The other night when there was “nothing on TV,” and I was not yet ready to retire with a good book, I got caught up in a “What Not to Wear” marathon. If you are unfamiliar with the program, here’s the brief synopsis: Stacy (snarky well-dressed woman) and Clinton (slightly less snarky well-dressed gay man) receive a “tip” about a person, usually a woman, who dresses badly.These women are turned in by spouses, “friends” and family members, about which I will only say this: I would never ever forgive you. Never. Often, there is a back story: the woman has recently lost weight, gotten divorced, gotten married, gotten employed, gotten unemployed…you get the picture.
Stacy and Clinton go to the scene of the crime, as it were, surprise the Subject, and tell her they’ll give her $5,000.00 to spend on a new wardrobe in New York City if she’ll abide by their rules and get rid of her old clothes. There follows a sequence of intense humiliations, including the showing of the “secret footage” of the Subject, during which her clothes are mocked, the “three-way mirror” segment in which three of the Subjects favorite outfits are explained, and then mocked, and the “ritual tossing of the clothes” during which the contents of her closet are mocked and tossed into a giant trash can. The Subject is then told The Rules by which she is to dress herself, and goes to New York where she shops, at first helplessly, while Stacy and Clinton observe (and continue to mock) from a remote location. They then swoop in to assist her on site, after which she is able to select appropriate items of clothing, after which she has all of her hair cut off and straightened (they are very big on straightening) and makeup applied by the improbably effervescent Carmindy.
There is then a “reveal,” first for Clinton and Stacy, and then at a large gathering of family and friends back home. There is much gushing about “never having felt so beautiful and empowered,” followed by footage of the Subject twirling around the local flora in a series of A-line skirts and impeccable pant suits with two-inch, pointy kitten heels. As far I am able to discern, the woman continues to have recently lost weight, gotten divorced, gotten married, gotten employed, or gotten unemployed; she is just doing it in more expensive clothes selected based on advice from Clinton & Stacy.
I’d watched the show before, and never thought much about it; I cringe when they taunt the Subject in front of the three-way mirror, and usually think they’ve done a great job when I see the “reveal.” I have picked up the odd bit of useful information about, well, what to wear, and I envy the streak of white that so perfectly sets off Stacy London’s otherwise jet-black hair. Watching the odd episode here and there, the show is entertaining and maybe even inspirational when one is in Dressing Room Hell with the pants that grip the gut and bag at the knee, and the sheer floral blouse with a semi-attached opaque lining that grabs you like an octopus and makes it nearly impossible to get the thing off over your head after you discover that it makes you look precisely like your Aunt Betsy’s love seat. I do admire the admonition to select clothes with structure in order to shape one’s body and highlight the positive, and appreciate the fact that Clinton & Stacy encourage women to embrace whatever body they have at a given moment, rather than hiding it in baggy garments or stuffing it into obscenely tiny ones in a vain attempt to be something other than what they are.
This morning, as I threw on baggy athletic pants, a seven-year-old sweatshirt with some kind of fish on the front, and my son’s soccer slides, the full impact of a “What Not to Wear” marathon hit me in mid-grungification. I am the “before.” In the clothes that I put on in the morning to write, and work, and make soup, I am wearing exactly the kind of outfit that sends Stacy and Clinton into paroxysms of giggles when they show the “secret footage” of the Subject living her daily life. These wayward and hapless women go to work, have a drink with friends, and pick up their children from school wearing baggy sweats, obscenely tight crop tops and cutoffs, flowing Bohemian gypsy garments or cutesy sweaters with appliqued cats…I own nothing obscenely tight or adorably appliqued, but I am definitely implicated in the Baggy and Bohemian categories, depending on the season.
When I worked with live people, as recently as a year ago, I dressed nicely in skirts, jackets or sweaters, and shoes or boots with at least a little heel. Back in my full-on lawyer days, I had a fabulous wardrobe of dresses, jackets, skirts and very expensive (high-heeled) shoes. I spent my weekends grooming and petting my clothes and accessories; polishing shoes, making dry-cleaning runs, mending, replacing buttons and polishing jewelry. It is important to note that at that time, I did not have a husband, a child, or a house. Within a year of getting married and having a baby I grew out of the beautiful clothes, and acquired two dogs, one of whom ate every single expensive shoe, even the Stuart Weitzmans. Since I was working at home, and only part – time, it never made sense to me to replace an entire wardrobe of lawyer-wear so that I could stun and dazzle the kindergarten class when I went in to help them make terrariums out of soda bottles.
