What Not To Wear and Gender Conformity

As many people who know me or follow me on Twitter can attest to, I am a huge fan of the television show What Not To Wear. I have been watching this show since the beginning — back before they replaced the original male stylist or eliminated male contributors (note: the person they make over each episode a contributor).

What Not To Wear is a makeover show. Women who are deemed to have terrible fashion sense are nominated for the show, and the selected contributor is presented with a $5,000 gift card to be used on a new wardrobe after the stylists, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, have gone through the existing wardrobe, explained why it does not work for the contributor, and thrown out anything they don’t like. (Most of the “thrown out” clothes are actually donated to charity.) In addition to new clothes, the contributors get a new haircut and are shown how to use makeup.

I am not going to criticize the methodology of the show, at least not in this post. Rather, I would like to use the show as a starting point for some thoughts about the relationship between fashion and gender. This is a topic I have been mulling often lately, and the show seems to perfectly illustrate the issues and contradictions that I see in trying to reconcile an interest in fashion with an interest in supporting body, gender, and expression diversity.

The Good

I would like to start with aspects of the show’s philosophy that are positive and helpful.

  • The show advocates dressing the body you have now, rather than waiting for some weight target that you may or may not hit.
  • The show forces each contributor to face how they view their body and why (psychologically) they dress the way they do. Whatever body image issues are uncovered get examined and processed.
  • The show highlights the impact that one’s style has on self esteem. When people believe they look good, their self esteem is much higher than when they are just going through the motions.
  • The show frequently talks about the importance of taking some time for yourself, no matter how busy and crazy your life may be. This is something more of us would do well to remember. Taking time to dress in a way one feels good about is an element of taking time for yourself.
  • The concept of personal style. Stacy and Clinton are very adamant about helping the contributor express their unique style in a way that is put together, not making them look like everyone else.

The Problematic

On the other hand, there are some elements of the show that I find really problematic and perhaps insensitive depending on the contributor’s gender identity and/or expression.

  • The stylists seem to have a very gendered view of fashion. Men wear X, Women wear Y, women should “dress like women.” They frequently ask contributors to wear dresses or pointy-toed shoes who seem apprehensive about said items. What if a contributor were gender-nonconforming or outside the gender binary? Even if some of the contributors are cisgendered women who want to look feminine but don’t know how, there are many women who may be good candidates for the show, but who do not fit that description. I have seen episodes where they help a woman find a more “masculine” style, but that is rare.
  • Even the “already beautiful” contributors are told to wear makeup. “You need makeup to enhance your natural beauty.” If they are naturally beautiful, why do they need makeup at all?
  • Many of the concepts they advocate, and presumably the guidelines used by most in the fashion industry, are tailored toward helping everyone achieve the same thin, tall ideal. Pointy shoes make one look taller, floor-length skirts/dresses make one look shorter, pants that go straight down from the hip make one look thinner. So they are making people look “better” according to a standard that maybe shouldn’t be upheld as the standard (or maybe there shouldn’t be a standard at all.)

To summarize, I applaud the show’s attitudes toward loving your body, taking time for yourself, and developing your own style that makes you feel good. What I struggle with, both when I watch the show and more broadly in thinking about the fashion industry and media, are strictly gendered ideas of appropriate/well-fitting/good attire, the idea that makeup is always necessary (as opposed to something that some people enjoy wearing), and the idea that the so-called beauty standard is what the rest of us should base our wardrobes around.

I would love to see a fashion industry that encouraged everyone to find a style that worked for them, but not in a way that is unwelcoming of people who are gender-nonconforming or body-nonconforming. I am hopeful that we can create that culture, but I am still trying to figure out how to go about creating it.

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This entry was posted in Fashion, Feminism, Gender.

4 Responses to What Not To Wear and Gender Conformity

  1. Amadi says:

    Any remaining enjoyment I had of this show was killed when Clinton Kelly described, in USA Today, the women who came on the show: “frumps, sluts and freaks”.

    The overall idea that it’s incumbent upon women to be as aesthetically and visually pleasing as is possible at all times is very problematic too.

    • Jamie says:

      I had not seen that comment, that’s definitely inexcusable. I am still watching the show regularly, but I find it makes me happy and frustrated all at the same time. Fashion should be self-empowering (I see, I like, yay I’m awesome!), not empowering because others like you in it.

  2. liz says:

    Have you seen the Anne episode? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBcmskDBa7M&feature=related ) I am an intermittent watcher of WNTW but thought this one was really successful in establishing a modern look for a gay woman that was neither too butch nor too femme. (It helps that I absolutely love the haircut… she ends up looking incredibly chic and not too girly at all.)

    • Jamie says:

      Yes, I have seen that episode. I think they did a great job, but I would love to see them tell other women that “stylish androgyny” is an option, rather than the “try a dress! try a dress! You’re a girl!” that they do so often.

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