As with the cosmetic ads of last century, the appeal of these new shows is aspirational. The promise of the makeover story is that no one has to stay stuck in his or place, that we don’t have to settle for how we look today–we can change it all tomorrow. People can move up the ladder of life with a little determination and effort (and some cash to purchase whatever product is being sold).
The latest spin on the fashion makeover is “What Not to Wear” on The Learning Channel, the same station that gave us “Trading Spaces.” What makes this show different is that the person being made over hasn’t volunteered for the transformation–the subject is virtually forced into it, presumably for his or her own good. Each episode begins like this: A badly-dressed person, usually a woman, is recommended by friends, family, or co-workers to the network. With the help of hidden cameras, the unsuspecting naif is then surreptiously videotaped for two weeks as she runs around in flannel shirts and frumpy jeans, after which the show’s hosts watch the videos, murmur their horror and plan an intervention. Together, the hosts descend upon their “victim” (as they call her) in some public place. When the cameras find this person, invariably sitting with the so-called friends who set her up, the hosts tell her that friends and family have selected her for a makeover on “What Not to Wear.” When the victim hears the title of the show, she usually drops her head in shame and humiliation, until she hears that she will be given $5,000 to remake her wardrobe in New York City.
The hosts set strict rules for their victims: No pants that taper at the ankle, cashmere cashmere cashmere, think of brown as a neutral color, etc. For each person there is the tailored snide comment: The slut, for example, will be told not to show “it all,” to keep some of “it” hidden, and not to go so tight, while the opposite rules usually apply for the housewife. Humiliated, the ill-dressed one then makes her or his way into the city for one day of shopping alone and one day of shopping with the hosts, armed with a fist full of cash. The camera pans up to big name stores–Barneys, Saks, Searle–as the victim is escorted in and out of fancy shops and the hosts coo in her ear about how much better she’s looking already, just holding a $500 leather jacket. Following her shopping spree, the victim gets a cut-n-color and professional makeup application, after which she travels back to home for the traditional “reveal” moment before friends and family. In a video diary, the originally feisty fashion victim relays how she has come to realize the error of her old ways.
One can’t watch the show without thinking that the “victims” really do benefit from a fashion makeover overall, and it’s fun to watch it happen. Yet there’s something fundamentally mean about the show, which is no surprise given its origins. Like so many other shows with a caustic attitude, from “The Weakest Link” to “Big Brother” and “American Idol,” “What Not To Wear” is a British import. And like these other programs, it seems to be catching fire with the American public. “What Not To Wear” drew an average of 2.7 million viewers for each of its first 10 episodes, despite being tucked away at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights. The success of the show has prompted TLC to pick up the program for a second season, filming 45 new episodes and bumping it into a better time slot. Don’t blame the producers for its brand of acerbic humor. The success of “What Not To Wear” indicates it is effectively tapping into changes in American culture. One is the spread of snobbery–once a characteristic relatively confined to the upper middle classes–down the income scale. Apparently, it is no longer enough to aspire to style; one must now look down on those without it. The other trend on which the show draws is the prevalent notion that any mild personality quirk can be deemed a condition requiring professional treatment. No longer a matter of personality or personal choice, idiosyncrasies from mild social phobia to excessive pessimism are now seen as abnormal tendencies, requiring quasi-medical intervention.
The signature conceit of “What Not To Wear” is that the “victims,” because they haven’t volunteered for this ordeal, must be shocked into realizing that they do, in fact, require a radical change. Before she can spend her money, the victim is taken to the New York City studio, and forced to revisit her mistakes in a session inside a “360-degree mirror” that “doesn’t lie.” This is the moment where the unstylish victim is forced to try on all the awful clothes she brought to New York, while the hosts exclaim that they can’t imagine why anyone would buy such schlock. Outfits are tried on and made fun of until it’s time for their ritual burning. The approach is styled rather like a drug intervention.
