Television is an incredibly powerful tool. Before social media, and even now during its reign, watching television is one of the most ubiquitous experiences globally. And it's likely that if you've thought of it, there's probably been a TV show made about it. Of course fashion, then, makes easy prey for television producers to score high ratings with, because the nature of good TV means that the stereotypes of fashion fit the format well. Fashion looks nice; fashion TV shows grant you a free pass into a world that feels nigh on impossible to penetrate; and—most of all—fashion is dramatic. And this said drama over, ultimately, a bunch of clothes allows us judgemental viewers to upbraid and tut at people for being 'ridiculous', 'over the top', 'a joke', while sitting in bed eating our sixth Kit Kat rejoicing at what a good, well-balanced person we are.
But fashion isn't really that dramatic. What's more, the gargantuan fuss fashion TV shows have made over something that, in the grand scheme of things, means seemingly very little, has instilled people with the view that fashion is frivolous, obscene, and perfidious. Furthermore, the shows we so lovingly hate to watch are in fact—beyond them being about 'fashion' in the broadest sense—most often predicated upon manipulating women and gay men into chasing a prize that never pays off. The race to do so forms entertaining scenarios which are actually savagely humiliating, only to broadcast the crushing of people's dreams week in and week out when they fail to literally walk on water, to then send them "back to the house" to "pack up their things" and "leave". Losers in fashion TV shows are not only not winners, they are also failures who couldn't even get near to a meaningless end goal. The very premise of these shows is based in brutal neoliberal ideologies, demanding you pull yourself up to the top no matter the cost.
The other kind of fashion TV is just as heinous: the type which espouses the empowerment of women, while demanding their absolute image overhaul because otherwise they'll continue to look like a 'fat old bag' that nobody wants to take seriously.
What's odd, however, is that the rate of the production and broadcasting of these types of shows has entirely slowed, to a near halt in fact. The shows we have all seen have almost all been cancelled. And that's because these shows belong to that spine-shiveringly bleak naughties sect of celebrity culture: the same celebrity culture which was obsessed with image, which drove Britney Spears to public breakdown, which demanded Nicole Richie lose every ounce of body fat, and bred the Kardashians, spent all of its time denigrating women for literally existing, and which cannot exist today in lieu of the thing that ousted it: fourth-wave feminism. Hallelujah.
But before these shows go in the cultural bin for all eternity, let's take a look at some of the most absurd and addictive fashion shows out there, for old time's sake.
1. What Not to Wear UK, 2001 - 2007
Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine were early adopters of the 'Fashion takes TV' bend. Now one might argue that Monsoon isn't exactly Tom Ford but for these ladies who became known for their posh-cum-direct charm, and their preference for renaming breasts as either items of food or types of insect stings, they were on a mission to help women feel better about themselves. The show was based on an intensive, and insensitive, training and shaming women into covering up their "giant asses" or "flabby arms". Surprisingly, it was BAFTA nominated, and although the show probably demarcated the early onset hatred of my "unsightly bits" it also went on to produce the best-kept secret in contemporary culture: Trinny Woodall's Instagram.
What came next, however, would change the way the world works forever.
2. America's Next Top Model, 2003 - present
In the May of 2003 the world became hooked on what can only be described as a wannabe model Game of Thrones. Each season, 12 to 14 young women would enter a model house to be subjected to a series of the most unrealistic, humiliating tasks ever, all to win a spread in an unheard of magazine. The show preached empowerment, when it in fact subjected these girls to drastic makeovers - oftentimes resulting in literal teeth pulling. It expected high performance in tasks that couldn't be further from real-life modelling: how many times have you seen Naomi Campbell dodge a giant swinging pendulum on a runway, or jump from a tenth storey window only to be yelled at in a judging forum when the final photo didn't "pop"? From it we gained one of the world's most memed moments, when Tyra "never in my life yelled at a girl like this," and the show's franchising to Australia set the bar for the most painfully awkward reality TV blunders in history when the judge announced the wrong girl as the winner, to an array of cheers, tears and fireworks. Looking back now, episodes are nigh on impossible to watch without questioning the very fabric of your own personality for being able to actually enjoy the torment so many of the contestants endured for nothing. Against the odds, the show is still going under the watchful eye of the boss of "boss-ism" Rita Ora. UPDATE: no it's not.
