The hot librarian is a visual cliché that goes back long before I actually heard it described that way. It’s the image of a beautiful woman whose fashion sense is either Repressed or Dowdy. Nobody notices her — certainly not men — but if she’d just improve her style, that would change. The old movie cliché has the secretary remove her spectacles at which point her boss suddenly gasps “Why Miss Jones, when you take off your glasses — you’re beautiful!”
This stems partly from the fantasy that a beautiful woman who doesn’t dress to show she’s hot must be denying her own (probably very high) sex drive; just imagine if you were the man to let all that passion out! As linguist Deborah Tannen says, women’s clothing choices are never seen as just personal choices, they have to Mean Something.
It’s also that Hollywood’s beauty standards are quite simply nuts. The creators of America’s Sweethearts (2001), for instance, thought it completely plausible to cast someone as beautiful as Julia Roberts as Catherine Zeta-Jomes’ plain, frumpy sister who can’t get a date. I’m sorry, but no. If you buy into that thinking though, the idea you can uglify a beautiful woman just by putting her in glasses and her hair in a bun probably seems logical.
Usually it isn’t. Consider 2020’s WW 84 (and yes, that’s how the title appears on screen). When we meet Kristen Wig as brilliant archeologist Barbara Minerva she’s nerdy, awkward and obviously shy around guys, but it comes off charming. It certainly doesn’t offset how good-looking she is. Yet we’re supposed to believe not only are men oblivious to Barbara, she’s so unmemorable her boss can’t recall hiring her. Not a chance (not that it’s the film’s only problem).
It can be made to work though. One way is if it’s simply the way the woman chooses to dress. In 1973’s Invasion of the Bee Girls, Playboy centerfold Victoria Vetri plays a researcher who, in contrast to the transformed women of the title, doesn’t dress particularly sexy.The movie does not, however, pretend that Vetri isn’t sexy or that she needs to slip into something more comfortable before she can look good. It’s just her character’s fashion sense. As novelist Foz Meadows says, beautiful women don’t all dress the same, even though Hollywood often presents them as if they do). Some women will flaunt it if they got it, others will not, and different women will flaunt it in completely different ways.
Another method is to have the acting convey insecurity. As one of the teachers in The Faculty (1998), Famke Janssen first appears in spectacles and a rather unbecoming outfit. Famke Janssen dressed down is still a stunningly beautiful woman, but Janssen makes it work with her acting. She comes off shy, insecure and very socially awkward. When she tries confronting bad boy Zeke (Josh Hartnett) he flirts, mocks and teases; she’s completely unable to cope. After the mind-controlling alien takes her over she’s confident and sexually aggressive. She’s also dressed sexier but it’s the acting that makes it work (you can find a more detailed review on my own blog).
More of that, please.