Fashion Roadkill

When did Carrie Bradshaw become a label whore?

Also in Slate: Lesley M.M. Blume squelched dreams of a Sex and the City: The Movie cash cow, and Dana Stevens thought the movie tries to have its Cinderella-themed cake of romantic fulfillment and eat it, too. 

Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City: The Movie

The Sex and the City movie begins, of course, with a voiceover: Sarah Jessica Parker, as a pensive Carrie Bradshaw, intones that women come to New York looking for two things: “love and labels.” If the phrase rings a bell, you may be thinking of “Love or Labels,” the heavily promoted song that Fergie contributed to the film’s soundtrack. The sentiment, though—the idea that acquiring designer goods is an aspiration on par with matrimony for young female New Yorkers—is new. Although TV Carrie was a sucker for Manolo Blahnik and an ostentatious dresser, she wasn’t a label whore. The movie, on the other hand, can’t get enough.

Consider, for example, the scene in which Carrie suffers through an awkward phone call and then stands forlorn … and perfectly framed in the window of a Diane von Fürstenberg store. Or the one where a sex-starved Samantha fills her Mercedes with boxes from Gucci. Or the one where Carrie gives her assistant—so destitute she has to rent a Louis Vuitton bag, the poor thing—her very own Vuitton. Or the endless scene in which Carrie tries on a succession of wedding dresses—sorry, reader: I’m not telling you whether she marries him—breathlessly panting the name of each designer as she poses and preens: “Vera Wang … Carolina Herrera … Lanvin … Dior … Vivienne Westwood.” As the montage trudges on, you begin to consider the negotiations required to amass these garments. Did Herrera decree that her first name be used? Did each designer demand a certain quantum of screen time? What did Vivienne Westwood do to assure her gown would come out on top?

Although this labelmania is hardly surprising—why shouldn’t a series known for its fantastical clothing recruit and then flatter such heavy hitters?—I found it disappointing. This is not to say the clothes in the film are bad. Many of the outfits are glorious. (I’ll take two of the Miranda-in-therapy suits and one Carrie-buys-a-copy-of-Vogue fedora.) But there are fewer vintage pieces, fewer off-kilter touches, and the movie, with its emphasis on big-name designers, seems to ignore what the show got right about clothes: that dressing up is a way to invent different versions of yourself.

Why, after all, did Carrie dress like such a kook? Take her now-iconic tutu, besmirched each week in the TV show’s opening credits. (I will reveal that the tutu has a cameo in the film—and looks spotless! Forget Carrie’s unrealistically nice apartment. Who does her dry cleaning?) Initially, I suspect, such outfits served as a sort of shorthand, marking Carrie as a “creative type” distinct from preppy Charlotte, businesslike Miranda, and sophisticatedly slutty Samantha.

Eventually, though, the clothes became something more than just shorthand. Although television Carrie was ostensibly a writer—tap-tap-tapping at that Mac in ballerina-hued tanktops—her hokey prose always strained the credibility of the premise. Her real genius, we came to see, lay in the closet: Her creative outlet was getting dressed. Television Carrie was a woman who took a costume designer’s approach to her own life, plotting oddball outfits for brunches and ball games alike. When she briefly dated a politician in Season 3, Carrie channeled Jackie O. in big sunglasses and vintage Halston (trying on, and eventually rejecting, both the man and the look). When she ran a few errands in Season 4, she adopted this post-apocalyptic vaudeville newsboy vibe—because why not be a badass from an alternate dimension when picking up some flowers and the paper?

There were labels throughout, of course—that post-apocalyptic newsboy is wearing Fendi mules—but Carrie mixed it up, combining dime-store finds with high-end pieces, wearing fur to Yankee stadium and a white tuxedo jacket over a threadbare Mickey Mouse T on a date. Above all, she valued looks that showcased the unexpected. (That and her great legs.) Some of these were beautiful, and some were pure disasters, but, regardless, Carrie offered an admirable model of how a woman should relate to her wardrobe: She should not unthinkingly adopt the latest thing; she can admire high-end designers without worshipping them; she should use her clothes as a means to express who she is and to become who she wants to be.

At first, America didn’t get the message: Women seemed to think dressing like Carrie meant dressing like Carrie, and a thousand fake flower corsages bloomed. The character also did wonders for the brands she loved, making the formerly rarified wares of Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo must-haves for women across the country. Eventually, however, women found more subtle ways to pay homage to their favorite newspaper columnist, running out to buy her latest pair of shoes, yes, but also channeling her mix-and-match spirit. Indeed, the current emphasis on “the mix”—on combining high and low with élan, on serving as your own stylist—can be attributed, in part, to the Carrie aesthetic. (The citizens featured in New York’s Look Book, the cover girls of Lucky, the elegant sophisticates anointed by the Sartorialist: You’re more likely to hear them bragging about unexpected combinations than name-dropping Fendi and Chanel.)

Which is why it’s disconcerting, in this movie, to find labels playing such a prominent role. For TV Carrie, labels were one way to get from point A to point B. For movie Carrie, they are point B. (It’s true that a vintage suit plays a small and valiant role in the film. But it gets a lot more mockery than reverence.)

In another movie, this labelpalooza wouldn’t be so depressing. But on Sex and the City, clothes have always served as a metaphor. Carrie’s sartorial creativity symbolizes what’s most appealing about her character: her openness to life and her belief that there are countless good ways to live it. The film shows us a Carrie with narrowed horizons—both sartorially and romantically. Television Carrie created her own fantasies; movie Carrie gets hers off the rack. Labels or no labels, there’s nothing to love about that.