I love Project Runway. As far as reality shows go, I appreciate it because it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It acknowledges it’s rigged and doesn’t pretend otherwise by inviting fan votes. It has judges who are part of the industry it supports (and who are respected in their fields) as judges and mentors, not people who are famous and boring and say empty things (see: Nicole Scherzinger on The Sing-Off). And it’s interesting because the contestants on the show are regular ol’ people who just happen to be talented at something that works for TV (unlike a writing show, which I would love to be on and have challenges and stuff, but nobody but other writers and sadomasochists would want to watch), and so you really get to see them being interesting, and then dumb, and then ugly on the inside, just like real people. Shows like Real Housewives don’t do it for me, because those are ugly people who live unreal lives, so their ugliness is just gross and also just surreal. But contestants on Project Runway get to exhibit all of their human awkwardness. And to me, at least, it actually seems real–meaning that I can generally understand the points all the judges make, and sometimes I am utterly confused about their decisions until I consider that this is a competition for high fashion and couture, and often I am attracted to the clothes that I look like I would want to wear them to work or school, and that’s not usually the point of the show.
My favorite part of this show is probably any time that Michael Kors says something in Yiddish and Heidi Klum gets cutely confused because she thinks he’s speaking German.
So. I said I would talk about the episodes each season that deal with “real women,” because those are usually the trainwrecks of each season, and that makes them hilarious, awesome, and frustrating. Since I didn’t start this series soon enough, I don’t feel like I need to beat over the head that this season’s episode had the most blatant fat-bashing ever, and it was rather uncomfortable. Not that I don’t think that issue warrants discussion, but other people have done that already, so I’ll move on.
I’ve seen a lot of blogs lately bemoan the “real women” epithet on the basis that models are still living, breathing humans, and that demonizing skinny girls doesn’t help more shapely women get what they need out of the fashion industry. I see their point, but there is also plenty of research and anecdotal evidence to show that in fact many models are not “real” in the sense that they do very unnatural things with their bodies to fit into clothes. And I’m not even blaming them so much, because it’s the system that insists that only 6-foot tall, 110-pound ladies look okay in clothing, and no human should be ashamed when the system gets them. That’s why it’s a system. Because it’s hard to beat.
Also, Project Runway is about high fashion more than it is about retail. When it is about retail, it’s about very wealthy people who either dress for their jobs as socialites or who have fancy jobs where they can wear fancy clothes, whereas women who are teachers and HR reps and restaurant managers need to look professional, probably want to look fun or flirty or quirky or whatever their personal style is, and also have more middle incomes and cannot afford to buy a new season’s worth of clothes four times a year. (Seriously, what is that? Who buys seasonal wardrobes? I remember back to school shopping and clearance shopping to buy stuff like a jacket for a year later, but I grew up in a place that didn’t have seasons, and also I grew up without excessive amounts of money.) So the “real women” challenges, in my mind, are also about designing more practical and affordable (or, at least, made with a pattern that could more easily than others be mass produced) clothes for people with more average lives. And yeah, sorry, but while the terminology might need tweaking, I don’t feel at all for people who are size zeros because they can wear WHATEVER they want and can afford and it will always be designed with the end goal of looking amazing on them. Everybody above that doesn’t have that luxury, so while they might be as human as size zeros, I do think they deserve special consideration, and in fashion, they are definitely a special population. There is also something, frankly, more “real” about people who have less money. If it makes you feel better, we can call these types of challenges “everyday” challenges, because they generally reflect the needs of people with more average bodies, more average incomes, and more average lifestyles (as in less leisure time, raising their children without the help of a live-in nanny, etc). Happy? Because really, taking issue with the terminology is so not the point. If you can’t see that people who are size zero or who can afford to go shopping whenever the hell they want are not like the rest of us, you are probably one of them, and then I don’t particularly care about your problems, at least not your fashion ones.
These are my favorite “real women” designs from all seasons (click on the first photo to start and then you can view it as a slideshow):
General awesomesauce things on the show: Pretty clothing! Also, pretty decent diversity stats without highlighting them as YAYDIVERSITYARENTWEGREAT or otherizing. Also, there is never any weirdness about gay and lesbian contestants (and they have had both, including on this season, though the lesbian contestant was eliminated an episode ago), nor does the show shy away from showing pictures of them with their partners, talking about them, etc. Win! Also, I think it’s interesting and cool how many people are either immigrants themselves or first-generation Americans, and yet nobody gives them any shit, because the show is about being talented and full of drama, not being of a certain color or coming here to steal our fashion design jobs. In this season, there is a Brazilian, a Ukrainian, a Guyanan (what is the adjective for that?), and a Belarussian all with family still back in those countries, and there are also American-born people of color. And it’s never a big deal, but it’s also never portrayed as being the same as being white. Novelists, screenwriters, casting directors, journalists, etc could all take a note from Project Runway on that.
General problematic things on the show: Always having “real women” or “everyday women” episodes as special challenges kind of furthers the system that says that these types of women (aka pretty much all women) are weirdos in desperate need of help but also generally not worth anyone’s time. And even though the show doesn’t pretend to be about retail (watch Fashion Star for that) for normal people, it can be frustrating to see designers complain about only having $100 to make an outfit, because I cannot afford outfits that cost more than that.
Final verdict: Considering society and THE SYSTEM, this show does so many things right and so many things so much better than everyone else.