Thu, Oct 19, 2006 - Page 13 News List

TV embraces fashion like never before

More than ever, programs like 'Sex and the City' and 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' are directing how people see fashion, even if they never go anywhere near a catwalk

By Joanne Ostrow  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.


Emma Peel's cat suit and boots kicked butt in The Avengers in the mid-1960s, even as Marlo Thomas' That Girl flip proved the coiffure a fortunately passing fancy.

Dorothy Hamill's 1970s wedge illustrated the viral spread of a mass-appeal ‘do. And Ally McBeal's 1990s miniskirt proved that hemlines are as tied to the Nielsens as to the Dow.

Television turned these style statements into trends. Yet they were just laying groundwork — foundations, as they say in the garment trade — for what was to come.

The show that sealed TV's standing as fashion arbiter and ally was Sex and the City.

Over a six-year run beginning in 1998, the subject matter was equal parts friendship, sex and shoes. Until Sex and the City turned its characters into hangers for various designer labels, couture had never been so integral to TV plot development. In Internet chat rooms, at water coolers and throughout the fashion world, Carrie Bradshaw's threads attained star billing. On Sex and the City, the wardrobe department was as important as the writers' room.

Even critics who couldn't afford to buy them learned to spell Manolo Blahniks.

Television stepped up to help the masses connect to high-end fashion; whether or not they ever touched them in real life, viewers could recognize the designs. The job of making fashion a TV star wouldn't be complete until the new millennium, however.

Starting in 2003 on Bravo, “reality” TV tried on a new challenge: spreading the ethos and secrets of the fashion industry to the great unwashed.

If our concept of Seventh Avenue has been tailored by movies (from Audrey Hepburn through Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter, from Simply Halston and Zoolander to this year's The Devil Wears Prada), it's been revolutionized by unscripted, so-called reality television.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy set as its task the friendly on-air rehabilitation of fashion-challenged heterosexuals. Turns out clean shirts and pants that actually fit aren't the sole province of gays.

Project Runway, starting in 2004, went even further, stripping viewers of any illusions as to how the business works. The narratives didn't just display outfits or suggest accessories, they revealed the painstaking evolution from sketch to closet, the inspiration and sweat behind the stitching, and the hideous rejects along the way.

These shows also proved that you don't have to be gay to yearn for self-improvement in front of the mirror.

Amazingly effective and embraced by a diverse audience, Queer Eye brought a tone of concern to problems of non-models (ie. schlubby straight men) dressing for success/romance/to avoid humiliation. Project Runway engenders a postmodern respect for the (eminently teasable) fashion trade.

Taking apart the elements, analyzing the winning results and deconstructing the duds, Runway makes fashion an intellectual, artistic, almost athletic race.

The competition hails the range of individual expressions of creativity in design. Of course, it's up to you whether they make you look fat.

Nowadays Project Runway is reportedly responsible for a burst of interest in sewing among teens. Tim Gunn, the show's crisp mentor and chair of the fashion-design department at Parsons, is to be commended for issuing a wise constraint on his fashion disciples: Make anything, he tells them, just so you could get into a taxi wearing it. That rules out a lot of outrageous “wearable art.”

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