Week 8: Fashioning the Needy

While the physical similarities between Clinton Kelly and Robert Moffat are hard to argue, the missions of Moffat and Kelly can be deemed similar. Robert Moffat, one of the pioneer evangelists discussed in Jean Comaroff’s article titled “The Empire’s Old Clothes: Fashioning the Colonial Subject” was one of many Nonconformist missionaries from Europe who entered South Africa in the nineteenth century to civilize the Tswana people. These Nonconformists made it their mission to “cover African ‘nakedness’–in particular, to make the Southern Tswana susceptible to the aesthetics of European fashion” (Comaroff, 1996, p.20). While on this mission to civilize the Tswana people, the Nonconformists in turn encouraged South Africans to switch to a colonial economy which had marked class distinctions throughout dress and appearance. While the jump from the Nonconformists’ mission to “save” the Tswana people and Clinton Kelly and Stacy London’s mission to help various participants rid themselves of fashion faux pas might seem like a large one, their overall messages are similar.

When the Europeans first arrived in South Africa to help the poor, naked Tswana people, they were rejected by some. Although many Tswana were interested in the new clothing practices that the Europeans brought with them, some South Africans saw it as a Western nation trying to change their traditions and culture. The Tswana people “tended to treat objects of Western adornment as signs of exotic force; those introduced by the mission were soon identified as sekgoa, ‘white things'” (Comaroff, 1996, p.26). The Southern Tswana were reluctant to let the Western objects and traditions influence them and therefore labeled them as foreign. Before Western influence appeared to be a threat to the Tswana people, they enjoyed using sekgoa clothing experimentally. Once the Tswana people realized the influence that Western civilization could have on their cultures and traditions,  some began to reject it. This is very easily compared to the beginning of each episode of “What Not to Wear”  when the participants try to save their favorite items of clothing from the infamous trash container. Some participants even fight Stacy and Clinton, most of the time unsuccessfully of course, to keep their most precious pieces of clothing, as seen in the clip below.

The woman shown in this clip, LeAnne, is explained to be a practicing witch. While this is not common, the similarities between witches wanting to keep their own cultures and dress and Southern Tswana wanting to maintain their traditions is clear. Clinton and Stacy’s disgust of LeAnne’s wardrobe of long, black dresses and colorful accessories is shown by Stacy saying “No self-respecting, modern day witch can wear these.” This quote is reminiscent of Mrs. Moffat’s letter to her friend in London. Moffat remarks, “all the heathen population besmear themselves with red ochre and grease, and as the Christians must necessarily come in contact, with their friends among the heathen, they soon look miserable enough” (Comaroff, 1996, p.28). Both LeAnne and the Tswana people are shown to be people who have lost their way, who clearly don’t know the true importance of physical appearance and who need to be helped. Both the hosts of “What Not to Wear” and the Nonconformists feel unfortunate to even have to associate or come into contact with people as naive and unknowledgeable as LeAnne and the Southern Tswana.

As shown in both “What Not to Wear” and Comaroff’s article, the unfashionable are at first given acceptable clothing as charity. On the show, the participants are given a $5,000 gift card to spend on clothing that is approved by Stacy and Clinton. Participants are given guidelines to shop by and when they do not follow these, they are quickly corrected by the fashion gurus. In Mrs. Moffat’s letter on page 28 of the article, she lets her friend know what clothing would be acceptable to send to South Africa. Although they are giving these people clothing as charity, they are enforcing strict guidelines about what clothing they can receive. Once the policing of clothing is over, the Southern Tswana and the participants on the TLC show sometimes revert back to their old ways. This is seen in the article when Comaroff discusses some Tswanas’ ability to combine the clothing material given by the Nonconformists and their traditional clothing techniques. For “What Not to Wear,” this is seen on the “Then and Now” episodes, where Stacy and Clinton spy on some of their previous participants and see if they are keeping up with the fashion rules they set for them. As expected, some of the participants have reverted back to their drab, awful, unfashionable ways.

