Of all the makeover shows dotting the television landscape, the Learning Channel's "What Not to Wear" has the potential to be among the most mean-spirited. The participants do not volunteer. Rather, they are nominated by friends and family who believe in intervention for those with a predilection for skintight clothes, sweat pants or hausfrau suits.
The unsuspecting soul is secretly videotaped and caught committing such unspeakable acts as lying on a bed and inhaling deeply to zip up a pencil skirt. Once all of the evidence has been laid out -- assuring the audience that the nominee deserves the coming assault -- the individual is ambushed. Nominees are gang-criticized by their scheming loved ones as well as the show's hosts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly. At that moment, the only things preventing the nominees from slugging the organizers of these clandestine operations are the reassurance that they will not be expected to undergo a surgical procedure or life coaching, and the bait of a $5,000 shopping spree in New York. Any sense of cruelty is diffused by the good-natured joshing of the hosts.
The pleasure of "What Not to Wear" lies not only in its promise to transform a dowdy duckling into a swan but also that it will happen the old-fashioned way -- with a new haircut, fresh makeup and an updated wardrobe. What little counseling there is boils down to this: Buck up. In an age of indiscriminate psychological dissection, cutthroat simplicity is refreshing. Now in its second season, the show takes on a new challenge, addressing for the first time the fashion dilemmas of a couple: Will Creedle and Nicole Stoner of the District. They were ambushed at their engagement party. Their story airs this evening at 10.
Stoner nominated her fiance because he was obsessed with soccer jerseys. He wore them with khaki trousers that hung off his frame because of his 60-pound weight loss. But when the fashion experts viewed Creedle's videotape, they decided that Stoner could use a little sprucing up as well. As a freelance marketing consultant who had been working from home, she was sliding down the slippery slope from casual toward sloppy.
Creedle readily admits his fashion mistakes. "I didn't care how I was dressed for work," he says. "I just wanted to meet the basic requirements." Creedle works for the Internet division of Geico. He wore his too-big khakis to the office. He shunned the more fashionable cargo pants. "I thought they were the '90s version of parachute pants." Creedle, 30, looked like any number of young Washington men walking to work in their modified athletic footwear, canvas backpacks slung over one shoulder. They don't look particularly bad, but even the casual observer could suss out the fact that they could look better.
Stoner, 28, was also caught wearing soccer jerseys at inappropriate times. She had a fondness for the kind of chunky heels that can make even the best pair of legs look stumpy. And the few suits she owned reminded Creedle of something that would be worn by a Washington matron.
In selecting subjects for a makeover, the show asks, "Is this person challenged in some form? Are they not dressing professionally enough for the job?" says executive producer Michael Klein. "We look at body shape so we can have some variety. And we look for different situations: a stay-at-home spouse versus a person stuck in an office. And we look at the relationship between the nominators and the nominees. It always has to come from a good place."
Few subjects are as sensitive as appearance. It cuts straight to the heart of how people feel about themselves, challenging their perceptions about whether they fit in, pale in comparison to others or rise above the norm. In a chat room on the show's Web site, an earlier makeover subject defends the show against chatters who call it frivolous: "I have become an example of what being healthy and happy is."
"People see clothes as an extension of themselves, so you have to argue with them on technical grounds," says London during a break on the show's TriBeCa set. Once the subjects arrive in New York toting their entire wardrobe, they must stand inside a small mirrored room and view themselves from all angles while wearing some of their most unflattering clothing. Getting the full impact of one's own rear view can be a humbling experience.
London tries to avoid conversations about personal taste, focusing instead on topics such as fit, silhouette and choosing clothing and makeup that are appropriate to one's age and situation. She tries not to make anyone cry.
"I needed to think about fit," says a made-over Creedle. "My sporty casual needed to be more adult and less jersey-oriented. I'm really excited about the business casual."
Editing compresses the fact that Creedle and Stoner spent a week in New York working with the show's hosts, who helped them style new ensembles from underwear to accessories. At the final "reveal" -- a word that has taken on new meaning thanks to TV makeovers -- Creedle is still casual but doesn't look as though he's headed home after a game of soccer. And he is wearing cargo pants.
"There are a lot of pleated khakis out there," Kelly says. "Men of Washington, D.C., you may want to update."
One of Stoner's most professional ensembles is a charcoal gray suit worn with a pair of sleek, narrow heels that replaces her faithful chunky ones. She wore the same narrow heels with a pair of boot-cut jeans and a leather blazer -- a fact that she described, under her breath, as unfortunate because a keen toe is no match for the comfort of a roomy loafer. But as Creedle -- now a fashion convert -- pointed out: They looked great.