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March 12th, 2003 Caryn B. Brooks | Fashion
 

Cruel to Be Kind

BBC America's What Not to Wear can school you. Sort of.

     
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I'm probably the last person who should be subbing in for a column that's primarily devoted to fashion. While I can tell you who Tom Ford is and what I think about the Seaplane ladies (they're inspired), to describe my own look as "post-grunge grunge" would be generous. Sure, I have my moments: the Missy Elliot appreciation outfit; the "no she didn't" '80s horizontal-striped rugby with matching clogs. It's not that I don't care. It's just that I've outgrown a lot of my clothes in both size and age-appropriateness, sort of like a million other post-30-year-olds out there.

I initially started watching BBC America's What Not to Wear for kitsch value. A smash hit across the pond, WNTW features two style bitches tracking down fashion victims and teaching them to unlearn their clothing faux pas.

The show has all the "gotcha" reality-television tricks we've come to love, but instead of eating bugs, people here nominate friends and family for a complete style overhaul. WNTW secretly videos unwitting targets as they go about their business. The complicit parties arrange for a public intervention, and two fashion experts, Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, come crashing in with cameras to ambush the ugly duckling. While the subject is still taking it in, Trinny and Susannah offer the ultimate Faustian bargain--a £2,000 (about $3,000) shopping spree if she agrees to jettison her present wardrobe and listen to the advice of the two finger-waggers. After the initial shock, the answer is inevitably yes.

When the subject brings her wardrobe to the WNTW HQ, she is subjected to watching video clips of herself. After that humiliation, the consultants continue the torture by marching her into a room with 360 degrees of mirrors (kinky!), where she gets to examine herself from all angles. At the exit, she's met by clothing samples appropriate for her body type. After the Material Girls offer a set of rules she should follow when picking out a new wardrobe, she's off.

If this all sounds cruel, it doesn't come off that way--at least not entirely. The whole thing has a level of bluntness that's more efficient than mean. And the ladies'-locker-room feel is as supportive as it is softcore. There's much tromping about in bras and underwear, and this is when Trinny and Susannah point out what they like about the person's legs, arms, tits or tummy (all the while lifting up their skirts to show what's going on with their own figures). Even though thug feminist Andrea Dworkin would topple the set if she could, I'd say WNTW is like Our Bodies, Ourselves meets Personal Best. Me-ow!

A friend said to me recently, "You know what fucks women up most in this country? Once we grow up, we don't get to see each other naked enough. We have no idea what real women really look like." This show speaks to this need; ladies of all sizes, shapes and ages are picked for close-ups on WNTW.

Something weird happened when I started watching the show religiously. Beyond the fact that I picked up some brill Brit slang (my fave is "mumsy," which means matronly), I actually began to learn something. The Closet Queens focus on lines and cuts of clothing that work best for different body types. I would have never guessed that turtlenecks are no-go for me (makes you look shorter and squatter) or that exposing both legs and boobs is a crisis condition that Trinny says is "like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube from the middle."

I also learned that sometimes rules don't matter at all. One of my favorite episodes featured a brick house of a lady named Geneve who called herself a Tina Turner look-alike (a description I'd agree with, if under the condition that it's Harvey Fierstein in drag as Tina). Geneve fought Trinny and Susannah at every step, questioning their level of expertise over her own. Geneve was funny as hell--she made Trinny and Susannah kiss her mountainous breasts. At the end of the episode, Trinny and Susannah shrugged and admitted the power of Geneve's personality overshadowed anything she could possibly wear, which comes back to that old self-esteem trope that attitude is everything.

Maybe that's the look I'm going for.


In a refreshing Freaky Friday move, WW's usual Look columnist, Elizabeth Dye, is taking over the Miss Dish column this week.


What Not to Wear
BBC America 7 and 10 pm Tuesdays


Leave it to Americans to ruin a good thing. The new U.S. version just unveiled on TLC is deflowering rather than empowering, and for some reason they've chosen to replace the two female hosts with a man and a woman. The guy is a flitty Fabio wannabe with orange-tinted skin who seems to get off on dissing the makeover subject; it turns the whole sisterhood feel to something a bit more sinister.


Starting March 16, the series will air every Saturday at 2 pm, 10 pm and 1 am.


EVENTS:
The Art in Fashion
This PDX Fashion Inculbator event will feature more designers than before. 1119 SW Park Ave., 226-0973, www.communityboxoffice.net . 7 pm Sunday, March 16. $16-$20.
 
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