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Reflections on a Decade of 'What Not To Wear'
Max Mosher questions the appeal of TV's style experts

After a decade on the air, this week TLC announced that this season of What Not To Wear will be its last. I guess we can all sleep soundly now, no longer afraid that Clinton Kelly and Stacy London are filming our sweat pants-wrapped behinds as we walk to the grocery store. As with many a successful American series, WNTW was based on a popular British show. It was hosted by two sour ladies who often made people cry. Unsurprisingly, they had to add some sugar to the US version. Whereas Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine would coolly evaluate women’s body types, elevating how to flatter different shapes almost to a science, Clinton and Stacy acted as though they were everyone’s old friend who could get away with saying what nobody else could.

The show was ridiculously formulaic. If you saw one episode, you really did see them all. The hosts would ambush an allegedly unsuspecting woman and inform her that her nearest and dearest thought she dressed badly. (The show did feature some men, but the only episodes I remember were women.) She dresses so badly, in fact, that her friends and family felt that only the intervention of a reality TV show could make any difference. The woman would also find out she had been filmed going about her business for a week and would now have to watch the footage with Clinton and Stacy’s snarky commentary.

If that wasn’t enough, she would then have to fly the entire contents of her wardrobe to New York City only to have the hosts mock her clothes and throw them in a bin. This was usually the funniest part of the show because the two hosts indulged in their hammiest behavior. The victim’s reward for all this abuse was a credit card with an amount of money that never seemed to be enough for a real Manhattan shopping spree.

She then wanders listlessly through sponsored shops the producers most likely made her go into. Perhaps out of natural rebelliousness, she ignores Clinton and Stacey’s advice until they are forced to ambush her yet again. A new hairstyle and a makeover follow and when the new and improved woman appears Clinton and Stacy act like beaming parents, so proud of how far she’s come. The show ends with a schmaltzy coming home scene in which the woman’s backstabbing friends and family are overjoyed to see her new clothes. During the credits would be a montage of her posing like a catalogue model in front of her city’s local sights. The show has given her a powerful gift, but will she live up to it?

I’m mocking it now, but I was a What Not To Wear viewer back in the day. During university, when it was difficult to follow shows regularly, a late night WNTW episode here and there was a welcome stress reliever. The hosts had enough charm to pull through episodes with a less than entertaining victim. The series relied on Clinton in particular to encourage reluctant women with his understanding voice and pleasant Irish face. (I just found out reading interviews that he was in magazine publishing before getting the call from TLC. Perhaps jobs as TV personalities await us all as the publishing world implodes.)

Years ago, I wrote a blog post about What Not To Wear and how it made me realize that, by wearing quirky, eye-catching clothes, I may in fact have been hiding in plain sight, masking insecurity with funny outfits. If I’m wearing a fluorescent coloured shirt you’ll be less likely to notice my body.

Now I’m a bit less charitable towards the show. The hosts never acknowledged that the rules they enforced were just as personal and idiosyncratic as the victim’s own styles. No one shared Stacy’s passion for ugly, pointy-toed shoes. They would take women of different ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds and force them to comply to a WASP-y style they deemed “classic”–lots of cardigans and camisoles.

My weariness also comes from the realization that we’ve suffered a decade’s worth of TV “experts.” Every night there’s a different program where strangers swoop in and inform us that we don’t know how dress, how to cook, how to clean, how to manage our finances, how to raise our kids, how to plan our weddings. Most often, the “experts” are British women and gay men. The bossy advice probably sounds nicest coming from these two groups. I realize it speaks to our society’s loss of rules in general and our anxiety that we can make it to adulthood barely able to cope, but we can’t turn to TV busy bodies for everything.

But the biggest issue with What Not To Wear stems from something my friend Megan innocently said years ago.   

“What’s weird about the show,” she noted, “is that none of the women on it start off thinking they have bad taste. They think they look all right. It’s only after Clinton and Stacy gang up on them, ridicule all their clothes, and instill doubt in them that they can pick out their own outfits that they come around to dressing the new way. That’s kind of how brainwashing works.”

In hindsight, I have respect for the one Southern woman who flat out refused to let them cut her hair. Sticking to your guns with an entire TV production pushing you takes chutzpah.

It’d be nice to think we were moving past shows like What Not To Wear, replacing it’s one-size-fits-all approach with a one that encourages personal style. But I doubt it. WNTW may end, but it’s influence on how TV presents fashion will continue. And perhaps people like the idea of rules. Shows like WNTW confirm our suspicion that looking good isn’t all about personal style and confidence. They tell us that there are guidelines to follow, and that you should avoid certain styles like you would gluten or carbohydrates. We actually kind of like a bossy pants, especially if the pants are pleated.


Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

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