The Sad State of Prime-Time Style
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page C02
This year's Emmy nominations arrive with a bit of melancholy. This is the last hurrah for "Sex and the City" and "Friends," shows that celebrated the work of the fashion industry and provided designers with a half-dozen or so actresses who could reliably make dramatic entrances on the red carpet. There are few shows likely to fill the void.
The contributions of "Sex and the City" have been well noted. And although "Friends" did not pay the same kind of attention to designer fashion, it did offer up Rachel, an indulgent princess who worked at Ralph Lauren but who ultimately gave up a job in Paris at Louis Vuitton to stay in New York with Ross. And in real life, while Sarah Jessica Parker was waxing fondly about Manolo Blahnik heels and Narciso Rodriguez cocktail dresses, Jennifer Aniston was putting Milan-based designer Lawrence Steele on the map by asking him to create her wedding dress for her marriage to Brad Pitt.
The list of Emmy nominations suggests a sad reality: Serious fashion, the kind that is progressive, daring and makes one mutter, "Hmm?" is on hiatus from prime-time television. Major nominations went to the CBS series "Joan of Arcadia," which is about a high school girl who encounters God in a series of human forms, from a punk rocker to a substitute teacher. But the show shies away from using fashion as a way of identifying the various tribes in her high school. Everyone seems to dress in the same Urban Outfitter-style vintage T-shirt and jeans. Occasionally the girls wear dresses, but they are mostly hidden under denim jackets. CBS appears to have offered up the only high school in America in which the students are oblivious to fashion.
Other Emmy nominees include "The West Wing." The only nod to fashion on that show has been when the fictional President Bartlet makes a fundraising trip to Los Angeles and press secretary C.J. Craig (Allison Janney) pulls her Armani gown out of the closet. The show has depicted Martin Sheen, as Bartlet, attending his inaugural. But as anyone who has ever attended an inaugural ball well knows, the main goal is to survive the evening without a blister, a torn hem or an embarrassing photograph. Fashion has little to do with it.
Mariska Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," spends most of her time in a tight-fitting crewneck sweater, trousers and occasionally a leather jacket (which seems to be a way of suggesting that when Olivia is on her down time she is a relatively hip chick). There has been at least one episode during which Olivia has a date and wears an elegant black cocktail dress. But in the "Law and Order" franchise, none of the characters has a personal life and so her date was quickly interrupted by a dead body and the job.
It is a pleasure to see James Spader nominated for his work on "The Practice," in which he plays an amoral attorney with a silver tongue and a fondness for prostitutes. But aside from the one tarty associate who favors fuchsia miniskirts for the office and table dances during her off time, the show is mostly given over to attorneys in charcoal gray suits, silk ties and the occasional pencil skirt. This is not a show that is making a case for a more creative form of business attire.
"The Sopranos" offers a few stylistic moments. But most of them, such as the tendency of many of the characters to wear thick gold jewelry and pompadours, are so over the top that even the most flamboyant viewer would be disinclined to take these looks out on the street. One of the few characters who was a true fashion lover was Adriana, played by Emmy-nominated Drea de Matteo. She liked her clothes short, tight and with a fancy designer logo. She once went mad for a pile of Jimmy Choos that had, as they say, fallen off the back of a truck. Alas, they were the wrong size. But Adriana got whacked for squealing to the feds. All the true fashion sizzle died with her.
Some might argue that the nominees in the reality show category offer a few fashion crumbs. There are the stylized singers of "American Idol," for example. But that's not fashion. That's video star costuming by way of the junior department. "The Apprentice" was filled with plenty of short skirts, high heels and long legs. But that display was really about sex, not fashion. The list of makeover and how-to-dress shows -- none of which was nominated -- roll out merchandise and a list of designer names. They lack creative tension, supporting characters, story lines and the sense that the viewer is entering a fully realized television world.
So audiences must cling to "Will & Grace" and wait to see what sort of Louis Vuitton/Marc Jacobs/Prada extravaganza star Debra Messing will wear that Emmy nominees Megan Mullally or Sean Hayes can mock. "Will & Grace" has been reliable in its fashion references, from a story line involving the Christmas windows at Barneys New York to sale shopping rampages.
Fashion may not have been canceled, but its audience is now woefully underserved.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"Joan of Arcadia," with Amber Tamblyn, features the only high school in America where students are oblivious to fashion.
(Ron P. Jaffe -- CBS)
_____From Robin Givhan_____
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The Flip Side Of Gymnastic Excellence (The Washington Post, Jul 2, 2004)