Since the earliest days of moving pictures the cinema screen has functioned, whether intentionally or not, as a department store window. In his essay “Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” Charles Eckert writes:
The short dramas and comedies of the first decade of this century, especially those that pictured the contemporary lifestyles of the middle and upper classes, presented innumerable opportunities for product and brand name tie-ins. But more than this, they functioned as living display windows for all that they contained; windows that were occupied by marvelous mannequins and swathed in a fetish-inducing ambiance of music and emotion. (103)
This tradition continues on with television. Hordes of young women (this author included) got the “Rachel” haircut in the mid-1990s in order to emulate the famous tresses of Jennifer Aniston’s character on Friends. And, as Elizabeth Affuso has discussed, MTV programs like The Hills offer a “comprehensive lifestyle brand for viewers.” However, viewers need not speculate about where the girls are buying their clothes or enjoying their cocktails. Affuso explains that “the show enables participation by labeling all of its locations onscreen, so viewers can easily tell where the women are eating, shopping, or partying, providing all the information necessary to replicate this experience if desired.” MTV has a vested interest in identifying these spaces of consumption since it has corporate partnerships with entities like Teen Vogue, Bolthouse Productions, and Epic Records, all of which are featured on the show in some form. Clever indeed.
The City partakes in this tradition, though I would argue that the show functions less as a commercial for specific clothing items, musical groups and eateries than it does as a “look book” of contemporary fashions, as a style to model. As many have noted, Whitney Port, the “star” of The City is a dull heroine (this is not a criticism, by the way — in the world of reality TV the “boring” characters are usually the most normal, mentally-stable characters). As a result, the plotlines on the show are fairly dull as well. I never felt invested in Whitney’s romantic entanglements — they feel even more forced than those on The Hills (which is really saying something). For example, in the premiere episode of Season 2, Roxy Olin, a new addition to the cast who really really wants us to think of her as “the bitch” asks to crash at Whitney’s apartment until she gets her bearings in NYC. See, Roxy doesn’t know anyone in the city. Yet, miraculously, Roxy is able to throw a massive party in Whitney’s apartment a few days later. Huh? And when Whitney returns home to see the mass of revelers in her apartment she can barely suppress her smirk as she “reprimands” Roxy. Didn’t Roxy remember that Whitney was recently issued a citation for having her music up too loud? That she capped the guest list at 10 people? Oh, Roxy remembered all right — so did the show’s writers. It’s like they’re not even trying anymore.
That’s why the real allure of The City is its aesthetics. It is fashion pornography. Scenes in The City frequently open with establishing shots of decadent decors and expensive consumer items, generating desire on the part of the viewer. The difference, however, between The Hills and The City, is that the latter blatantly fetishizes fashion as opposed to commodities in general. Fashion calls attention to itself — when Whitney and Olivia are choosing the right “look” for Jessica Alba’s Elle cover shoot or when one character calls attention to another’s fashion choices. In this week’s episode Kelly Cutrone points out that Whitney looks great in her outfit (and she does).
One of my favorite fashion fetish moments came in the last shot of the Season 1 finale, dramatically titled “I Lost Myself in Us,” just after Whitney decides to end her fake relationship with her fake boyfriend Jay Lyon. As she enters the doors of Diane von Fürstenberg’s store, a visual rendering of her decision to choose a career over love, we are given a close up of her purple, high heeled booties. It is significant that we do not see Whitney’s face here — what is most important are these shoes, rather than Whitney’s emotional state. This moment seems to be saying, who needs a man when you can wear these fabulous purple booties? Hell, I might leave my husband for those booties…
Of course, there is some fashion on the show that confuses me. First, there’s Kelly Cutrone, founder of People’s Revolution, which is not an actual revolution of the people, but a PR firm. Because a lot of Kelly’s job entails producing fashion shows and fashion shoots one can assume that she spends her days surrounded by beautiful pieces of couture, stylish models, and some of the most talented hair and make up people in New York. And yet, Kelly looks like shit. Come on, people, you know it’s true. I get that Kelly must wear black every day to match her coal black heart, but must she wear shapeless black crew neck shirts? And would it kill her to brush her hair? Or put on some blush? To go out into the sunlight? Has anyone told Kelly that she’s on TV? A lot?
And then there’s Olivia Palermo, “noted socialite” and daughter of real estate developer Douglas Palermo. Olivia is filthy rich and unsuprisingly, a horrible bitch. And according to her wikipedia entry, Olivia is “noted for her sense of style.” Wha??? Methinks Ms. Palermo is penning her own wikipedia entries.
I can almost forgive Kelly for looking like shit because clearly, Kelly doesn’t give a damn. But Olivia? Olivia cares very deeply about her appearance. This is evident in her 10 plus layers of make up and her carefully curled hair. That is exactly how I would do my hair and make up … when I was 13.
And then there’s her clothes. I have seen photos of Olivia online in which she actually dresses like a stylish woman in her early 20s. But on The City Olivia dresses like one of those “real housewives” from Bravo. Blazers, costume jewelry and SO MUCH BLUSH. Blech. Don’t get me wrong, Olivia would look stunning in a paper sack — she is a beautiful young girl. But I am mystified by the fact that she works in the world of cutting edge fashion but dresses like the old yentas at the country club. Someone get this woman her gimlet!
So, what do you think? Is Olivia’s “sense of style” just way too hip for provincial old me? Will she and Roxy end up mud wrestling in the season finale? Is Kelly Cutrone actually a vampire (the non-sparkling kind)? Discuss…
Affuso, Elizabeth. “ ‘Don’t just watch it, live it’ — technology, corporate partnerships and The Hills.” Jump Cut 51. http://www.ejumpcut.org.
Eckert, Charles. “Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window.” Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. Eds. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog. New York: Routledge, 1990. 100-121.