When is a skirt not just a skirt?
When Ally McBeal wears it.
Then it symbolizes many things: Feminism run amok. Bad fashion. Unbridled sexuality. Anorexia.
Her minis -- which have crept up an inch this season -- take center stage on "Ally McBeal" on Monday (Fox, 9 p.m.) when the title character's penchant for thigh-high style lands her in contempt of court.
But it's not just Ally's apparel that gets fans, critics and TV judges talking. The very existence of this strange single lawyer -- and her offbeat world of unisex bathrooms, dancing babies and colleagues nicknamed Biscuit -- seems to stimulate, aggravate, entertain and inspire.
Time magazine recently put her on the cover as the anti-Susan B. Anthony. The tabloids continually chase down rumors that the show's star, Calista Flockhart, has an eating disorder (she denies it). And the show -- whether you love it or hate it -- makes for engaging water-cooler banter.
"We can all look at Ally McBeal and see her as some kind of icon," says Jane Pratt, editor-in-chief of Jane magazine, which is geared to the same twentysomething audience. "Women find themselves emulating her, feeling OK wearing shorter skirts to the office because of her. She's freeing women up."
Or, as Towson lawyer Maureen Rowland puts it: "She represents this generation the way Richie Cunningham [of 'Happy Days'] represented the '50s."
Rowland, 35, who wears short skirts to court, says: "It's time for women to be able to be feminine and aggressive and successful at what they do. It's important to crash that stereotype that all women do is get married and have kids. ... She's single, supporting herself, making her own decisions, asking, 'Should I be looking to get married?' ... 'Do I want to or don't I want to have children?' "
Ally's ruminations often lead to extremes. The now-infamous dancing baby, for example, mysteriously appeared as she grappled with her biological clock. But such eccentricities are what set her -- and the show -- apart.
"That sense of absurdity is expressed in the clothes she wears," says Matt Roush, senior critic for TV Guide. "There's a comic aspect to her dressing. Her clothes are so skimpy and so unprofessional."
And yet she's not simply dressing for laughs.
"There's the idealization of a career woman and the neurosis of a total wreck," he says. "What she wears is an emblem of that conflict in her personality."
Roush believes Monday's show could be a watershed, as Ally's fashion identity is questioned at a time when the firm's new lawyer, Nelle Porter, already has left Ally feeling woeful and inferior.
"They've raised the ante by raising her hemlines," Roush says.
Devotees saw this coming. Ally's roommate Renee told her several episodes ago: "You know, the men at the courthouse -- clerks and lawyers and some of the judges even -- they talk about your short skirts. ... Isn't that why you wear them?"
"No," Ally replied. "I want them to talk about my legs."
But in real life, when people talk about Flockhart's legs -- or other body parts -- they often use words like scrawny, malnourished and skinny to describe them. The actress, who's 5-foot-5 1/2 and size 2, has had to fend off accusations that she's anorexic. Her explanation of her ultra-thin figure: She has a fast metabolism.
But even though the waiflike character looks good in microminis, it's a mistake to wear them to court, says veteran Baltimore lawyer Pamela J. White.
"Short skirts and how we react to them is connected to how we deal with gender problems in the workplace," says White, who heads the employment law division of Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver. "If Ally's strategy is to distract the judge from her client's case, then maybe it's appropriate."
But other viewers caution against looking for too much social commentary in the show.
"It's not trying to be realistic. ... It's trying to be entertaining," says Ariana Wright, a 29-year-old lawyer in Rockville.
"She making fun of the whole attempt to portray professional women as trying to be like men," she says. "The character is rebelling against the idea of having to look a certain way or act a certain way to represent a feminist or enlightened professional female."
Wright predicts that Ally's hiked-up skirts won't help the character's rocky romantic life.
"No guy I've ever met has been attracted to Ally McBeal," she says. "Men aren't attracted to women that thin or flighty."
Pub Date: 10/15/98