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· Culture Notes: What Not To Wear

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Culture Notes: What Not To Wear
by Dorothy

I'm fascinated by fashion and beauty; I'm also fascinated by the way we write and talk about fashion and beauty. Despite the enormous size of the fashion and beauty industries, there is something very intimate about our personal experiences with them, so much so that I myself sometimes feel exposed writing about what I like (one reason I blog under a pseudonym).

There are, of course, a number of reality shows devoted to fashion, from the addictive trainwreck America's Next Top Model and the creepy Ten Years Younger to the slightly (I said slightly!) less silly Project Runway. But What Not To Wear, the American version, is one of the few exclusively about the buying and wearing of clothes, and is also hugely successful.

What Not To Wear's gimmick is re-dressing people who, almost invariably, are terrible dressers; it gets repetitive, since said terrible dressers usually fall into one of three categories: skanky, frumpy, or aggressively weird. In each episode, Stacy and Clinton, the hosts, "surprise" the terrible dresser in a location where his or her family and friends just happen to be hanging out, force him or her to watch videos of his or her sartorial sins ("we've been secretly filming you for the past two weeks"), and make snarky comments that are just this side of hurtful. (In the British series I'm pretty sure they go to the other side of hurtful.) The terrible dresser is given $5,000 for a new wardrobe, a list of "rules" to follow when selecting that wardrobe, a new haircut, a makeup consultation, and two days to shop, usually in Manhattan.

And I'll say, the terrible dressers usually do end up looking better at the end of the week; they have clothes that fit (I assume TLC pays for tailoring) and generally look well put together in a J. Crew model sort of a way. There's definitely a What Not To Wear style: preppy, heavy on neutrals and jewel tones, made up in shimmery neutrals, with multiple brightly coloured accessories to add "a pop of colour" (an overused phrase on WNTW).

Above, an example of a successful WNTW makeover. The new haircut is much better, the clothing is flattering; none of this is terribly innovative or exciting, but she looks nice, tidy, put together. The makeup is appropriate, enhancing without drawing attention to itself (a touch more powder might help, but that's a quibble).

I'm not giving up my undereye concealer.

In a way, I'm reluctant to criticize this style. It's useful, it's digestible, it's far better than dressing oneself in cheap acrylic-knit crap or wearing pyjamas in public. Its sameness is almost its point; for many activities, the wisest thing to do is to look tidily upper-middle-class, not high-maintenance, not eccentric, not difficult. One could even say that knowing how to dress appropriately is really a form of etiquette and not strictly fashion. (For example, when I look askance at people who wear bright colours to funerals, my objection is in no way aesthetic.) Stacy and Clinton like to emphasize that people get better jobs, attract more dates, etc., when made over; I think there's probably some truth to this. Hell, if I look at my own closet I see that I tend to follow What Not To Wear "rules"; I own lots of fitted sweaters, dark jeans, pencil skirts, jewel-toned tops. I may dream of spending my life in silk dresses, three-piece suits and vintage heels, but I don't actually do it.

At the same time, What Not To Wear style is very one-size-fits-all, and by its nature, it's rushed, approximate. WNTW guests can't take the time to find the one perfect bag or pair of shoes that they'll use day in, day out, for years to come. Many of them can't be persuaded that neutrals aren't inherently boring, hence WNTW's "pop of colour" aesthetic. (Personally, I think wearing magenta shoes with a neutral pantsuit to "add interest" is more than a little precious.) $5,000 seems like a lot of money to spend on clothes, but it's not enough to spend willy-nilly without regard to quality, especially if you need winterwear and supportive undergarments and there won't be another $5,000 available next year. When Stacy and Clinton send their guests back home with a bag of $40 shoes, one wonders how long they'll hold up.

That may be my own major issue with What Not To Wear: its occasional, perplexing impracticality. I recall a couple of guests from Toronto who were strongly discouraged from buying flat winter boots. Toronto has mild weather by Canadian standards, but even so, winter boots are not optional in Toronto; it snows, it hails, it gets icy, and even if you can afford to take taxis wherever you go, you can't always get one. I haven't been to New England in the winter, but I expect it's similar, if not worse. I regard my own flat, practical winter boots with the enthusiasm of a child contemplating Brussels sprouts, but I still wear them everywhere in the winter because it beats salt-staining my high heels or cracking my ankles. A show that exists to explain Clothing 101 to ordinary folks shouldn't gloss over the fact that ordinary folks frequently need to do unglamorous things.

Also, the idea of wearing white pumps with a black pinstriped suit makes me a bit ill. Well, it does.

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3/15/2009 [6]

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