After watching a marathon of the TLC show “What Not To Wear,” I’ve been wondering: What exactly is “style”?
I admit to having a love/hate relationship with “WNTW.” I appreciate tips on finding clothes that fit well or mixing and matching patterns and colors. But there is an ethos running through the show that sticks in my craw — a push toward conformity and a certain sort of upper-middle-class, WASP, feminine style and away from individuality.
A word used often on “WNTW” is “tasteful” and what is tasteful in our society is absolutely bound by class, race, and gender. For instance, of the black women featured on “WNTW,” few have escaped with their natural hair. Kinks that spring akimbo are not tasteful. And I’ve seen Stacy and Clinton, the show’s co-hosts, transform many a biker chick and aging hippie. The notion that well-dressed women do not wrap their frames in leather with flame appliqué or don broomstick skirts with Grateful Dead t-shirts and heavy, silver rings, is a judgment all about class. Women are also warned against dressing too suggestively or not feminine enough. Lesson: All women should be girly, but not too sexy.
In the video below, Clinton bashes a woman for looking like the guy at Jiffy Lube who does your oil change.
Frankly, if you’re a punk woman who lives to wear rock t-shirts, including one emblazoned with “Too Drunk To Fuck,” is that so wrong? I mean, it’s not exactly my look, but it fits the lifestyle of the woman in the video below. Jen’s not angling for the cover of Vogue, and I’ll bet in the clubs she frequents, there are more folks in Dead Kennedys t-shirts than tasteful, belted swing jackets and wedge heels.
I’m not arguing that the women above are style icons, but do they have to be?
The fun part of fashion is the opportunity for sartorial creativity. Clothes that don’t fit the wearer are just costume. I get that there are places when one has to conform. A sista who wears hip-hop gear to her gig at a corporate law firm is unwise. But more often than at work, women on “WNTW” are berated for what they wear while at the grocery store and mall. When can we be free of fashion’s rules and just be ourselves if not while running errands on the weekend?
In covering our bodies — a very personal thing — women shouldn’t have to conform, cover our eccentricities and ethnicities, and act like ladies — unless we want to. The style advanced by “WNTW” is about rules and homogeneity. I prefer Gore Vidal’s take on the issue: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”