No, I’m not talking about the get-ups of the folks gathered at the summer tent revival held behind the used car lot. I’m talking about the phenomenon of The Learning Channel’s What Not to Wear. (Full disclosure: I am one of the faithful.)
In case you’ve been living under a rock or don’t get cable, What Not to Wear (based on a British show of the same name) is an hour-long “reality show” in which one of the fashion-fallen among us is secretly nominated by a concerned loved one, filmed surreptitiously for two weeks, then accosted by the show’s two hosts and fashion experts, Clinton Kelly and Stacy London. In exchange for a $5,000 shopping spree, the nominee must agree to surrender her old wardrobe and submit to a litany of fashion rules set by London and Kelly.
Behind the show’s long-running success (the US version has been on the air since 2003) is a formula as old as story itself, a pattern that includes the elements of any well-told story, as well as the one ingredient essential to any great story: redemption.
The True Quest
The protagonist of each What Not to Wear narrative is a reluctant heroine facing numerous obstacles in what superficially appears to be a rather shallow quest: to spend $5,000 on a new wardrobe that adheres to the new style rules. As with every quest, antagonists abound: the person who nominated the subject for the show (a friend, co-worker, or family member); the show’s benevolent but stern hosts London and Kelly; and the scissors-wielding and lipstick-bearing hair and make-up artists responsible for the final touches in the heroine’s transformation.
In any great story, however, the real quest turns out to be something altogether different from the ostensible one, something deeper and far more significant. In the Arthurian legends, for example, the quest for the Holy Grail is actually a quest for kinship in the face of all that threatens the community of the Round Table; in Great Expectations, Pip’s quest to become a gentleman according to his false definition becomes instead a quest to become a true gentleman; in Fight Club, the unnamed narrator’s quest to overcome depression and insomnia is really a quest for a unified sense of self in a depersonalized, commodified society. You get the idea. Likewise, in every episode of What Not to Wear, the true quest for the heroine always turns out to be much more than the merely sartorial.
In each segment, the central conflict ultimately is not with the show’s hosts, the conspiratorial nominator, or even the subject’s requisite battle with her (or his, but usually her) own physical imperfections, be they great or small. Rather, the true struggle is always the inner one. In episode after episode, the subject’s refusal to dress appropriately or attractively (or both) is rooted deep in the psyche and not in the surface-level external circumstances, be these financial distress, work challenges, parental responsibilities, or other personal difficulties.
The documentary style of the show includes snippets of the subject’s thoughts at each stage of the makeover, and these invariably move through the same emotional arc: from nervous anticipation, to annoyance with London and Kelly and doubt over the new “rules,” to the inevitable breakthrough—that moment when the proselyte confronts (often tearfully) her real issue, be it low self-esteem, self-loathing, or the fear of growing up and accepting a real woman’s body. The battle against the body always turns out to be merely a cover for the battle against inner demons.
The following are typical of the battles faced on episodes of TLC’s What Not to Wear:
• Bailey is a 32-year-old who “recently lost 60 pounds but still hasn’t accepted her new body.”
• Teresa “never felt beautiful” and “chose comfort over style, with sack dresses and oversized tops.”
• Disa “was in a mid-life style crisis” and had “been looking for the fountain of youth in her tween daughter’s closet, often wearing bright-colored jumpers, striped leggings and silly hats” as a walking fashion “playground.”
• Tamara is “a single mom who knew only one word when it came to style: sexy. Her wardrobe went from unflattering and clingy at work to skin tight and almost uncovered at night!”
• Lexa is “a 30-year-old Red Cross employee” and “one of the biggest challenges London and Kelly ever faced. Her ‘librarian meets French maid’ style had gotten her written up at work.”
The “after” state of Lexa—achieved, according to the website, once “London and Kelly helped her overcome her abrasive and defensive attitude and achieve a true life change”—exemplifies the total transformation that typifies each show. And “total” refers not simply to the addition of hair and makeup improvements to the new wardrobe, but rather to an inner, as well as outer, change.
