What Not to Wear: Shaming and Shopping

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article was not formatted correctly. Below is the correct version with the author’s original format.

by Greta Minsky

“We’re helping women find themselves . . . . The women really undergo an emotional transformation.  They go from being really in a rut to wanting to go out and conquer the world.”

Is this speaker talking about self-defense classes, or assertiveness training, or maybe seventies-style consciousness-raising?  Not even close.  Clinton Kelly is talking here about a popular reality television makeover show, What Not to Wear.[1] Kelly, along with Stacy London, hosts the U.S. version of a series that started here in 2003 and is still going strong.  The original U. K. series ran on the BBC from 2001 to 2007 and aired in twenty-two countries around the world, including Poland, Peru, and the United Arab Emirates.

So what’s the worldwide appeal of the show?  It promises its subjects (mostly, but not exclusively, women) that happiness can be theirs, through professional and romantic fulfillment, if they just learn to change the way they dress.   Nothing wrong with happiness, is there?  What’s not to like, then, about What Not to Wear?  How about the fact that it co-opts feminist rhetoric to promote an anti-feminist agenda?  And why now?  What twenty-first century anxieties does the show play to?  Is it part of the cloudy and contradictory concept of “postfeminist” culture?

Let’s first look at the program’s format. The producers pick a subject for each one-hour show from the many women nominated by friends and relatives as candidates in desperate need of fashion advice.  Once a prospective subject is chosen, hidden camera crews follow her secretly for two weeks, documenting her many bad clothing choices, as she runs errands, picks up her kids from school, or otherwise goes upon her unsuspecting way.

Then the woman is ambushed:  Stacy and Clinton show up at the woman’s workplace or at what she thinks will be a night out with friends or family.  The two experts screen the hidden camera footage for the woman and her companions.  The video shows the subject walking around in what Stacy and Clinton have deemed Really Bad Wardrobe Decisions; the hosts then offer the woman a chance at a transformation which includes a $5,000 debit card to fund a week of clothes shopping in Manhattan, during which time she will be tutored in the rules of fashion success.

Next up is the parading of the woman’s wardrobe.  Stacy and Clinton raid the subject’s closet and flourish articles of clothing for the camera; they declare each item hideous before ceremoniously throwing it in a garbage can (despite the subject’s protests, which are always soundly squelched).  Then the hosts instruct the woman to put on a few favorite ensembles from her wardrobe and present herself in front of a “360 degree” mirror.  Stacy and Clinton comment on the ugliness of each outfit or on its unsuitability for the woman’s particular body type.  Now that her bad judgment and bad taste have been established, the subject is ready to learn to remake her wardrobe and her life through shopping.

This ritual humiliation and ridicule, with some stereotyping thrown in, are at the core of the show.  Stacy and Clinton’s comments seem to classify each subject as one of five specific types of fashion-failure, with an accompanying moral judgment implied or stated.  Her clothing is mocked as either too sexy (you look like a whore and you look lower-class), too drab (you’re lazy, dull, and unwomanly), too youthful (you’re desperately trying to look like a teenager and that’s laughable at your age), too matronly (you’re uncomfortable with your sexuality and afraid to engage with life) or, for Goth/ punk/ boho types, too deviant (you’re delusional and unemployable).  Stacy and Clinton almost always proclaim that the woman’s style is unprofessional and inappropriate for her current or prospective job (that is, not suitable for her present or desired class position), as well as unappealing to any actual or hoped-for romantic partner.  All of her clothing is labeled as unthinkably wrong.

Estelle Freedman, in her history of feminism, No Turning Back, suggests that feminists ask “who defines and who controls the female body.”[2] In What Not to Wear, “experts” define the body and teach the subjects to accept and claim that definition, which commodifies and objectifies their bodies.  What is new, and particularly creepy, about WNTW‘s twenty-first century media message, is how feminist language is used to dress up a consumption-glorifying anti-feminism.

