Critic’s notebook: ‘What Not to Wear’ aims to make over a woman’s life <i>and</i> wardrobe


“What Not to Wear,” which begins its eighth season Friday night on TLC, is the most hale of makeover shows, and also, in the spiritual sense, the most healthy. Its first message is this: There are no ugly women in the world, only ugly clothes, and those can easily be changed. Its second is that by changing your clothes, you can change yourself.

“I was preoccupied even in high school with the concept of self and identity,” host Stacy London said recently from New York, where the show is based, and where she majored in German philosophy and literature at Vassar, a little while back. “But it took until I got to ‘What Not to Wear’ to marry all the things I’d learned in my life with style. “

Neither she nor co-host Clinton Kelly realized at first what they were onto: “It took me a few years,” said Kelly, also by phone, “to understand that this wasn’t just about wearing a pair of dark-washed jeans; it’s about having the confidence to achieve your goals. I really believe that if you spend your life in elastic waistbands and hoodies and cross trainers worn as casual footwear you’re not telling the world you’re important, you’re not telling the world you’re paying attention; you’re saying ignore me.”


“”We reveal people’s potential every single time we do a show,” said London. “The clothes are symbolic, in the sense that it is about taking control of one’s image, and when a lot of these contributors leave the show, they take control of other aspects of their life.” But, she says, “it’s also about self-acceptance. I don’t care if there are parts of your body that you love or you hate, you have to take the emotionality out of that. The minute you can get over the idea that you are going to dress in a way that makes you look like another person and accept the person that you are, then you become your own frame of reference and standard of beauty, and that’s when you start to get great personal style.”

Most every episode begins as an intervention and ends as a celebration, each attended by family and friends; in between comes a kind of ritual process in which the subject — “the contributor,” as London calls her — is taken, by various means, outside herself in order to see herself. Relieved of her old wardrobe, she is left, as it were, naked to begin again. She is an active participant in this process, to whatever extent she can manage, not merely a dummy to be dressed. And at the end of her journey, if all goes well, and it usually does, old skin is sloughed off and inner and outer selves come into new alignment.

These moments are often moving, but never, as is the case with most big-network makeover shows, steeped in sentiment — and are the more moving for it. This has everything to do with Kelly and London as clear-eyed, affectionately sharp-tongued guides and observers, who will express their impatience with a subject as readily as their approval. And even as the show — whose season opener will feature the rare celebrity contributor, Mindy Cohn, who was Natalie on “The Facts of Life” — is about freedom through fashion, it is also about freedom from fashion.

“I think the American woman has been sold a bill of goods,” said Kelly, who says he avoids pop culture nowadays, largely for the way it “demeans women.” “She’s been told by so many different sources that she’s worthless if she doesn’t have a full head of hair, perfectly white Chiclet teeth, big full lips, perky breasts, a narrow waist, curvy butt and long legs. Having been an editor, I know that a woman on a magazine cover has 10 stylists working on her, whether for hair, makeup, clothes, the lighting director, the Photoshop guy. They’re not even human beings anymore — when you take away a person’s pores you turn them into a mannequin. Real women have pores.”

At Marie Claire, where he once worked as an editor, he pitched a story called “What Makes Me Different, Makes Me Beautiful,” and later watched a woman read it on a bus. “Her nose was buried in it,” he recalled, “and I remember thinking, this story is what I should be doing with my life. I didn’t know exactly that that would turn out to be ‘What Not to Wear.’ ”