While they might have found my working wardrobe acceptable, I am certain that Stacy and Clinton would throw away most of my current collection. My standard at-home rotation includes a variety of athletic pants which are now too big, but which are very cozy; these are worn with T-shirts in the summer, and sweatshirts in the colder months. In the summer, I also wear long, flowing skirts with T-shirts and flip-flops. Since Stacy & Clinton ban all T-shirts and flip-flops, and prohibit the wearing of athletic clothing anywhere other than the gym, all of my easy standards would be tossed. I would lose all of my loose, flowing summer skirts, and all of the three-quarter sleeve T-shirts that I wear with them, as well as the gauzy tops that so neatly skim my un-toned midriff. My Sam’s soccer slides, my Ugg boots and my sneakers would be banned along with my beloved flip flops, even my very expensive Fit Flops.
My collection of knit shells and “dress” Ts would would not pass muster because they are not “structured,” and would probably be pitched in favor of something starchy and seamed, with darts to “nip me in at the smallest part of my waist.” (I believe this to be a fictional location, much like Narnia). Realistically, I would be left with my one pair of dark-rinse, trouser-cut jeans, about 27 black skirts of various materials, shapes and lengths, the black, knit St. John suit I got from my mother in law, and three very uncomfortable pairs of black heels. I might be willing to live with that in exchange for a wad-o-cash, but I would still have issues with the premise.
The most common complaint to rise from the souls of the Subjects is that they are “losing their identity” as their beloved clothes are replaced with a series of attractive, but anonymous jackets, trousers and blouses. Many of them do come out looking objectively “better” in the context of the contemporary standards of the masses, but this is often a matter of fit, rather than the superiority of the new style. If a woman is a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of gal, why can’t she just wear appropriately fitted versions of those items, and throw on a little a Polartec when the wind blows? If I am happy in my Bohemian summer drag, with my hair un-straightened and my flip-flops flapping, why should I have to dress like June Cleaver to run to the library before the fines kick in? If no one is following us with hidden cameras, and we know enough to put on a nice dress to go to a wedding or a cocktail party, who the hell cares if we wear our Led Zeppelin T shirt to pay the bills? And if someone does care, why don’t they have something better to do? (Unless they are Our Mother, in which case an entirely different set of standards applies).
The other common issue raised by the Fashion Novitiates is comfort. While I might be willing to give up the flip-flops for $5,000.00 and a trip to Manhattan (hell, I’d give up my liver for that) I cannot imagine converting to a life in which I had to “dress up” to go about my daily tasks. If I am going to get Sam off to school, write a blog post, do some lawyer work (at my dining room table), make turkey stock, vacuum the living room, make dinner and watch “House,” at what point do I need to be wearing tailored jeans and a fitted blouse? Do I throw on the adorable cropped jacket for peeling the carrots or checking Facebook? Will I feel any better, do better work, or become a little ray of sunshine for those around me if I am dressed better? My bet is that I would be itchy and squirmy, unable to carry the laundry up and down the stairs in my heels, spill stock on my fitted blouse and generally find myself distracted and limited at every turn. I can vividly imagine myself casting off my new outfit in the kitchen in an Incredible Hulk-like transformation, roaring (and possibly turning chartreuse) as I stomped off to hunt for my comfy clothes and my flat shoes.
I like to look nice, I really do, and I see some value in the aspirational makeover show. I do not think, however, that it is wise to work with the premise that a woman is empowered and liberated entirely by the cut of her jib, or her jacket. I do not want to see you at a funeral in a denim mini and a racer-back tank with visible bra straps, but otherwise, I would like you dressed in a way that makes you feel comfortable and capable, and for you to be empowered by your good brain and your loving heart, with clothing as nothing more than the cherry on top (of your straightened hair).