Fashion takes a leading role in 'The Real Housewives' franchise

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; E01

The "Real Housewives" franchise, that juggernaut of gossip, gluttony and Botox, incorporates fashion as a kind of gallivanting character -- a constantly striving, ostentatious, insecure troublemaker who believes there's no such thing as too much cleavage.

During each show's opening montage, the smiling Housewives pose and preen in front of a voyeuristic camera. Wardrobe favorites include jewel-tone dresses in shiny, shiny satin or, for the more demure ladies, georgette frocks with low-cut decolletage. More often than not, said dresses appear to be at least one size too small.

The point of this introductory shot is not to establish the women as fashion savants. No, no. The manner in which they position their hands on their hips, shimmy and toss their hair makes them look more tarty than tasteful. In some openings, the women will have their heads tilted back in a rather haughty manner while they perch with formal posture on an armchair. The resulting statement is: Here sits imperiousness that's ready to pop.

With the likelihood of inappropriate behavior thus established, let the hair-pulling -- or weave-wrenching -- ensue. Fashion is a weapon, a distraction, a power play from Atlanta to New York.

In more than one version of "The Real Housewives," fashion provides an outlet for the women's entrepreneurial interests. Fashion is the perfect occupation for the Housewives, whose job it is to look good, stir up trouble and engage in the kind of consumer gluttony that transforms a shopping trip into a day-long affair that requires breaks for sustenance.

Few other industries have so captured the public's imagination as a fertile ground for money, glamour and, sadly, catty behavior. The fashion industry fascinates because it is charged with attaching a dollar value to physical attractiveness. How crass! It also allows for an open and loving display of material goods. A housewife can inventory her collection of shoes and have it cast as research for a possible fashion line.

The Housewives of Atlanta and New Jersey, in particular, are expert consumers. The cameras don't highlight their discerning eye but rather their voracious appetites. They are hungry to define themselves, yearning to be noticed and starving for status for themselves and their families. Their fashion consumption delivers that message succinctly, so that the one-hour dramas do not have to waste time with characters offering long self-analysis.

Get a load of that disastrous "She by ShereƩ" line! Why does Kim wear such flamboyant platinum Dolly Parton wigs? Why is Teresa obsessed with dressing her children up like designer Barbie dolls? Clothes and hair sum up the misleading, uncomfortable and insecure way in which the women navigate their world more eloquently than any on-camera confessional ever could.

In New York, the fashion connections are more direct and more substantial. The city is, after all, the center of the American fashion industry. Having access to fashion is not especially rarefied. Practically everyone in Manhattan knows someone who knows someone who can alert them to a "friends and family" sample sale or get them into a fashion show in some dank warehouse. In New York, fashion is part of the city's language. Television boils that language down to the basest cliches, but it doesn't lessen fashion's ability to communicate.

Housewife Kelly Killoren Bensimon is an erstwhile model, a former wife of a fashion editor and the author of several style-related picture books. She also displays the tart tongue and the explosive personality that are part of the fashion-insider stereotype. You hate her from the moment she says hello.

Jill Zarin once hosted a luncheon and trunk show featuring the New York designer Zang Toi -- a man who has been known to wear hot pants to business appointments. The event was an opportunity for Jill -- the Housewives are all about first-name intimacy -- to discuss the socioeconomic dynamics of the buy-it-at-full-price trunk show. Only the moneyed matter in a social sphere where everyone has some kind of access to designer attire. It's not just about what you're wearing, but how you got it.

And, of course, there is Alex McCord and her husband, Simon van Kampen, for whom a shopping excursion is like a trip to the Museum of Modern Art with two of the world's most pretentious and emotive art history majors.

Even now, as the franchise turns its sights on D.C., a city defined by politics, policy and the intelligentsia, fashion maintains its leading role. Housewife Lynda Erkiletian owns T.H.E. Artist Agency, and Bravo has provided the gloriously evocative tidbit that Mary Amons uses a biometric fingerprint scanner on her closet door to protect its contents from her children. That detail alone is fodder for a season's worth of pop-psychology analysis.

And do we even need to mention Michaele Salahi and her red sari-like extravaganza seen around the world? That single get-up has become shorthand for narcissism, scandal and a mind-boggling ability to float through life in a private bubble of make-believe.

The Housewives couldn't exist without fashion. From a purely aesthetic point of view, fashion provides eye candy: a steady stream of bright colors, shiny fabrics, big furs, big hair, big cleavage, high heels and long extensions. After all, these aren't just any Housewives -- these are fabulously glamorous ones. (Note: No one is pitching "The Real Housewives of Gary.")

Fashion is also the Housewives' worst frenemy, serving to belittle them at every opportunity. They try so hard to frame fashion as business, as just reward for all their hard work, as charitable tool, as art. But ultimately their efforts are unconvincing and viewers are left with the impression that the women are wholly defined by self-indulgence, materialism and showmanship.

It will be interesting to see if Washington, a city that is often characterized as being all work and no fun, a place where people take themselves too seriously to cut loose and flip over tables, will be able to stand up to the effects of fashion in its most tawdry form. The smart money says no because in reality TV, the most superficial elements thrive -- not the most thoughtful or complex ones.

Fashion can be serious business with a far-reaching cultural impact. But in the glare of the Housewives spotlight, in the midst of a hair-pulling match, the only thing anyone notices is who's wearing the best -- or worst -- dress.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company