In both “What Not to Wear” and “The Empire’s Old Clothes: Fashioning the Colonial Subject,” members of society who do not see clothing or appearance as important are reformed and shown the right way. What harmful effects do you think that this had on the Tswana people and the participants in the TLC show? How do shows like “What Not to Wear” change people’s perceptions of themselves and their clothing? Are they helpful to participants’ self-esteem? Do you think that shows like “What Not to Wear” are produced simply to push people to spend more money on their clothing  and overall appearance or is it some other motivation? What other modern day comparisons to Jean Comaroff’s article can you think of?

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13 thoughts on “Week 8: Fashioning the Needy

  1. Colonization always alters a society and culture, often for the worse. The Europeans colonized not only Tswana land, but their dress and therefore their culture as well. Comaroff demonstrates the European’s desire to “civilize” and introduce a commodity culture to the Tswana by drawing upon examples from clothing. I slightly disagree with the argument that the people of Tswana did not value clothing as a means of social status. From the reading, we learn the Tswana people did value clothing- just in an nontraditional, non-European manner. Animal skin coats and face paint indicated social standing within the tribes, however, the Europeans saw their minimal dress and overall “greasy appearance” as a form of “nakedness”- meaning an unfit appearance under the supervision of God. The Europeans sailed in and began “civilizing” the Tswana people through alterations in dress and gender roles. While the exact effects of the colonization are not outlined in the article itself, any form of cultural shifts takes a toll on the natives.
    In the article, there is a slight indication the Chief abhorred European clothing, and demanded his own family return to “heathen” clothing after they had sported the European fashion for a period of time. The use of “heathen” demonstrates the way the Chief viewed himself and his own people. Heathen is a word the Europeans utilized to describe the primitive and uncivilized nature of the natives. The Chief adopting the word indicates he is beginning to see his people -as well as himself- as primitive under the rule of the Europeans. Colonized people in any sense and era, not limited to the Tswana people, experience dramatic cultural shocks that begin to alter their judgment of self- worth. For example, in the case of the Tswana people, they began to adopt European clothing and add their own cultural influences. However, their adoption of European dress still places them below Christian Europeans in the hierarchy created by the European clothing and commodity culture.

    In the case of the television show What Not To Wear, I believe it is also inaccurate to declare the people on the show are disinterested in their appearance. Many of the contestants have worn elaborate costumes (I have seen one with a clown, a self-declared witch, and a mom who is stuck in her clubbing days. Just recently, there was an episode about a woman who only wore vintage because of the message it sent to society). However, I believe the show rids of all the self-esteem and self-worth these people have as they are basically being colonized into society. Stacy and Clinton are not so different from the European colonizers (to make a stretching comparison to the themes). They throw away all of the contestants clothes, and force them to go shopping for an entirely new wardrobe. The first day allows the contestant to shop on their own- which usually means integrating mainstream clothing with their past style. This is similar to what the Tswana people had done when they adopted European fashion and added touches of their own culture to it. The second day allows Stacy and Clinton to play dress up with their subject and integrate them into society as a “respectable member”- wearing dark wash jeans, a blouson top, and a structured jacket (just like every other member on the show). *

    In my opinion, the goal of What Not to Wear is to lead people to dress in a “fashionable” and “stylish” way so they will not be too different and make waves in society. If you really look at the show, sometimes the people on it are eccentric in a fun and off way- which contributes more to society than a mass of structured jackets. The show acts as a tool to influence a large audience to conform to the norms of society. It sends the message that if they do not conform, they become the outsiders and the butt of all punch lines.

    *for the record- I watch this show religiously. It’s a guilty pleasure.

