“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
In college, I majored in Commercial illustration, with a minor in fashion illustration. I know right! In other words, I know just enough about fashion to know a little sum-sumthin’ about the philosophy behind why people wear what they wear, and how television reinforces class, and social distinctions. Everything that anyone wears, on any show, is carefully orchestrated to convey specific ideas to the audience about the character’s lives, mental states, and socio-economic condition.
The purpose of fashion on TV is to present an image of wealth, uniformity, and conformity, and its been that way since the beginning. Since television is driven by advertising, advertisers want certain types of people to watch their shows, so shows themselves are carefuly crafted (and I want to emphasize this) to appeal to the types of people that the advertising is aimed at.
Did you notice that so many women on TV all have the exact same hairstyle? Not all of them but it is very, very common, and the next time you’re watching a show, count how many times you see this hairstyle. Straight on top, curling towards the ends, no matter how long or short, or what race the actor. That’s because this type of hairstyle is one of the easiest to recreate, and keep track of, on a TV set. If the hair gets wet, or if it’s too windy, this type of hairstyle is easy to remember and fix to keep scene continuity.
Most of the fashion on TV firmly situates most actors in the middle-class. Television often depicts the type of lives the audience meant to aspire to, or is already living. Poverty is almost never depicted, neither are working class people. (This was different in the fifties and sixties.) The top professions depicted in television dramas today are politicians, lawyers, doctors, and (FBI) detectives (common beat cops are rarely depicted), all jobs with salaries averaging 75,000 to 175, 000 dollars, annually. The kind of jobs that used to be depicted on tv before the 80s were janitors, bus drivers, and uniformed cops. But over time, content creators ( and ad companies) found these types of professions insufficiently glamourous.
Almost no one dresses in an unkempt manner on TV, unless its to convey that their lives are a disorganized mess, that their life is on a downslope, to depict drunkenness, drug abuse, or some extreme mental illness. Most people’s clothes look new, not as if they wear them every day, or have to wash them often. People rarely wear the same thing more than once, so the implication is that they have prodigious wardrobes, and the kinds of homes where that would be possible.
Most television characters can wear a different outfit every day, whether their job provides the salary for it, or not. Everything looks expensive, neatly tucked into belts and pants, unrumpled, unfaded, and unwrinkled. Body types tend to be uniform, and generally all one race. Shows that feature a balance of races in the cast are kind of rare. This is true even in environments, or crowd scenes that you know to be diverse, like New York City. There’s also uniformity in the economic makeup of a cast in environments that contain differing economic classes. Everyone in the environment is middle class, or wealthy, or poor.
Almost no one wears denim, mini-skirts, or sneakers for women (denim mini-skirts are a sign of poverty, or working class status, as are denim jackets, and loud colors). Most women on TV wear blouses that are just a tiny bit too tight, with just enough cleavage, but not too much. There is little variation in women’s clothing styles, no matter what their economic class, and not much self-expression. Generally there’s no loud, bright, or large jewelry, and certainly no interesting makeup choices. You won’t see any women dyeing their hair blue and green, or wearing bright purple lipstick, (and not even teenagers are exempt from these rules.) These types of clothing and color choices are solely the province of the poor, and usually used for comedic effect.
Ethnic clothing on television is almost non-existent, unless the topic is very specific. For example, any movie or show about the Middle East, or set in a Black neighborhood. You will not see saris or hijabs in TV, unless the story calls for it. This form of dress is so rare, that a character from The Walking Dead, who was glimpsed wearing a hijab, caused a minor sensation among fans of the show.
Watch four or five of your favorite shows, then go out and observe what people are actually wearing on the streets.
Of special note is the depiction of weather related clothing. Life above the snow line, for example, is rarely depicted, along with all of the time it takes to get into and out of the many layers of clothing northerners wear in inclement weather. It’s always sunny on TV.
TV and movies have never been an accurate portrayal of real life fashion or behavior, anyway. It certainly has gotten better since the fifties, when everyone on TV dressed like this:
‘Clemente has written extensively about the evolution of American dress in the 1900s, a period that, she said, was marked, maybe more than anything else, by a single but powerful trend: As everyday fashion broke from tradition, it shed much of its socioeconomic implications — people no longer dress to feign wealth like they once did — and took on a new meaning.’