And off the back of ANTM's success (read: exploitation) came a similar show, but for designers.
3. Project Runway, 2004 - present
Perhaps less problematic than the model equivalent, Project Runway took a bunch of hopeful designers and obliterated their aspirations of ever being taken seriously. Heidi Klum, alongside the rabidly bitchy Michael Kors and Nina Garcia (who loves to take the tough love approach), determine the winner of the show each season, the title solely responsible for launching the careers of literally nobody. Well, Christian Siriano does alright, and Santino Rice—of season two runner-up fame—actually got the job we all want: to sit at the left hand of Mother RuPaul.
And while no careers were being helped in New York, across the pond we saw the rise of the ultimate fashion star in…
4. Gok Wan's How to Look Good Naked 2006 - 2007
Yet another Brit who loves to nickname women's breasts: this time it's "bangers". Now, if we learned anything from the self dubbed "Fairy Gok Mother" and his longterm reign over British fashion, it's that there's nothing—nothing!—that can't be fixed by a chunky belt. The show was actually deemed revolutionary for its time as a makeover show, because it was one of the few out there that didn't badger women to get copious amounts of plastic surgery to make them look acceptable (that was The Swan: a show that is so gross it doesn't even deserve the airtime). But Brits loved good old Gok, even if he built his colourful career on telling women they look crap, forcing them to strip and cry in a room full of mirrors on national television, only to then swoop in and solve centuries of gendered oppression and impossible, patriarchal body-expectation by whipping these gals into shape with a Dorothy Perkins shopping spree and some streaks.
And while Gok was working his magic over in the UK, another stylist was making terrifying waves back in Los Angeles in…
5. The Rachel Zoe Project 2008 - 2013
A late bloomer in the fashion TV game, it was hard to tell whether Rachel Zoe was a real live person or a simulacrum of everything terrible about fashion. Her Boho obsession and love for chunky bangles clanging on wafer thin wrists led to a resurgence in the world's obsession with 'skinny'. The show charts Rachel and her assistants' daily struggles including: will that dress look good on Anne Hathaway? And will that dress look good on Anne Hathaway?? (it did!). She became known for her style of speech, too: a cacophony of "literally" and "ay day (I die)". A deeply problematic, and rampantly pointless show, The Rachel Zoe Project was the culmination of half a decade of fashion television which centred on fashion people being parodies: of which Zoe became the ultimate.
And speaking of parodies, next came…
6. Kell on Earth 2010
Kelly Cutrone is an icon. Much like Zoe in her absurdity, but the polar opposite in terms of her personality, she's infamously harsh, mean, and intolerant of anything but work. Kelly Cutrone set herself up perfectly to become the Simon Cowell of fashion, in the show that followed her, and her team, negotiate the daily tribulations of running a fashion PR company. Featuring iconic lines such as "if you have to cry, go outside" and "you have to be prepared for people to hate you; average people love to be average because nobody bothers them," it's surprising that this TV gold was cancelled after season one. Notable mention goes to the iconic gay assistant who has the lyrics to Britney Spears Stronger tattooed on his wrists.
Now there's endless shows that could be deconstructed in this way. There's Fashion Star (presented by Jessica Simpson!), a show which gets buyers from H&M to drop a tonne of cash on young designers' collections. Styled to Rock was Rihanna's fashion game before Fenty, and perhaps RiRi's only failed venture to date. Make Me a Supermodel was the super budget version of ANTM with a few dudes and some really oblique homophobia thrown in; and 2007's the Fashionista Diaries was a show about a bunch of people trying to make it at three different companies, eventually to be hired or fired from an assistant job (it was bad — even I'm ashamed to admit I was a fan).
The overriding essence of all of these shows is their basis in exploitation, and their extreme speed in becoming totally outdated and archaic. While fashion is far from perfect, fashion TV is a thousand times worse because it takes the most extreme and unsightly elements of fashion—silencing of women, hierarchy, obsession with looks and body, superficiality and vacuousness, extraordinary diva attitudes, and the positioning of things that are pointless as being a matter of life or death—and amplifies them to a deafening level. I think it's safe to say that the days of fashion reality TV, at least in this manifestation, are over and will hopefully never return.
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Text Tom Rasmussen