  2. Colonization always alters a society and culture, often for the worse. The Europeans colonized not only Tswana land, but their dress and therefore their culture as well. Comaroff demonstrates the European’s desire to “civilize” and introduce a commodity culture to the Tswana by drawing upon examples from clothing. I slightly disagree with the argument that the people of Tswana did not value clothing as a means of social status. From the reading, we learn the Tswana people did value clothing- just in an untraditional, non-European manner. Animal skin coats and face paint indicated social standing within the tribes, however, the Europeans saw their minimal dress and overall “greasy appearance” as a form of “nakedness”- meaning an unfit appearance under the supervision of God. The Europeans sailed in and began “civilizing” the Tswana people through alterations in dress and gender roles. While the exact effects of the colonization are not outlined in the article itself, any form of cultural shifts takes a toll on the natives.
    In the article, there is a slight indication the Chief abhorred European clothing, and demanded his own family return to “heathen” clothing after they had sported the European fashion for a period of time. The use of “heathen” demonstrates the way the Chief viewed himself and his own people. Heathen is a word the Europeans utilized to describe the primitive and uncivilized nature of the natives. The Chief adopting the word indicates he is beginning to see his people -as well as himself- as primitive under the rule of the Europeans. Colonized people in any sense and era, not limited to the Tswana people, experience dramatic cultural shocks that begin to alter their judgment of self- worth. For example, in the case of the Tswana people, they began to adopt European clothing and add their own cultural influences. However, their adoption of European dress still places them below Christian Europeans in the hierarchy created by the European clothing and commodity culture.
    In the case of the television show What Not To Wear, I believe it is also inaccurate to declare the people on the show are disinterested in their appearance. Many of the contestants have worn elaborate costumes (I have seen one with a clown, a self-declared witch, and a mom who is stuck in her clubbing days. Just recently, there was an episode about a woman who only wore vintage because of the message it sent to society). However, I believe the show rids of all the self-esteem and self-worth these people have as they are basically being colonized into society. Stacy and Clinton are not so different from the European colonizers (to make a stretching comparison to the themes). They throw away all of the contestants clothes, and force them to go shopping for an entirely new wardrobe. The first day allows the contestant to shop on their own- which usually means integrating mainstream clothing with their past style. This is similar to what the Tswana people had done when they adopted European fashion and added touches of their own culture to it. The second day allows Stacy and Clinton to play dress up with their subject and integrate them into society as a “respectable member”- wearing dark wash jeans, a blouson top, and a structured jacket (just like every other member on the show). *
    In my opinion, the goal of What Not to Wear is to lead people to dress in a “fashionable” and “stylish” way so they will not be too different and make waves in society. If you really look at the show, sometimes the people on it are eccentric in a fun and off way- which contributes more to society than a mass of structured jackets. The show acts as a tool to influence a large audience to conform to the norms of society. It sends the message that if they do not conform, they become the outsiders and the butt of all punch lines.
    *for the record- I watch this show religiously. It’s a guilty pleasure.

  3. In both “What Not to Wear” and “The Empire’s Old Clothes: Fashioning the Colonial Subject,” members of society who do not see clothing or appearance as important are reformed and shown the right way. What harmful effects do you think that this had on the Tswana people and the participants in the TLC show? How do shows like “What Not to Wear” change people’s perceptions of themselves and their clothing? Are they helpful to participants’ self-esteem? Do you think that shows like “What Not to Wear” are produced simply to push people to spend more money on their clothing and overall appearance or is it some other motivation? What other modern day comparisons to Jean Comaroff’s article can you think of?

    Anytime someone tells you what you are doing is wrong or makes some sort of criticism, you automatically begin to internalize what they are saying. Depending on the situation this criticism can be helpful. However, in the case of “What Not to Wear” and the Tswana people, this outside opinion poses a negative threat. As a culture that did not give very much significance to clothing and one’s outward appearance, the Tswana were mesmerized by the new Colonial dress. They would sometimes dress in it just to experiment but for the most part did not value it like the missionaries did. The missionaries taught the Tswana people the right way and expected them to see the light and change their ways to mimic them. However, in doing so, the missionaries forgot that the Tswana people had their own set of beliefs and what they felt was the right way to do things.

    By forcing one’s culture on a subordinate group, that lesser group’s power is diminished. They are made to feel that they are in the wrong, that their beliefs do not matter and that they are of no importance anymore. This can be quite damaging and belittling to a person. I have to believe that both the Tswana people and the people on “What Not to Wear” feel some sort of shame when they are told that the way they dress is unacceptable. The missionaries and the hosts of this show have their particular viewpoints of what is acceptable but they do not realize that everyone share’s their opinions nor should they have to. There is not a common denominator for clothing practices. What works for one group might not work for another.

