What Not to Wear: The anthropologists' analysis

I read an intriguing paper, "From Rags to Riches, The Policing of Fashion and Identity" by Sherri Gibbings and Jessica Taylor, published in Vis à Vis: Explorations in Anthropology (Vol. 10, No, 1, 2010). Two anthropologists weigh in on the implications of makeover TV shows, specifically the now-defunct "What Not to Wear".

First, the true confession: I enjoyed WNTW. Even though we have no TV, I'd watch it at the gym or look for YouTube segments. 


Diana's reveal outfit
The hosts' denigration of the makeover subject's "before" taste and ecstatic response to her reformation was stagecraft, and though the women looked oddly genericized at the reveal party, WNTW dished up good gooey pop culture.

Gibbings and Taylor view that the show is really about the Foucaultian concept of governmentality, defined as "a deliberate activity that shapes our conduct by working through our desires, aspirations, interests and beliefs...".

In layman's terms, Stacey and Clinton 'splain it all to you, so you are not a clueless deviant dresser.

Stacy and Clinton also convinced the woman (nominated for the project by appalled family or colleagues) that conforming to a middle-class standard of dress would result in career, romantic and spiritual elevation. If you dress right, your world will twinkle with potential and pleasure.

The authors write:"The goal of the show is thus to inform the participants and viewers about the rules of judgment, but it also teaches them the effects: the pleasure they experience when they dress right. It illustrates the pleasant new forms of recognition that come with the improved style of dress."  

They also say: "In WNTW, market rationality moves into the sphere of self-transformation when WNTW strives to make individuals efficient and competitive in the heterosexual market of relationships and the cut-throat job market though wearing the 'right' clothes. The solution to women's problems (identified as those of self-esteem) becomes the idea that women need to take responsibility for their lives through dressing."     

With that last line, my feminist heart sank. In WNTW's mirrored dressing room, had I been persuaded that womens' self-esteem dangles from a hang tag? 

"I feel so great in this!" is proffered as a prime reason for buying by many bloggers, including me. But we are influenced to buy that impression of 'greatness'. 


The sweater
As the Amanda Priestly character in "The Devil Wears Prada" says to an intern, "You think this (the fashion industry) has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and select...that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.  

But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean...and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff." 

WNTW makeovers delivered a cloned, InStyle look with little grit, wildness or quirk left in the mix. I liked punky Jen's '80s Ramones tee and Mayim Bialik's Niagara Falls one. But then, I'd find myself nodding in agreement: Tristen, duck nails, remember?

Makeovers are also make-alikes. I don't find that wholly reprehensible; conformity has its purpose. Few of us would go to work in, say, red fake-fur chaps and a hat made of discarded cigarette packs. 

But it's well worth pausing to think about the erasure of gender, race and class that the makeover programs promote. 

Photo: The Sartorialist
That's why I cannot help but smile when I see a woman in something else: a vintage plaid coat, a wild curly topknot, an insouciant hat, a shot of arresting colour. I most enjoy the idiosyncratic  touch absent from WNTW and makeover segments on shows like Rachel Ray.

The complete paper is available here; follow instructions on that page to download.


17 comments

Madame Là-bas said...

Makeover shows do provide some guidelines and let us see the possibilities. I do admire (in a funny sort of way) women who "do their own thing" when it comes to dressing. I, however, am sitting in Edinburgh airport with my grey Eileen Fisher pants, cashmere v-neck and scarf. Not having to think too much about my travel attire makes the day easier!

LPC said...

Style is complex enough that there are bound to be ways to a) abuse it b) have it revolutionize the world:).

I just thought that WNTW, much as I enjoyed Stacy and Clinton, they made everybody look so dang chipper. No irony, no "stricte" to use the wonderful term to which you introduced me.

Indigo Dragonfly said...

Thank you for this. I often feel that makeover shows, while providing some guidelines, often simply erase individual personalities.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have such mixed feelings about the whole business of "makeovers"! On the one hand, I have seen Stacy & Clinton encourage women drained by bad luck and body-image insecurities to look at, attend to, and admire themselves. I liked the way they refused to linger on defects, pointing out to women who had become paralyzed by negativity that "Everybody has stuff to work around." On the other hand, I've sometimes thought, "Wait--she looked better, quirkier, more Herself, before. Now she looks like someone from Woman's Day magazine."

C.

Anonymous said...

