Monday, March 28, 2011

By Request: An Opinion on What Not to Wear

Technically, this request was directed at Jess. But I have stolen the topic for myself! (Cue evil laugh.)

Reader Anya has written an excellent post on the limitations of the TLC show, What Not to Wear. To very briefly summarize, the show steamrolls over guests' sartorial preferences in favor of one model of appropriate wear.

In fact, there are numerous problems with the show, starting with its setup. Guests apply to the show by ... being betrayed by their friends and family. It's clearly an upsetting process, given how many of them are driven to tears at some point during the show. Their possessions are manhandled and discarded, and they are harangued pretty much throughout the show. It's all very mean-spirited.

But the problem Anya has identified -- its dedication to the suppression of individuality -- is the most disturbing aspect of the show. The What Not to Wear style is so limited it can only be accurately described as a uniform. I find the name of the show misleading, really, because the set of allowable styles of clothing is far smaller than the set of disallowed clothing.

Unfortunately, their attitude is not at all uncommon. Seems like every time I log into Facebook, some friend or friend of a friend is engaged in a diatribe against what they deem to be bad fashion. I'm a contrarian, so I kind of enjoy seeing many of my own stylistic choices lambasted (you'll have to pry my sleeveless turtlenecks from my cold, dead body) but it makes me sad to think that some folk might be dissuaded from wearing a garment that they love.

And this attitude overlaps significantly with body-snarking. I would love to never again hear the phrase, "You have to look like X to wear Y." No, you don't. Wear whatever the hell you want. Bodies are varied, and that variation should be celebrated. You are not, by being born, contractually obligated to disguise your unique set of lumps and bumps under a set of sanctioned articles of clothing. Muffin-tops are fine. Leggings are fine. Uggs are fine. Sweater vests are fine. Cellulite is fine. Horizontal stripes are fine. Visible panty lines are fine. And I have seen every one of these look fabulous. (I remember reading an article about how Elizabeth Taylor totally rocked the VPL, and would love to share it with you, but can't find it since the internet became inundated with her obituaries.)

So I would recommend ditching the advice of the What Not to Wear hosts and their ilk in favor of something different. A few suggestions for the ladies (sorry, I'm not a great source for men's fashion):


  1. I think it's also worth noting that some of us have styles that change completely based on context. If the WNTW people came for me, they would find a really broad range of "fashion" "options." And they would pry my ripped up tights and my eyeliner out of my cold, dead hands.

  2. Thank-you! I think you brought up a good point with how they handle the "guests" clothes, especially the ones they tend to love the most, by berating them completely. "Hey! Being a bully is cool for us because we're "experts" and on TV, which makes us better than all of you!" ugh. Gross.

  3. There's also no universal fashion sense. I suppose WNtW could be defended as helping people fit their wardrobes to what the hosts of WNtW think is fashionable at the time of shooting. Of course, as you say, that erases the wide diversity and joy of fashion tastes and opportunities. I recall a recent(-ish) episode of Project Runway where Michael Kors berated a contestant for making their model's butt look big by saying, "no woman in the world wants to look like she has a big butt." I wanted to show him a slide show of contemporary fashions from around the world where women want to enhance their posteriors (not that this can't be problematic, too).

    I love fashion, but the fashion world leaves much to be desired. (Really, you can replace fashion with an X of your choice.)

  4. Anya: Exactly. It's bullying people into conformity, and it's WAY too into gender identity. "Women" dress one way and "men" dress another.

    Andrew: YES. Fashion becomes joyless, not a way to express oneself. And statements like that happen all the time in Project Runway. Tim Gunn, who I love more than my luggage, has said things like "All women want to look long and lean." O rly? News to me. There is probably not a single thing on ceilingcat's green earth that ALL women want.

    PS: It's not fair that Althea, my husband, and my SIL all know you and I don't. Uncool. Come to Gville so we can hang out.

  5. Hah! At least, I humbly suggest that you friend each other on Facebook :D

    @Andrew: Thanks for calling out Michael Kors on that bit of short-sightedness. Even within a fashion culture people's preferences vary. I happen to consider my rear end to be one of my best features, and will definitely emphasize its size and shape when I'm going for a sexy look. My apologies to anyone who didn't want to know that ...

  6. @Jess I know your husband?! It's Bill! And Katie is your SIL. Small world.

    As a big fan of Tim Gunn, I appreciate his pedagogical approach on Guide to Style in that he talks about what different clothes do to a particular woman -- of course, he shunts women towards a common direction.

    I would love a show hosted by Tim where he teaches people who want to learn how to think about and develop their own fashion. It would be all about how proportion and line affect visual interpretation with examples of how to do different things to different effect. The students would then be free to apply the concepts how they choose. It would be less "never wear horizontal stripes" and more "horizontal stripes can be used where you want to emphasize width."

  7. Another thing wrong with the show is that it teaches people be financially irresponsible. If I remember right, they give the guest $5k to buy about 4 outfits. This would be fine if it’s just a nice, one-time thing to do for someone. The problem is that they’re using it as a teaching tool to build a whole new wardrobe, after they’ve thrown out the guest’s affordable clothes. It really reinforces the idea that it’s okay to live outside of your budget.