    This is not to say though that a little outside influence cannot be beneficial. A little guidance here and there can have a positive effect on a person’s self esteem. Say for example that one of the people on “What Not to Wear” just does not have the time to keep current with fashion or the money to buy new things. Inside she may be unhappy with her wardrobe and wishes that she could be more stylish but simply does not know how or have the means. With the hosts helping her thought what would look good on her body type plus a $5,000 shopping spree, the woman can transform her look. From personal experience, when you feel confident in what you are wearing you feel better about yourself in general.

    A modern day example that comes to mind are all the makeover shows on television. These shows allow average people the chance to get complete body makeovers. With these makeovers come new identities, new spirit and overall new found confidence.

  4. The comparison you made between the Tswana people and the participants on the TLC show, “What Not to Wear” is extremely intriguing. I have mixed feelings about how the people’s self esteem and self-perceptions are altered after the show. Unsurprising to most, it is probably dependent upon the individual (which is evident from the fact that some people go back to their own style of dress.) I can see it both ways in regards to the television show. It could help the person’s self esteem in that other people find them attractive. Often, it seems, others self esteem is directly correlated to how others view them. On the other hand, dressing in a style that is not comfortable to them could make them feel awkward, uncomfortable, and untrue to themselves. I believe this is why many people go back to their original way of dress.
    Your comparison to the Tswana people and the fact that one of the participants on “What Not to Wear” that was Wiccan made me realize that events like this do take away from people’s cultures. This reminds me of the post on “Good Hair” and how often we change ourselves to appear attractive according to the norms of our society. I find it interesting that you brought up the point that these shows are perhaps just for the purpose of spending money on clothing. Now that you make that point, I believe that is correct. Shows like “What Not to Wear” are not only trying to makeover the person on the show, but also the viewers watching. They are encouraging change to fit the social norms and thus, encouraging us to buy the clothes that go along with the norm.

  5. I disagree a little bit about the function of What not to Wear and comparing the show and Stacey and Clinton to the Tswana Colonizers. For the Tswana people, the way they dressed made they feel beautiful and was important to their spirituality and culture. Although the colonizers would argue that they were helping the people because they were removing their heathen and barbaric ways and allowing them to be more civilized. Yet, the Tswana people were happy the way they were. I totally agree that on some episodes of the show, the “ fashion victims” are very happy with the way they dress, and It is questionable of Stacy and Clinton( and who ever produces the show) to try to force someone to conform to a standard of dressing when they are happy just how they are. However, I have watched countless episodes of what not to wear and often wonder if they have a psychologist on hand- because they show gets very emotional. Often the “fashion victims” admit they have stopped caring about their appearance because they have lost self confidence, gained weight, became busy mothers, or gone through some hardship. Lots of times someone will have lost a lot of weight, and still wear clothes that are way too big on them. They often admit that they feel ugly and undesirable the way they look but don’t know how to change it. Often people cry when they see the end results and how beautiful they look. I think it can be argued that the show helps to build people’s self esteem when they have lost it. Stacy and Clinton always tell people how beautiful they are, and that they should wear clothes that make them feel good and embrace their current weight and current position in life. An even better example is the show How to Look Good Naked. (I have watched the uk version, which is much better than the us one) But the same thing happens …. in a more extreme way, with lots of women in bras and panties being shown. The host encourages people to love their body and their life – and teaches them how to dress in a way that will make they feel beautiful and confident about their bodies.

  6. It is important to remember, that although as students studying the politics of fashion and therefore showing some interest in fashion, not everybody sees clothing as ‘fashionable’. For some it is pure necessity, for others it is symbolic of their beliefs, culture or heritage, and for others the clothing they wear is connected to their work. In trying to reform the Tswana people and those featured on WNTW, this strips their current choice of clothing of any meaning or value within society. This can be harmful for those being forced to modernize and conform to modern fashions as it is, in essence declaring that the reasons why they wear what they wear are inferior to why they must adopt trends accepted by society.

