Dressing for England

The brutal fashion critics of the BBC’s What Not To Wear.

Giving Brits a dressing down

If you’re deciding what to wear today—or tonight—you might consult the ironclad dictums of Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, the brisk, unforgiving English duo who remake wardrobes weekly on What Not To Wear (BBC-America, Tuesdays).

Emphasize your waist. Reveal your décolletage. Dress in burgundy. Wear heels. For women, these four imperatives appear to have near universal application, and week after week Trinny and Susannah hand them down with such brio that I’m always happy to hear them again.

What’s less predictable about their show is how the real-life women whose wardrobes are short on heels and burgundy take the news. What Not To Wear is not Extreme Makeover; its characters are not seeking to change their appearance. Frequently, in fact, they are pleased—stubbornly pleased—with how they dress. It’s a woman’s friends, often together with her husband or boyfriend, who enlist Trinny and Susannah for their strong fashion medicine.

Then the “girls”—as WNTW viewers soon come to think of the style-journalist hosts—secretly tape the designated schlump at work and play, as well as in her underwear. Finally, they descend on her to propose radical changes (waist, décolletage, heels, burgundy).

What Not To Wear, this BBC version, is a fun and even enlightening half an hour; I imagine that’s because it’s English. The banter is sharp and, to me in New York at least, emotionally mysterious. Damn, those smartass girls play hard over there, lashing each other without remorse, announcing that their tits look squashed or their bums look big or they’re mutton dressed as lamb. Trinny and Susannah love to exchange musing and exceedingly cryptic insults as they screen videotapes of badly dressed women. “She’s dressed as a Ferrari mechanic.” “Mmm.” “She has four breasts.” “She’s like a darts player.” “Mmm.” “She’s a little Shetland pony with laminitis.” “She’s a classic pear.” “Mmm.”

But then, the subjects of their makeovers are hardly more retiring. They typically greet the appearance of Trinny and Susannah with genial annoyance, and then submit to the process of having their wardrobes edited with a mixture of polite curiosity and visible irritation. What’s missing are tears. Tell an American woman her clothes are tacky and make her hips look wide, and she’ll dissolve. Tell an English woman, it seems, and she’ll shrug it off. As a stocky, ruddy blonde said recently, “Inside this rather sort of outer blubby exterior, I feel as if I’m 6 foot and stunning.”

I often sit gleefully agape at how simultaneously tough and mirthful these English broads can be. That hard, happy spirit is lamentably absent from TLC’s American version of What Not To Wear, on which a male and female host take turns saying staged mean things to a girl who can’t take it. For insight, I e-mailed an English friend recently, asking about the mystique of Trinny and Susannah. She wrote back immediately. “T and S are English boarding school matrons in the bodies of game show hostesses. But they do combine that sort of English combination of no-nonsense-tell-it-plain-I-remember-the-blitz-fight-the-bloody-Gerries-ness with a spot of lewd public school tit obsession. Works like a dream.”

It does work like a dream, though I still hardly understand it. What Not To Wear makes you want to cinch in your waist, stand tall in high heels, and pull your burgundy socks up. No crying; that’s rubbish. Somehow, too, the Anglo-show also makes you want to flash your cleavage. Like so much in life, that must have something to do with the blitz.