp is capital A Amazing. Plus white contrasts so well with blood red. Which is the only color in this photo — blood red blood, blood red wine (!), and blood red dominoes. Only Olivia and Fin have dominoes — Fin is showing off and Olivia is being coy and seriously what is going on???

Anyway, Fin is dressed in his style, albeit in uncharacteristic white. Cragen, Munch, and Amaro are also mostly sort of dressed the way they dress if, again, in all white as they never would be. But neither Amanda nor Olivia are wearing anything they would ever wear ever. Olivia also had this solo pic:

SVU, Season 13 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 13 (NBCUniversal)

To which I say: NOPE.

Don’t get me wrong, she looks amazing and I can imagine a world in which Olivia Benson would wear this, to some kind of event like the Police Ball or whatever. But as representative of Detective Benson of SVU? Hell no. She’s not even wearing her necklace.

Anyway, nothing tops that mess, but two years later they really tried.

SVU, Season 15 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 15 (NBCUniversal)

They replaced dominoes with chess!!!! I can’t, I love it so much. The feel of this is far more ‘detective procedural’ and while the soft lighting effect is a bit much I get the attempt to evoke a Noir aesthetic. If not for the dominoes, the chess might even be clever, but post-dominoes it’s a cry for help: “take us seriously please!”

Olivia’s LBD is 500,000 times better than the grey or white and Amanda is dressed appropriate to the character so ok. Now Fin is uncharacteristically dressed up, which is funny, and Barba is staid compared to his normal flair but it all works to the overall effect so I get it.

SVU, Season 17 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 17 (NBCUniversal)

They look a bit like a boy band but this is probably the best representation of these characters (the current cast). Fin and Rollins are wearing their attitude, Barba is dressed to the nines, Carisi is a straight shooter, and Olivia is front and center and in her uniform. They’re all in the same shades of ‘dark’ — with Barba taking over Elliot’s blue (he’s Liv’s new confidant, too) and Olivia, now the authority, sporting the only white.

And here’s the present:

SVU, Season 13 (NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 18 (NBCUniversal)

I like that Rollins and Fin continue to match, that Carisi dresses like Barba now that he’s also a lawyer, and that Olivia’s white has migrated to the forefront.

In conclusion, be yourself, unless you can be Olivia Benson.

SVU, Season 18, Episode 6 (Photo by Michael Parmelee/NBC/Universal)

SVU, Season 18, Episode 6 (Photo by Michael Parmelee/NBCUniversal)

Always be Olivia Benson.

Editor’s note: We’ll be launching a new podcast about this very show soon!

Anika Dane works at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is a writer of words. A dancer of dreams. A pop culture blogger. A feminist and a fashionista. A Social Justice Klingon Warrior Princess who fell in love with the Skywalker family when she was seven years old. Mother of girls. Secretly a dragon.

1 Comment

  1. Bri Ahearn

    October 26, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    Ah I love this because Olivia is such a great character, a template for many women in law/mystery solving/forensics today and you break down her look so nicely.

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