    Although shows such as WNTW are initially harmful to the self-esteem of those featured on the show, the usual outcome and reaction of family and friends is enough to persuade them that conforming to the rest of society is the right choice. One forgets however, those sat at home that could easily compare the contents of their closets with those featured on the show pre-makeover. What are they supposed to think, that they too must have a complete over haul of their clothes and adopt a more ‘socially acceptable’ look? I believe that shows like WNTW exist purely as entertainment. I am confident that media bosses are not overwhelmingly concerned with the fashion habits of a nation and more concerned with viewing figures. The show is appealing because it includes a little drama, some resistance, a huge transformation and usually a changed person who has been reinvented into a happy person with a perfect life and a perfect closet. They are selling an unobtainable reality where if everyone dressed in the same belted floral tea dress and patent peep-toe kitten heels the world would be a better place.

    One modern day comparison that goes both with and against the grain is the show ‘How to Look Good Naked’, presented by Gok Wan. Not only does the show take women who have lost all confidence in their bodies to feel body beautiful once more and take part in a naked photo shoot and lingerie catwalk show, but the presenter of the show will also demonstrate how the participant can feel more body comfortable while dressed too. Not only does Gok celebrate the female form for its natural beauty (unlike the way in which the Europeans acted towards the Tswana people) but he also uses his style advice and knowledge to style the women in day and evening wear too.

  7. Even though I agree that it is quite a stretch to compare Nonconformist missionaries’ objective to “save” the Tswana people to Clinton and Stacy’s goal to help people improve their wardrobe, I also agree with the assertion that the two have an exceedingly similar general notion that certain people need to be civilized and refined. In the case of the Nonconformist missionaries, they aimed to “civilize” the Tswana people by making them “susceptible to the aesthetics of European fashion” (Comaroff, 20). Similarly, Clinton and Stacy endeavor to “civilize” individuals who lack fashion sense, according to their specific standards, by helping them find and buy clothing that will make them be considered more fashionable in our Western culture. This idea that people need to be “saved” from their current culture or their lifestyle choices is definitely not confined to fashion. However, it is interesting to examine the power of clothing and fashion in both colonization and mere television entertainment.

    I think that the comparison between the way in which the Tswana people rejected the sekgoa clothing when they realized the potential it had to change their culture and traditions and the manner in which participants on “What Not to Wear” attempt to salvage their beloved clothing items from the trash can is rather insightful. Personally, I believe that individuals should preserve their unique style even if it is not considered fashionable. In the same manner, it is imperative that cultures preserve their traditions, including their clothing. In my opinion, it is extremely unfortunate when individuals and entire cultures adopt practices imposed on them by other individuals or cultures and lose their essence.

  8. While I do think that makeover shows can have the potential to make people feel better about themselves and refresh their overall look and appearance, I think that there are also elements that are highly problematic. For one thing, all the guests on “What Not To Wear” arrive looking totally different and unique from one another, but by the time they leave the show, they all look the same. While I have no problem with people dressing business casual, I also think that someone wearing pajama pants to walk their dog is not a big deal. The makeover rhetoric of “What Not To Wear” relies on people perceiving a direct and undeniable link between fashion, personality, and overall life happiness. It seemed to me that the woman they were trying to makeover in the video clip was probably perfectly happy as a witch. It seems unlikely that after this makeover she will stop wearing all black and suddenly be a new person who loves colors. I don’t believe that there is one right look for every person and if we all looked alike this world would be a pretty boring place!

  9. I think by being forced into having to conform to someone else’s ideal about what’s fashionable and what’s not left the Tswana people feeling that their culture was not enough. I think that it imported ideas into their heads that they would not be accepted if they could not “fit into” society, same with the people who participate on the show What Not To Wear. However the difference between the Tswana people and the what not to wear participants is the Tswana people were forced into conforming. The people who appear on What Not To Wear agree to allow professional stylist to adjust their images.

