I wrote about TV styling for the storytelling issue of SPIKE magazine. You can order a copy here.
Most connoisseurs of trashy television value poor taste, particularly when it comes to over-the-top styling. Yet when Netflix’s Emily in Paris aired in 2020, viewers were outraged by the main character’s obnoxious looks. The titular Emily is a social media manager whose unexpected relocation to Paris for work lands her dazed, confused, and sartorially deranged. But rather than luxuriating in the laughable chaos of prints, expensive handbags, and brightly coloured berets she dons, detractors took to Twitter to call out the show’s stylist for featuring looks that a mid-level marketing girl could never afford. Nevermind the fact that Emily in Paris was styled by Patricia Field, the woman responsible for the revolutionary (and notoriously overpriced) looks of Carrie Bradshaw and the rest of the characters on Sex and the City (the original hit from Emily in Paris showrunner Darren Star). The armchair critics were out for blood, and neither legacy stylists nor the fact that the show was based in playful unreality could change their perception that the costuming was elite, out-of-touch, and outright absurd.
Similar critiques are currently playing out across social media, where the yet-to-air Sex and the City reboot (aptly titled: And Just Like That …) is already coming under fire for looks photographed by paparazzi while the show was in production this past summer in New York. Critics have called out its stylist, Molly Rogers (a protégé of Field’s, as Field herself was too busy styling season 2 of Emily in Paris to take the job), for showcasing “problematic” items, like an expensive vintage Fendi baguette upcycled from the first series and a ankle-length bohemian dress thought to be purchased from Forever 21. Some were shocked to see Carrie in fast fashion, while others took a moralistic approach, paradoxically deriding the adoption of cheap, unethically produced clothes and expensive vintage accessories in lieu of more “inclusive” brands.
This petty outrage represents a new kind of audience who expect storytelling to reflect their personal preferences and coddle their ideological needs. It’s the reason why Emily in Paris viewers want their fictionalised PR girls dressed in all black H&M, and why the stylist of And Just Like That … has been chided for smartly incorporating looks from past seasons of SATC. Thanks to data-driven shows and personalised social media algorithms, consuming someone else’s fantasy isn’t as desirable as it once was. Instead, our feeds have made it so that anything that doesn’t pander to our filter bubble-derived taste is worthy of cancellation.
Other TV shows have managed to sidestep such critiques thanks to thoughtful plotlines reflecting a clever meta-awareness of this conundrum. Issa Rae’s Insecure shows its characters buying and returning clothes at Opening Ceremony to justify putting broke girls in big looks, like a daring fire engine red cut-out suit jacket by Thebe Magugu. Euphoria, likewise, incorporates drunken party segments to allow for more magical moments of sartorial expression: its infamous Halloween episode features a nun costume inspired by Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45 and an underwater scene where Jules (Hunter Schafer) embodies a tripped out version of Baz Luhrmann’s Juliet, replete with glistening-wet angel wings and glitter to match.
But more often, showrunners are taking a toned-down approach to styling. This is in part due to a desire to maintain realism, but it’s also an attempt to bolster relatability in an era where trends are cycling faster than ever before. On the newly revived Gossip Girl, a series once celebrated for its out-there outfits, characters can be found in customised school uniforms and expensive it-bags, yet unlike in the first iteration of the series, where Blair and Serena’s sartorial gestures launched a million desperate simulacra in nightclub lines the world over, the closest we get to an iconic look is NYC skater-cum-actor Evan Mock’s cotton-candy hair.
Instead, the characters on the new Gossip Girl reflect the stylistic confusion of today’s TikTok teens. Students change out of frumpy sweaters and Strand Bookstore totes into slinky dresses and high heels away from their parents’ watchful gaze, yet rather than creating a fantasy fashion arc, the looks are more in line with how teens dress IRL – and are boring as a result. Flannel shirts and bomber jackets take centre stage, while glamorous stylistic transformations are turned down in favour of more wholesome moments (like when one character decides to go au naturel on her social media feeds). When risks are taken, they’re often pared down to avoid stirring controversy on and off-screen. In one episode, Julien, the Queen Bee of the elite Upper East Side highschool Constance Billard, wears a sheer, crystal-encrusted gown by David Koma paired with a modest black bodysuit. The look mirrors Julien’s character as she code-switches from villainess to Mother Theresa in a matter of moments. “I’m a bully”, she pleads during a cringey monologue, her sparkly dress becoming increasingly dull as the apology wears on.
At a time when fast-fashion has made switching styles more accessible than ever, it makes sense for our on-screen it-girls to forgo committing to a look, yet it often feels as if the styling on streaming platforms has become as monotonous and risk-averse as our hyper-personalised feeds. Of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that we are constantly bombarded with images, each becoming less impressive as we scroll, but it also has to do with a larger shift: when fashion signifiers no longer hold their meaning, what matters most is attitude – both online and off.
If social media has complicated our ability to make a statement with physical style, it has also made it easier to elicit a vibe without one. The art of styling without fashion is front and centre in a Gossip Girl episode wherein a makeover consists of instructions on how to smize for Instagram, but it’s best embodied in Mike White’s The White Lotus, a satirical show following fictional one-percenters on vacation in Hawaii. Here, vibes usurp style when a pair of e-girls incarnate sport basic, easy-to-miss looks like tankinis and baggy t-shirts: instead of using fashion to signal their rebellious edge, they’re accessorised with biting commentary and clap-backs toward their elitist elders, augmented with poolside reads by Friedrich Nietzsche and Camille Paglia. Their laissez-faire approach to dressing reflects an online sphere where fashion is no longer a signifier of class, or clout, or even taste. When rich people wear Rick Owens and teens LARP as goths on TikTok, dressing a character in Doc Martens and a leather jacket is no longer a useful way to signal rebellion. Tweeting one’s way into edgelordery is more effective, and being snarky IRL, ever better.
All of this points towards an accelerated trend-cycle where almost everything is in style all at once – and by extension, everything’s potentially off-limits, too. And while this may reflect our lived experience, it’s more likely to mirror our online one, replete with filter bubbles, callouts and like-baiting. I personally prefer a little fantasy when it comes to television styling, even if that means watching Emily stomp around Paris in a red and white fedora that looks like it came from the back of my uncle’s closet.