Take a look at excerpts from the show on The Discovery Channel’s website.  In the WNTW episode “Getting Kathy in Line, “[3] we meet Kathy, a makeover subject identified as a thirty-nine year old administrative assistant and single mother.  The episode title is certainly a clue to the show’s attitude toward its subjects: the women are unruly children who need adult supervision.  Halfway through the show, Stacy lays out the reasons why Kathy should commit to the new outfit that the hosts have chosen for her.  It’s a short-sleeved maroon jersey dress, with a fitted bodice (to emphasize what Stacy calls Kathy’s “nice bust line . . . we want to play that up”[4]), a high waistline (to disguise a larger midsection), and an A-line skirt (to camouflage larger hips): a more expensive-looking, more formal choice than the jeans and t-shirts Kathy had been wearing, a more “middle-management” style.

Stacy explains, “It’s a look that says I respect myself and I’m confident.”[5] Kathy eventually accepts this interpretation of what her clothing signifies.  She comments on the reaction of her friends to her new clothes:  “Just seeing how happy they were for me, how excited . . . it empowered me.”[6] Self-respect, confidence, empowerment:  who knew that they come from better accessories?  Kathy learns the lesson well:  her sense of personal worth should be contingent on the approval of others. She is now a more valuable individual because she has repented of her past sins against style.  (There is a whiff of other public rites of confession, penitence, and salvation in WNTW.  Revival meetings, Stalinist show trials, and Chinese Cultural Revolution forced re-education sessions provide models for the go-and-sin-no-more atmosphere.)

Kathy buys into Stacy and Clinton’s rules; she changes her style of dress, adopting a more corporate mode.  Instead of t-shirts and jeans, she buys dresses with jackets.  Instead of workboots, she goes for high heels.  Moving up the class ladder through clothing is a persistent, though unstated, WNTW theme. Stacy and Clinton don’t shake their fingers in a subject’s face and say, “You’re going to be fired” or “You’ll never be promoted looking like that,” but the implication is clear.  In times of economic insecurity, you’d better look like you belong in your job classification.  That’s part of the context that fuels WNTW‘s popularity.  The deep disquiet we have as workers today, our fear of layoffs and a tight job market, all of that means that WNTW resonates for us, the viewers.  How to Keep Your Job is the subtext:  upgrade your status and increase your employability with the tips WNTW offers.

One more way that WNTW reaches us relates back to the humiliation scenario.  We watch, fascinated, as women are taunted, twitted, and ridiculed about how they present themselves.  We may feel a strange combination of schadenfreude and horror:  some sense of relief that we are not up there on the screen, coupled with a shaky sense of superiority that our clothing is most likely not as bad as the worst outfits shown.  But our involvement with the spectacle on display also speaks to the increasing obsession we share about the female body.   In a 2007 article, Rosalind Gill anatomized this fascination as a feature of a new cultural take on women:

One of the most striking aspects of postfeminist media culture is its obsessional preoccupation with the body. In a shift from earlier representational practices it appears that femininity is defined as a bodily property rather than (say) a social structural or psychological one. Instead of caring or nurturing or motherhood being regarded as central to femininity . . . in today’s media it is possession of a ‘sexy body’ that is presented as women’s key (if not sole) source of identity. The body is presented simultaneously as women’s source of power and as always already unruly and requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodeling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever narrower judgments of female attractiveness.[7] (Underlining hers).

Stacy and Clinton, and by implication, your boss and the rest of society, judge your attractiveness, not your creativity or competence or dependability or work ethic, when evaluating your suitability for a job.  (The postfeminist part is still a little murky to me; does postfeminism say that involvement with and celebration of clothing, makeup, glamour, and fashion is not just okay for independent, self-assured women, but that it is positive and somehow a part of valuing oneself?  If a woman chose to use fashion as a form of self-expression, it would be different from having fashion imposed upon her; the evidence that coercion in this area is a thing of the past, though, seems lacking to me.)