Of course, every good story has a significant theme. And the show’s theme—that clothes matter—is also what makes the show work. For whatever else they might be or represent, clothes serve as a constant reminder of humanity’s need, as explained in the Judeo-Christian tradition, arising out of the Fall, to have our sin “covered.” We see this in what Genesis relates as God’s first act in response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
Clothes, in covering us, symbolize the greater “covering” provided by the Incarnate Christ, in the Christian view. Thus, regeneration is incarnational. In What Not to Wear, this sacramental view of clothing is implicit in the dramatic changes wrought in the subject inwardly as she undergoes the external transformation. The (literal) material reflects the spiritual.
In addressing both the outward sign and the inward state that sensible sign reflects, What Not to Wear confronts—perhaps unwittingly—the false dualism between the spiritual and the physical, which characterizes modernity. Given this reunion of the material and spiritual that forms the entire premise of the show, it is not surprising that the show’s narrative structure parallels that of religious conversion.
Steps to Conversion
As always, the first step toward redemption is recognition of one’s fallenness. On What Not to Wear this recognition of one’s crimes of fashion begins with a surprise appearance by London and Kelly, who confront the style sinner with the damning footage taken of her in secret over the preceding two weeks. During this encounter, the subject is surrounded, intervention style, by the nominator and other concerned parties.
Once the nominee submits, usually reluctantly, to the rules of the show and is whisked off to NYC under the care of London and Kelly, she faces an even more grueling confrontation: the infamous 360-degree mirror. Surrounded by mirrors, she views herself from every angle, clothed in the favorite outfits of her choice, the failures of which are mercilessly pointed out by London and Kelly’s hellfire and brimstone approach to fashion foibles. Their brutal honesty (along with generous doses of delicious sarcasm) is the most controversial part of the show; it’s what makes most people love it or hate it (for the record, I love it!). As in most stories of redemption, recognition of the need for change tends to come slowly rather than quickly, and the well-coutured London and Kelly can’t be blamed for their zeal in evangelizing the style heathens.
Once she has broken through her denial, and her old wardrobe has been symbolically trashed (the clothes are actually donated to charity), the novice is catechized on the new rules that are to govern her two-day shopping spree (and, ostensibly, the rest of her life). As stern as these commandments might seem, it is clear from watching numerous episodes that London and Kelly develop custom rules for each woman based not only on what will be physically flattering but also on what fits her personality, taste, and lifestyle. This is no one-size-fits-all approach (with perhaps the single exception of their fetish for pointy-toed shoes), but rather a tailor-made approach for each catechumen, one based on her uniqueness as a whole person.
Generally, it is not until the second day of the shopping spree that true repentance begins to emerge (as much the result of sheer physical and emotional exhaustion as anything else), usually with a bit more intervention from London and Kelly. Once the shopping is finished and the $5,000 is spent (with a lot of help from London and Kelly), the final steps of conversion take place under the care of the hair stylist and makeup artist.
Final Step & Follow-Up
The climax of each show is the Big Reveal at the end. Before offering a sometimes-tearful goodbye to London and Kelly and returning home, the convert appears before them in a trinity of outfits for three types of occasions. At this point, the conversion is dramatically evident. Redemption has occurred: The female Peter Pan has grown up; the harried mother has taken time for herself; the sleazy strumpet has acquired some class; or the angry punk-rocker has embraced her softer side.
The convert is now ready to go home for the final step in her regeneration: the baptism by which she emerges as a new creature before family and friends at a gala held in her in honor. There, before the great cloud of witnesses made possible by cable television, hugs abound, tears flow, and loved ones share before the camera their joy at witnessing the rebirth.
In its first years, the show ended at this point. But just as religious revivalists have come to understand that follow-up is as important as the altar call, so has What Not to Wear added updates to the end of the show, displaying the perseverance of the fashion saint in embracing, yes, her new look, but more importantly, her new sense of self.
Even the most frivolous forms of entertainment teach something. What Not to Wear demonstrates that true regeneration involves body and soul. Only materialists or Gnostics would disagree. •
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