Conformity and uniformity was heavily reinforced on TV, during and after the war. It was a top down dynamic in which fashion rules and regulations came down from the upper classes. They set the standard for everyone else to aspire to. But at the same time social changes gave rise to a teen culture that began to affect how everyday people dressed. Over time, as this teen culture came to influence all of society, and not just dress, Tv and movies began to reflect that.
People in the real world dressed like this, but whenever they were shown in movies and TV, in the 50s, they were associated with various rebellious counterculutres, juvenile delinquency, and criminality:
Interestingly, over time, the age range of actors on Tv started trending lower too. In the fifites, the vast majority of Tv shows consisted of White adults, over thirty, with jobs. High schoolers and college students were rarely depicted, and many of them dressed like miniature adults. Sneakers and dungareees were for elementary school children or neighborhood delinquents. Leather jackets were for bikers and criminals.
Quite frankly television hasn’t changed very much from this dynamic today, beyond having younger people on screen, although many of them are still overdressed for high school. One of the most remarkable moments in the movie Spiderman:Homecoming, was the way the teenagers dressed very much like actual modern teens. Notice the absence of high heels and leather jackets, although they still look like working class, and middle class, teens.
Their manner of dress is still carefully coordinated as to color and fabric (the skirts on the young ladies are still much shorter than usual) but this is probably as close as you’re going to get to the unmade up look that teenagers actually have.
Unlike for example, in the 80s, when, contrary to actual life, teenagers dressed like this:
Power suits and giant shoulders:
Carefully tucked in shirts, and extra blue denim:
The 90s: Whatever this is
Vs. how teenagers today actually dress:
Not all teen shows are like these, but a lot of the mainstream shows (not on specialty networks), that feature teens have a similiar aesthetic.
Television presents a world of American, upper middle-class, suburban conformity. The purpose of clothing is not to express oneself (because the actors do not choose their clothing) but to convey status to the viewer, to each other, and those in the class just above them. Their clothing is meant to state, “I belong here.” “I’m one of you.” Movies and television deal in stereotypes and shorthand to convey as much meaning as possible with as little thought, and effort, as possible.
Poor people are rarely depicted on Tv today. At least not properly. Almost none of the most popular, mainstream shows depict their home lives, or manner of dress. When they are seen, its primarily for comedic puproses. You are meant to laugh at and mock them.
I live in a city about which a certain television sitcom became very popular in the 90s. I liked the characters and it was pretty funny. My major gripe was not the plot, but the setting, and one character in particular. This city is nearly 60% Black, but you would never know that from watching the show, which took place in the downtown area. Almost no Black people were depicted on the show at all. The downtown scenes should have looked like this:
But my biggest problem, was one of the characters on the show, who dressed like no human being on Earth has ever dressed. Can you spot that person?
The second character is Mimi, and she was, redundantly, an extra source of comedic relief, on a comedy show. It’s clear that we were meant to laugh AT Mimi because she was not conventionally pretty, dressed like a circus clown, and had unorthodox hair, and makeup. And yeah, because she was fat.
Mimi was the antithesis of Midwestern modesty, and as if she wasnt funny enough, the writers gave her a personality to match her outfits. She was every crude stereotype of a fat person that you could imagine. Loud, rude, mean, crass, and a bully. Although her job title listed her as an Administrative Assistant, she is solidly situated in the working class, as a Secretary. If you’re looking at Mimi and laughing, then examine why you think she’s funny. Is it because you’ve been carefully taught, through years of television viewing, to not take people who look like her seriously?
(Mimi may be the most obvious depiction of television fashion gone horribly wrong, but the young lady to the right in the photo, is just as inaccurate. She is a Californian’s idea of the girl next door. This is a more accurate image of how midwestern women look and dress.)
The show Shameless is meant to depict a poor, working class family, but its creators are still beholden to the rules of televsion, which state that women must be made up, shaved, and carefully coiffed to look un-coiffed. Their clothes look a little too new, and their shoes don’t show enough wear. In other words, the creators are trying and failing to capture a “poverty aesthetic “.
Tv show creators were a little better at this in the 70s and 80s.