WNTW also sparks feminist discussion about the class basis of many of the mean-spirited criticisms directed at the subjects.  Angela McRobbie has written about how makeover shows

actively generate and legitimise forms of class antagonism particularly between women in a way which would have been socially unacceptable until recently. That is, the rules of television were such that public humiliation of their failure to adhere to middle-class standards in speech or appearance would have been considered offensive, discriminatory or prejudicial.[8]

Stacy and Clinton’s comments to Kathy bear this out; Stacy dismisses a pair of workboots, while holding them up at a disdainful arm’s length:  “You’re not in construction.  There’s no need for you to wear these.”[9] Clinton comments on a shirt that only just comes down to Kathy’s waist level: “We have a little rule about the belly button showing at work:  it’s only acceptable if you work at Hooters.”[10] It’s clear: working in construction or at a place like Hooters is Just Not Done; it’s shameful, as well as hopelessly working-class.  At one point in Kathy’s “re-education,” she is reduced to tears by the supposedly jovial sneering she gets from Stacy and Clinton.

Psychotherapist Carole Munter’s insight about the socialization of women applies to the lessons of WNTW:  “We’re taught to shape our bodies and not the world.”[11] According to WNTW, the body is an object that a smart woman disguises and markets through informed, strategic, extensive work.  Success, in the form of increased power over one’s fate, comes through consumerism of a particular kind:  not shopping as recreation, not an escape into the fantasy world that clothing ads promise to women, but disciplined, logical consumption.  Constructing an acceptable appearance requires money, thought, and rigor.

In Better Living through Reality TV, cultural theorists Laurie Ouellette and James Hay say that “reality TV presents work on the self as a prerequisite for personal and professional success.”[12] Ouellette and Hay suggest that the current form of capitalism requires workers who can police and re-invent themselves to meet the needs of corporate life.  The two authors discuss how reality TV reflects and promotes Foucault’s notion that citizens are expected to be “enterprising in the pursuit of their own empowerment and well-being.”[13] But for women, in particular, empowerment of this type is a kind of cultural schizophrenia: commodify yourself in order to realize yourself. ▢

Greta Minsky has a history of bad wardrobe decisions.  Her style is perhaps best characterized as “sensible femme with occasional butch tendencies.” Greta works at Sarah Lawrence College in the Theatre Program and is happily part of the first-year cohort in SLC’s Women’s History Graduate Program.


[1] Clinton Kelly, as quoted by Robin Leach, “Clinton Kelly of  ‘What Not to Wear’ and Miss America,” Las Vegas Sun, January 28, 2010, at http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/jan/28/emwhat-not-wearem-and-miss-americas-clinton-kelly/

[2] Estelle Freedman, No Turning Back:  The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 205.

[3] http//tlc.discovery.com/videos/what-not-to-wear-season 6-fast-forwards/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Rosalind Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (2007), pp. 147-166, accessed at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/2449/, page 6.

[8] Angela McRobbie, “Notes on ‘What Not to Wear’ and Post-Feminist Symbolic Violence,” in Feminism after Bourdieu, ed. Lisa Adkins and Beverly Skeggs,  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005) quoted by Irmi Karl, “Class Observations: ‘Intimate’ Technologies and the Poetics of Reality TV,”  Fast Capitalism 2.2 (2007), http://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/2_2/karl.html

[9] http//tlc.discovery.com/videos/what-not-to-wear-season 6-fast-forwards/.

[10] http//tlc.discovery.com/videos/what-not-to-wear-season 6-fast-forwards/.

[11] Quoted in Freedman, 225.

[12] Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, Better Living through Reality TV: Television and Post-welfare Citizenship, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 101.

[13] Ibid, 12.

3 thoughts on “What Not to Wear: Shaming and Shopping

  1. This article seems to forget that these women that are picked almost always admit, themselves, that they dress the way they do due to self-conciousness, depression, fear, etc, etc. The show is not about the clothes – it’s about helping women who might not be this screwed up world’s view of perfect (body, color, age) love themselves and figure out how to find happiness in dressing themselves well. That’s not to say that clothing makes you happy; but, a happy confident person usually dresses in a way that says that they’re proud of themselves. Wearing sweat pants two sizes too large everyday because you love them is completely fine; but if you wear them because you think you’re ugly or not worth looking at there is a problem. This show attempts to help women see that and reclaim their beauty and self worth from a world that is constantly telling them they’re not good enough! Besides, it’s just clothing. Don’t take it so seriously!

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