If you’ve been reading for a while, you know exactly how I feel, words thoroughly unminced, about What Not to Wear. To recap for those too lazy or busy to click the link: while the show is a decent beginners’ guide for women with no sense of style, Stacey and Clinton have an ugly tendency to eviscerate the unconventional for not subscribing to their exact brand of mediocrity. The episode that inspired me to write the screed linked above featured the upbraiding of a steampunk woman for “dressing like she didn’t have the right to vote” and (OSIRIS FORBID) “making people uncomfortable”.
So when I spotted the What Not to Wear handbook during a library crawl last week, I thought it might make splendid fodder for a good ol’-fashioned hate read. I have a serious weakness for anger porn: I browse forums I know are going to piss me off and troll until the heartburn rises and I have to take a walk around the block to cool down. It’s not the healthiest of habits, but occasionally an actual well-constructed essay rises from the bilious tirades. What I’m trying to say is: I thought I’d give this book a whirl for y’all.
The print version of What Not to Wear is written not by Stacey and Clinton but by Trinny and Susannah, who host the show’s British version. I remember liking them better than Stacey and Clinton as a kid, and, after reading their book, I still do. I find them just as sartorially misguided, but their prose style is genially, not gratingly, harsh. They have a hyperbolic humor about them that’s a damn sight more appealing than Stacey’s sneering condescension: Susannah describes her own fashion sense as “vestal virgin meets King’s Cross crack-crazed hooker”. They’re similarly ruthless in their dissection of others’ styles, but at least they, unlike Stacey and Clinton, seem like a fun pair to have a pint with.
That said, no amount of wit can mitigate their dubious (at best) advice. What Not to Wear and media of its ilk embody the “minimize all deviations” fashion philosophy. I’ll quote Cliff Pervocracy again, because she just sums it up so damn well:
Big breasts need to be strapped down, small ones need to be propped up. If your ass is round draw attention upward, if your ass is flat draw attention downward. Short women need to look taller and tall women need to look shorter. Dammit, ladies, you’ve got to be average!
(Her whole piece, by the way, is so very on point and I can’t recommend it enough.)
The book is divided into ten sections, each addressing a different physical “flaw” and how best to camouflage it. I get through the table of contents, and right away I’m rubbed wrong. Look, I understand that many people suffer from bodily insecurities. I would never tell anyone to just “get over it”; I know just how pervasive those kinds of fears can be. But What Not to Wear is so damn fatalist about it: “you’ll never like your body, so you might as well learn to hide it” seems to be the general ethos of the book. Wouldn’t we be better off acknowledging insecurity but working to overcome it? I’d rather see less “here’s how to hide your flaws” and more “here’s how to stop seeing your God/evolution/Xenu/whatever-given parts as flaws in the first place”.
The advice they give (charmers like like “fat arms must always wear sleeves” and “skintight on a skinny top half isn’t sexy, it’s a disappointment”) isn’t bad for the truly insecure. I’m not denying that minimizing parts you’re not so fond of can be truly beneficial to some. But I resent the equation of “flawed” with “insecure”. Maybe you love showing off your fat arms. Maybe you think your skinny chest is sexy as all get out. Or maybe you’ve got toned triceps and perfect C-cups but find yourself sartorially timid even so – gee whiz, it’s almost like body image is a mental state and not actually dependent on your looks!
I don’t find anything wrong with saying “cover your arms if doing so makes you feel better” – but I find a whole lot wrong with “if you have fat arms, you must be so haplessly insecure that you need all the help you can get”. The whole thing implies that feeling comfortable in your body is inextricably bound to how your body actually looks, which is horseshit. It implies that you’ll never be truly secure without attaining “perfection”, so you might as well just fake it.
I’m not content with “dressing to show off what [I] love and hiding what [I] loathe about my body”, as the introduction advises. I reject the idea that women should “loathe” their fat arms and skinny chests at all. I resent anyone telling me what parts of my own damn self are worth appreciating. I’m gonna love the whole damn thing enough to show it off.
I am a curvy woman. I am five-foot five-and-a-half inches tall and I weigh 155 pounds. (I feel like Jim Carrey haunted by the number 23.) I wear a D cup; my dress size falls anywhere from 6 to 12. My inseam is 28 inches, part of the reason I rarely wear pants. I have strong bones and thick hips and a handful of belly. I have enormous feet and thick ankles, and most attractive shoes are out of my reach, thanks to the bone disorder I’ve had since childhood. According to Trinny and Susannah, I fall under the categories “big boobs”, “big arms”, “big butt”, “short legs”, “flabby tummy”, “saddlebags, and “thick ankles & calves”. Here are some of the many, many rules they’ve decided I should follow:
Fat arms must always wear sleeves.
A big butt in an A-line skirt balloons the fabric out at the back, making it look enormous in comparison with legs. Looks like a pregnant tummy in reverse.
Never wear jackets that end at the butt.
No cropped tops, even on baby fat.
Never wear jackets to the hip as you will only accentuate your thunder thighs.
Coats are better than jackets [for saddlebags].
Never encircle the ankle – a strap should only be seen below.
Never wear three-quarter-length dresses or skirts (for thick ankles).
In today’s outfit post, watch as I gleefully break each and every one of those rules.
Gasp! A crop top AND a jacket that ends at the butt!
An A-line skirt? What is this world coming to?!
And I’m so terribly sorry I made you look at my flabby sausage arms.
Oh, does this skull make you uncomfortable?
I’m sure there are rules about hairy bellies, too.
How many lashes d’you think these ankle straps will earn me?
pink hair don’t care
Sometimes I understand why people hate fashion. It’s art, absolutely, but it’s the only art whose modern application seems to be built on telling you all the ways you’re Less Than. I’m not defending that. Instead, I want to show the world all the things fashion can be. It’s color and texture and mood and artifice and semiotics and theater. It’s a deliberately constructed universe, no thread out of place. It’s human beings as goddamn walking canvases. What other art has that kind of potential?
Crop Top: Charlotte Russe Skirt: Dirt Chic Blazer: Goodwill Belt: Handed down from Mom Jewelry, Tights, & Shoes: Gifted