Roseanne (90s), and the show, Good Times (70s), are just a handful of sitcoms in the past forty years, that got the aesthetic right. Roseanne’s narrative was of a working class family from the suburbs. They wore comfortable clothing with prominent sports logos, sneakers, little makeup, and easy to wear hairstyles. Later in the series, Roseanne’s gay employer, sticks out like a sore thumb in such an environment, because he is neatly shaved, coiffed, and dressed in dapper suits. Despite his sexuality, he has a higher class status than Roseanne. He is quietly disdainful of her lifestyle, and she occasionally expresses contempt for his effete stylishness. Is this a reinforcement of the class divide, or just a reflection?
In the show Good Times, which aired in the 70s, the Evans family is firmly ensconced in the lower middle/working class. The father is a janitor, with a wife and three kids, living in a rundown apartment building in New York. They dress comfortably and in bright, but mismatching, colors (to be fair, I think everyone dressed like that, in the 70s.) Note the worn, and ratty chair, and the casual body language, with hands in pockets, (and leaning against each other, which denotes strong affection). They may be poor but they have love. Contrast their manner of dress with that of The Jeffersons, who moved up to a deluxe apartment in New York, because Mr. Jefferson owns a chain of laundry stores.
Mr. Jefferson was wealthy enough to afford a loft apartment in New York City, and even have a maid. Mr. Jefferson was almost never seen not wearing a suit, and note the carefully made up faces and hair of the women. Even their maid (the Black woman in the floral dress) looks well to do. The new looking sofa, and fresh looking, well made clothing in darker, more uniform colors, along with their formal posing, complete the image of being cosmopolitan and upper middle class. Note that this is not how they looked when these characters were first introduced on the show All in the Family, which was another show featuring a working class, suburban, white family. In All in the Family, the wife, Edith, stayed at home and was almost never seen not wearing a floral apron. We never see Louise Jefferson in an apron. That’s the maid’s attire.
In the show Happy, the lead character is a disgraced cop, who is an absentee father, and a drunkard, who is in league with the local mob. We know this character’s life is seriously fucked up, not just because of the dialogue and exposition, but because of how he is dressed. He spends most of the pilot episode wearing little more than a hospital gown, and that along with his grizzle, unshaven face, ratty scarves, and dirty trench coat, speaks of a person whose life has gone horribly awry. You are meant to think that this is a person with “issues”. Perhaps mental ones.
Another major difference between real life fashion, and TV fashion, are regional differences. You will find no cowboy boots, no hats, no sports wear, or sweatsuits, unless its for comedy, or the episode in question happens to be about poverty, and/or crime. People on television rarely live in places that require many layers of clothing (above the snow line, where its cold six or seven months of the year) against inclement weather. It takes several minutes to dress and undress when coming in, or going outdoors. When snow is shown in movies and TV, people are dressed more for fashion than warmth, which is not the case in real life. Nobody cares what they look like when its -something degrees.
Women who wear unusual hair colors,and styles, loud jewelry ,flashy heels, or too much cleavage, are meant to be laughed at. They simply cannot be taken seriously, and when they try, these poor individuals are dressing above their station, at least according to the dressage goals of the middle class. But what’s really happening here is that people’s reasons for dressing the way they do are to different purposes.
The poor, and working class seek to express themselves, and their individuality via their clothing. They like comfort, a specific TV show, or just because they love the color blue. People from the middle classes seek to influence and impress others through clothing, so uniformity and conformity are the goals. The distinction is subtle but important, because these are antagonistic goals.
In one case, someone is trying to tell the world something about their true self, the person they really are, or to impress on others with their individuality. For the middle class, who regularly socialize with those higher on the social ladder than them, things are much more conformist. They’re trying to tell their betters that they belong, that they’re one of them, part of the tribe. Part of the reason this is done is because of the influence of popular media.
(It is also interesting to note that on television, the higher up the social ladder a person is depicted, the less you see them watching television, and if so, its often news programs. On TV, the poorer the character, the more likely they are to be shown watching TV, and its usually popular media. But this is a subject for another post.)
The attitude towards expressions of individuality is reinforced on, and by, TV. The middle class that almost all of TV is aimed at, and who everyone is meant to aspire to, are taught in a subtle manner, that “those” people (i.e. anyone who is not dressed like them) are not meant to be taken seriously, and in some cases looked down on. If you’re from a poor background, and you want to move upward (or maybe you have already) you’re subtly told that to fit into the middle class, you must remove any extreme vestiges of your individual self, and fit in.