I was a fan of WNTW too! I thought their basic style "rules" were good but I wondered if the subjects really "got" it. Did they take the ideas away with them and use them to create their own style? I hoped so, but..... Cathy Wong

lagatta à montréal said...

I'd only seen some of the original UK series. Trinny and Susanna were quite snarky, and I thought a lot of the "improved" clothes were garish.

One thing I can't abide about those shows is that they all want to iron out curly hair.

I've downloaded the academic article, and will read it with pleasure when I have a moment.

Marilyn Leslie said...

I loved WNTW. I looked it at it as a weekly episode of Cinderella.
Every week a woman would decide to let go of her old self and be transformed by new clothes, new haircut and new make-up. Whether or not those changes were internalised by each woman varied from week to week. Many of the women had forgotten what it meant to care for themselves. Some times they wept because when they saw their transformation they could not believe that they looked that good.

Mardel said...


I enjoyed Stacy and Clinton, and thought they often made good points but the final results were often so mass-market bland that I usually felt a bit disappointed in the end. Sometimes I wished some of the character that had been evident in the beginning had survived to the end; often it had not.

Anonymous said...

I watch the show, and sometimes they really do save someone from a "stripper" look.
But a lot of their color combinations just don't' look good to me.

Susan said...

I don't watch TV so I've never seen this program, but can imagine what it is like. I think individuality is a great thing, but understand that if someone is truly unkempt and clueless what to do about it, a makeover could be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Great post, thanks. I watched WNTW occasionally, until one day when I saw Stacy with black hair and gray streaks (deliberate) and Clinton wearing a baby blue argyle sweater vest. People who live in glass houses LOL...

We all have good fashion days and "bad" fashion days. To me the real issue is work-related outfits - work attire should help, not hurt, your chance of advancement on the job - and the style is different for every job. Thanks -

Anonymous said...

Anon at 10.40am, I believe that Stacy's hair streak is the natural result of how it grew back after a psoriasis tar treatment on her scalp in her teens. I liked her 'In style' book because in it she spoke very personally about the struggles of having 'the wrong body', or at least one that feels like it. My daughter has eczema and at times all she can see is her eczema, not her beautiful self underneath it. Stacy seems motivated by a genuine desire to enable people to take charge of their assets and make the most of them, and minimise the bits one feels uneasy about/trapped in/limited by.

Clinton on the other hand... I read a book by him on my Kindle and was glad I'd only paid cents for it, as I was disturbed by the snide misogyny emanating from most if it, a real loathing of women. He perhaps is more in the business for the glitz and glamour and fame of TV, has less of a personal vocation to empower and liberate women from unhelpful self-perceptions. Just my take on it, no idea if my perception is any way correct.

Charlotte

Josephine Chicatanyage said...

I used to enjoy the UK version "Trinny and Suzanna" Two posh girls telling women what to wear and sorting out their wardrobes.
It was good if you took it with a pinch of salt.
I do think in some cases they helped women with their self confidence.

olaurieo said...

Although I often enjoyed the show, I was always kind of appalled by the idea of being the "victims" being secretly filmed, and then humiliated and mocked by the co-hosts in an effort to get them to agree to the makeover. But I loved their message of dressing for your "now" body and not the body you wish you had - and giving that body the care, love and attention it deserved even if it wasn't a size 4. But let's face it, if someone hands you $5000 for clothing, you (or the store you take the money to) are going to figure out something good!

Eleanorjane said...

Interesting stuff...

I think there's a line to be walked between presenting yourself to achieve goals (like finding a partner or a getting on in your job) and being true to your wishes and desires (if they conflict with the former).

Someone like Trystan at Corpgoth has an interesting take on it... http://corpgoth.blogspot.co.uk/

I'm lucky (perhaps) that my wishes and desires tend to be completely convential when it comes to presenting myself.

Tiina L said...

I love makeover shows, and the 'victims ' usually do look better afterwards. However, I would love to see a show where the starting point is to incorporate the 'victim's' personal style, lifestyle and needs... And where they would ditch high heels and high-maintenance hair routines.

Beth said...

I don't watch the shows, but admit to being guiltily intrigued when I see makeovers. Guilty because I think women carry enough shame about their bodies and clothes without the media adding to it. Ont he other hand, there's stuff we can all learn from the results of disregarding body types, coloration, face shape, figure strengths and weaknesses. Still, I'm mainly in favor of personal style and whatever gives women confidence and verve.