Why Did I Love What Not to Wear So Much? Dissecting this Dark Horse Contestant for Most Empowering Show of All Time

Photo via Project Casting

Photo via Project Casting

by Kaitie Holland

Imagine a TV show in which all the people in someone’s life are so disgusted by their wardrobe that they nominate them to be nationally shamed, flown to a far-away city, and forced to throw away all their clothing. “How does every episode begin?” you ask. Oh, that’s simple, a camera crew stalks and films the victim for two weeks and then the show’s hosts use that footage to demonstrate exactly how bad the contestant looks. On national television. This sounds like a pitch that Jack Donaghy might make on 30 Rock when he suggests shows like, “MILF Island” and “Bitch Hunter.” (If you do not watch 30 Rock then just totally disregard this reference.) But no, I am describing hit TV show, What Not to Wear, and I am here to tell you that it was actually the pinnacle of makeover-based television, as  it perfectly demonstrated how self-empowerment can express itself through clothing and beauty. Am I getting carried away? Probably. Did I cry in every episode? Yes, so keep reading.

For those who may not know, What Not to Wear was a makeover show on TLC from 2003 to 2013, and its final season not only marked the end of hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly’s[1] witty banter, but also put the final nail in the coffin of TLC’s glory days. Stacy and Clinton guided contestants through the show with a mix of sarcasm, serious fashion advice, and subtle psychological techniques that broke down years of insecurity until the contestant realized their own badassery. After getting a new wardrobe, contestants were passed off to magic-makeup-artist, Carmindy and the hair wizard, Nick (the show eventually got a different hair stylist, Ted, who my mom swears is much better than Nick, but you can draw your own conclusions). Sometimes, the contestant would show up, buy new clothes, and look amazing without having to overcome any deep-rooted insecurity. Most of the time, however, the contestant’s trajectory went something like this:

1) feels bad about body/self

2) wears clothing to hide insecurities (usually manifests itself in oversized everything OR clothing that borders on costume-wear)

3) meets Stacy & Clinton/What Not to Wear dream team

4) is forced to face insecurities head-on

5) finds one piece of clothing that makes them feel ***stunning***

6) realizes that they are uniquely amazing and wants to let everyone know about it

7) shops ‘til they drop.

This plot line was probably dramatized for TV, but I’ve read a few personal accounts from contestants and I think I believe it. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly made this show so amazing, and why I was hardly ever offended by the fact that they placed so much value on outward appearance. After much reflection (not that much), I have identified three reasons that this show was more than just a makeover show:

A) Stacy and Clinton always focused on the person, their interests, their style, their personality. They got to know the contestant and tailored advice to each person.

B) It was about clothes, but it wasn’t just about clothes. Although they talk about clothing a lot, Stacy and Clinton make it clear that the person makes the clothes, the clothes don’t make the person. A somewhat counter-cultural message for our generation.  

C) They made beauty and fashion totally attainable. Instead of giving the contestant an impossible laundry list of things to improve upon, the What Not to Wear crew made simple goals that focused on making the contestant feel comfortable in their own skin.

In conclusion, one could make the argument that What Not to Wear commodified its contestants’ insecurities and put them through what was basically highly-publicized immersion therapy to create an addictive reality show that I faithfully watched for 10 years. However, at the end of their televised dive into a pool of their deepest fears and shopping malls, contestants ultimately emerged happier, more confident, and with a totally new wardrobe. So, I put that in the W column. Have I given this too much thought? I think so. But, I have always wondered why I loved this show so much, so I had to crack the code. Who knows if I succeeded.

[1] A man named Wayne was Stacy’s cohost for the first season, but he was so completely overshadowed by Clinton that he has basically been erased from the show’s history. No offense, Wayne.

p.s. Stacy and Clinton are still thriving, of course.