    I actually think shows like What Not To Wear are very harmful to people’s self-esteems. I feel this way because people dress themselves the way they do because of several different reasons one being personality. I think to tell someone that they are not fashionable because their way of dressing does not match your own is insulting. Popularity is what makes trends fashionable however everyone is not interested in trends. Shows like What Not To Wear creates a bias view on what a successful or fashionable person is supposed to look like. Other modern day examples I can think of that are similar to Jean Comaroff’s article is America’s Next Top Model more particularily on the episode when Tyra Banks gives the contestants on the show make overs.

  10. While watching the show, “what not to wear,” you can see the differences in fashion choices between groups. The Tswana people, like many other groups, had to endure the process of colonization. In the article, the author discusses how Europeans tried to rid this group of people of their barbaric attire because it was not the proper clothing to wear. Who decides what is proper? The show does demonstrate this same sort of structure. There is a person who is labeled as a “fashion no no” and is helped by two individuals who claim to have proper fashion knowledge. They basically destroy whatever individualism that person may have and conform their style, which makes them appear like many other “normal” people. This can be detrimental to a person’s self-esteem only because they are being told that they do not know how to dress themselves and they basically looked ridiculous before their wonderful transformation into fashion divas! This sort of thing happens frequently in our society. Just like the Tswana people, there are individuals who refuse to conform and remain true to their own personal style. Many others will combine attributes of both cultures and create a completely separate style than what was originally constructed.

    • I completely agree with you. The show What not to Wear completely disregards the concept of individualism. How can anyone possibly say what you are not supposed to wear? They don’t know your personality, what makes you comfortable or uncomfortable or if you are self conscious about anything on your body so how could you possibly tell me what kind of clothes are necessary for my everyday wardrobe? This is the same situation that Americans put the Tswana people in. Maybe they enjoyed being in the nude how can you come in and say that is unacceptable. Fashion in many ways tries to build and tear down people’s individualism. They try to build it by having so many different designers with so many styles and so many options so that people are able to show their personality through their choices of clothes, but it tears it down at times through the presence of trends. People, especially younger people always want to be accepted and if a trend is in that they necessarily don’t like then they might just change just for the sake of fitting in, therefore losing their individualism.

  11. I have never seen the show “What Not to Wear,” but from the title and the clip, it seems pretty self explanatory on what the show is about and what they are trying to do. I don’t know if I like the fact that people on the show are telling people what they should or shouldn’t wear. I understand that some people may want to get help and advice and change their wardrobe which is fine, but then I feel like there are people who don’t care as much and just want to live with what they have. I feel that clothing and what someone things is fashionable or nice may be different for someone else. From the clip of the show, I kind of felt like they were making fun of her clothing. I mean people may see her clothing and say “what is she wearing?” or make other comment, but if that is what makes the person happy and comfortable then I don’t see why they shouldn’t wear it. I feel that these shows do send a push to people about spending more money on clothes and looking good. I agree that people should take the time to look nice and dress nice if they want, but shows like these make our society think that we need to do it a certain way which I don’t think is a good thing. Our society already makes people feel self conscious as it is. With skinny, tall models and other images, people think that that is what we have to look like even if we don’t have the money to do so.

  12. I sometimes watch the show “what not to wear” and never really thought much about what the show was trying to do until we brought it up in class. I would watch the show thinking, “OH, wow. She looks pretty now” after they go through their “transformation”. This transformation isn’t any different from how the Tswana people were forced to change the way they dressed according to the majority’s standard. I don’t think the show is trying to make people spend money, but more conform to what is “fashionable” in their celebrity eyes. It’s almost as if individuality is discouraged, which is really unfortunate. It’s amazing how influential the public eye can be on individuals for being “different”. The thing about this show is that the participants don’t come into it willingly, they’re not the ones who called to become “transformed”. It was their friends or family who decided that they needed to change the way they dressed because it didn’t fulfill their standards. What are the standards of dress in which we live? It’s so obscure, and yet it controls or at least has a huge impact on our lives.

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