Take, for example, the story of Ann, a 42 year-old stay-at-home mom and volunteer worker who, the Web site tells us, is living the “American dream.” Save one important thing: She hasn’t bought clothes in years. She wears hand-me-down cords and big shapeless sweaters, one of which is adorned with large stars of David across the back. On her video diary, a voiceover intones, “Before Ann’s transition can take place, she’s got to be shocked into submission.” Ann’s shock is that she can’t imagine spending good money–the $5K–on herself.” Can’t I just take people out to eat with it,” she asks, plaintively, “or on vacation?” By the end of Ann’s episode, the formerly dowdy Jersey girl is certainly more stylish. Now she has sleek, fitted trench coats, miniskirts, knee-high boots, and Cosabella thong underwear to hide any panty-lines. Her hair is coiffed and gelled, rather than bushy and unmanageable. In her video diary Ann tells us, “I’ve come so far in just a few days. I realize I’d been shortchanging myself.” And one of the giddy hosts exclaims, “See, soccer moms can be sexy!”
Another “What Not To Wear” “victim” is Jen, a college student from Miami, Fla. with platinum blond waist-length hair and a body she isn’t afraid to flaunt. The hosts ambushed Jen in a restaurant, embarrassing her with cries of “Jennifer! Jennifer in a tube top!” as they rushed past the other diners. At first resisting the hosts’ attempts to remake her according to the tastes of upscale New Yorkers, Jen was ornery on her trips to some of the city’s fanciest boutiques, complaining to her cameraman and flaunting the clothes she bought that missed the mark. But Jen eventually fell into line, finally consenting to give up her sparkly white lipstick, hot pants, and leopard-print halter dresses, but she balked at cutting back her mane. From the standpoint of the hosts and producers of “What Not To Wear,” the only correct way for a woman to dress is in sleek lines that demurely hint at sexuality, a sensibility which unites an upscale, upper-class New York aesthetic with a middle-class sense of propriety and decency–both of which are viciously scornful of low-class “trailer trash” or “slutty” apparel.
The show’s hosts reserve their cruelest mockery for bourgeois “victims” who don’t dress their class. Larry, the only man who’s been ambushed thus far, is a successful businessman who dresses in awful clothes from “thrift stores.” In another episode Lilli, a law student is told she dresses “like a homeless person.” Both are remade to reflect their careers. Christine, whom one host pronounces a “Hobbit” in her before videos, complains that she’s a back-room secretary whom no one sees–so why bother with a makeover? The hosts are horrified. Obviously, if only she dressed better, Christine could advance her career. Again and again victims are chided for going straight to the sale racks.
Somehow I don’t always find it uplifting to see the formerly resistant fashion victim submit to the hosts’ dictates in the end. In her video diary, the voiceover tells us that, before, Ann was a “frumpy suburban mom” (ouch!) who just needed someone to tell her that she is beautiful. Though she’s convincingly remade to look glamorous and sophisticated, I wonder just what was so terribly wrong with the frumpy original Ann, whose identity was more defined by her incredible philanthropic gestures–she trains seeing-eye dogs, among other things, it’s hard to go more heart-of-gold than that–than by her wardrobe. What exactly was misguided about her quirky choices and baggy sweaters, besides being out of sync with the dictates of Madison Avenue fashionistas–especially when Ann is not even a Manhattanite herself? The old Ann’s preference for spending money on charity instead of fashion is at least as noble a choice as any. Even her husband seems a bit disconcerted by the new style-conscious Ann. Though he set her up, he admits to being somewhat concerned that she’s become someone he can’t compete with. “I’m going to have to upgrade my lifestyle,” he says, with a worried laugh, upon her return.
Given the high price of her new winter wardrobe, it’s not clear whether she’ll keep up her new image come summer season. She and her husband seem like a sweet couple; for their sake, I’m rooting for Ann to keep some of her old baggy T-shirts and save her spare cash for a much-needed vacation.