Sometimes habits lead to unintentional discoveries.

My past two semesters have been scheduled such that I never have class earlier than noon. For a lover of leisurely mornings, it has been a dream of sorts. I wake up around ten, shuffle into the kitchen, make myself a bowl of instant oatmeal, boil a cup of tea and amble downstairs to the living room. Then, I sit on the couch for approximately one to two hours, watching bad TV and slowly chewing my breakfast.

One of the shows that fall within this time slot is TLC’s “What Not to Wear.” For those not familiar with its concept, WNTW seeks to reform bad dressers.

There is a specific formula followed in each episode:

A Subject is nominated for the show by friends and family members.

The Subject arrives at a veiled social event.

The Subject overcomes the shock of discovering the true purpose of the occasion. (Shhh. No, Honey. I didn’t throw this huge dinner on a boat house for our 20th anniversary. It’s actually an intervention to talk about why you wear those high-waisted, corduroy pants.)

Subject is presented with $5,000 to shop.

The catch? If Subject accepts, his or her entire wardrobe will be thrown away.

The Subject will also be required to stand quietly in a 360 degree mirror while two Hosts pelt him or her with acerbic comments. (My two current favorites: “You look like a Grave Digger!” and “That dress is about as festive as a bout of diarrhea!”)

Personal shopping rules are given.

The Subject is turned loose – set to scour the stores of SoHo, clutter dressing rooms, and mutter conditioned responses like, “Embellishments are only tasteful in moderation” while fingering folded blouses.

In the end, the transformation yields its intended results. Participants very rarely resemble their former selves. And on the surface, it is a noticeable improvement; Subjects look more polished, and their loved ones greet them with gasps and moist eyes.

Yet, without fail, every time the show concludes I am left feeling uneasy.

But I may be alone in my reaction.

The sheer number of reinvention shows on the air today speaks to their wide popularity. So many similar spinoffs prove that there exists a large variety of ways by which we may alter our images. Of course, there are times when these changes result in a renewal of the inner, a transformation for the better. I am happy for the Mother of three who rediscovers a fervor – along with a figure – long since forgotten behind sweats and turtlenecks.

However, other (more common) cases concern me; cases like the twenty-something journalist from Minneapolis. Journalist Girl was told that her white Go Go boots and owl sweater would keep her from entering the adult world. As a result she was dressed in neutral cardigans and wide leg trousers. Or the case of the middle-aged teacher from Chicago, who managed his loud selection of pants and shirts with specific titles, doting on them with self-created color descriptions like “toasted mango” and “tulip yellow.” His multi-hued closet was replaced with khakis and soft pastels.

The strangest aspect of these metamorphoses is the fact that they completely override the intent of fashion.

I would be apt to argue that fashion doesn’t necessarily stem from trying to look socially appropriate or mutely flattering. Rather, fashion is more about saying something, anything – crazy, good, bad. Even high fashion, the trends found in the tattered piles of Vogue stacked on top of my toilet tank, emphasizes this point: Would I wear a Prada turban out bowling? Not likely. Would I throw on a Proenza Schouler jumpsuit before taking the dog for a walk? Probably not. Still, their lack of practicality does not detract from their right to be created and worn with gusto. The same goes for less expensive, less conventional inclinations. Sure, bird knits aren’t all the rage – but at least you are stating something about your personality by wearing them. (i.e. I am quirky. I support lesser-known animals. Come talk to me about it.)

There must be a more gradual step down the clothing rack. The very top tier welcomes caprice. The middle contains a code of acceptability that appears refined but lacks idiosyncrasy. A better show would be one that combined the two. If not, I predict a very blasé future. The Everymen/women of cable and beyond will wander about in fitted blazers and tailored denim. They will run errands, complete a 9 to 5, go to parties in which the conversation immediately dies shortly after one exclaims to another, “You look nice!”

Thanks, so do you.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Helen,

    Nice piece and astute observations. I also really enjoyed your last article about the tampon thief. Thanks for the enjoyable, though-provoking reads.

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