Wednesday, October 12, 2005


The Backwards R killed my What Not to Wear story (this means they don't run it, pay you 1/4 of your rate*, and make you look like a hack). They did say however that it's not me -- it's the fact that nothing much happened.
Yeah, but we're still not a couple anymore.
I'll admit it couldda used an extra day, a good editor and a pithy headline:

By Satya Cacananda

My friend Jeanine and I made frequent trips to Woodfield Mall while growing up in McHenry, which is 50 miles northwest of Chicago. After ditching her mother at the Marshall Field’s department store, we’d head to Stuart’s and Claire’s Boutiques for cheap clothing and accessories – and sometimes even bought the same ones. When we got a little older, Jeanine shopped at the conservative Talbots store while I browsed the record shops. Eventually she became an ultra preppie, and I ended up with a Mohawk and combat boots.

My look wasn’t quite that extreme on my recent trip to Woodfield for the What Not to Wear Mall Tour, but my outfit -- plaid micro-miniskirt, clunky brown boots, thrift store scarf -- was designed to draw negative attention from the The Learning Channel realty show’s style squad.

Woodfield was the last stop on an eight-city tour to promote the show, but its hosts -- fashion editors Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, authors of the new book Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style that’s Right for your Body -- were nowhere to be found. Instead, a team of free-lance experts answered questions, helped people use the touch-screen style stations and selected a few to go on a $200 or $300 shopping spree with a professional stylist.

What Not to Wear is a tamer American rip-off of the more caustic BBC original that features hosts Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine muttering about “tits” and poking and prodding their charges’ bodies before fixing up their look. Both shows dress down people who’ve been nominated by their friends and family for a fashion makeover; the candidates are forced to watch secretly videotaped footage of themselves and get an assessment in an unforgiving 360-degree mirror.

In the American version, they’re given $5,000 to spend on a new wardrobe, plus a new haircut and makeup job. But first they must agree to throw out their clothes and follow the host’s rules for their body type (Kelly and London really seem to have it in for people who wear thrift store clothes or look a little “different.”). More often than not there are tears when the candidates learn they’ve been sold out by their loved ones, and more later when they see their sleek new selves at the “reveal” at the end of the show. The shopping takes place almost entirely in chain stores, and those sleek new selves are usually stripped any shred of individuality. The clothes may fit their shape but not their personality. I’ve often wondered what Trinny and Susannah (I prefer them to the obsequious, trying-too-hard Americans) would do with my weird hair -- an overgrown mix of gray, brown, and bright-red henna -- and my penchant for dressing like a naughty puberteen.

The mall tour set up last weekend a the Comcast Connections Court near Marshall Fields, and featured a small stage, plasma monitors playing clips from the show, that 360-degree mirror, and several interactive computer style stations. After asking a question about shopping for shoes -- her wide, flat feet and narrow heel make it a chore – north suburban Deerfield resident Noelle Beebe was chosen for the first of Saturday’s three shopping sprees and given $300 in gift cards. The Master’s degree candidate in elementary education was wearing an oversize purple button-down shirt over the biggest and brightest skirt I’d ever seen -- a pleated, colorful floor-length tent thing she’d had for 15 years and made her look far bigger than her size 14 frame. Beebe, a fan of the show, had read about the tour in People magazine. Her husband told her to wear the skirt.

“They pointed at me and said ‘You!’, Beebe explained later at the plus-size store Lane Bryant, where she spent a couple of hours frantically trying on jeans, tops and skirts selected for her by New York-based free-lance stylist Megan Ireland and a helpful store employee. When she came out of the dressing room modestly holding closed the top of a long, dark, low-cut knit sweater that crisscrossed over the chest, Ireland was ready with a selection of silky camisoles to wear underneath. Ireland, wearing flare-leg black jeans with heels and a dark, form-fitting top, explained they were putting together separates Beebe could mix and match for both school and student teaching. But most of the tops and skirts Beebe tried on were too big. “I’m on the cusp between regular and plus size,” she explained. “They should have a store just for me.” A promising pink and black button-down shirt with slimming vertical stripes was particularly disappointing. ‘I don’t love it on you,” said Ireland, who suggested she look for tops later at shops such as Anne Taylor and the Limited.

The sweater and camisole did work nicely with a few pieces -- jeans, a pair of mid-rise boot-cut black slacks and a dark midlength pleated skirt that had a slight flare at the bottom. “I’d like to see it with heels and a necklace,” said Ireland, standing back and cocking her head. “Are you happy with it?” They started discussing the shoes that Ireland had bought for herself that morning at the mall -- open-heel Mary Janes with a high heel and pointed toe that were “extremely comfortable” because they were made of soft calf leather. Fingering them, she said she thought they’d be perfect for the unusual shape of Beebe’s foot, and suggested they pick her up a pair on the way to the reveal. “They don’t have a back, but you can wear them through the winter,” she said. “But what about the snow? ”Beebe asked. Apparently it doesn’t snow in Manhattan.

Beebe walked out of Lane Bryant with $100 left for shoes. She spent less than 10 minutes at Clarke’s trying on and paying for the Mary James, setting a new land speed record for shoe shopping (women’s division). A few minutes later, Beebe was standing onstage in front of her portly “before” photo and showing off her sleek, curvy new look. “Don’t you think she looks thinner?” asked Ireland, and the smattering of people in the audience applauded. “I never would have picked this sweater, because I have a bit of a tummy,” said Beebe, preening and beaming.

“My advice is to try things on that you would never wear,” said Ireland. Hmmm, thought I.

They went backstage to more applause. The host, who had Special Ed hair and dressed like a boy band member, came out with another sleek stylist in jeans and heels, who later complimented me on my out-of-season boots. They started taking questions from the audience. A petite fortysomething in short hair, glasses and a sweater-vest asked about flare-leg jeans “You’re wearing ‘the mom jean,’” accused host Matthew Landon, pointing to her high-waisted jeans that tapered at the ankle and pulling her onstage. “I’m not a mom,” protested Chicago resident Chris Johnson, who said later that she’d dressed that way on purpose. After making fun of her jeans for a few more minutes, Landon handed her a $200 gift card and herded her backstage so she could sign a release for her makeover.

Nearby, there was a line to use the interactive touch screens, after which participants received a customized list of style rules and a somewhat sparse WNTW swag bag (with hand lotion, a WTNW mirror, and refrigerator magnet and PR for Comcast and another TLC show). Most of those who dared look at themselves in the 360-degree mirror stayed in for less than a minute and came out frowning, holding their hands over their mouths or smiling ruefully. The guard at the door told me that one woman went inside and danced for ten minutes straight before coming back out. “She didn’t know I could see her the whole time,” she said, pointing to a transparent panel.

When I went in, I noticed that my butt is the same size it’s always been (phew!). But my skirt was far too short and that you could see where I’d spilled frappuccino all over my tights earlier that morning. My hair looked scary even to me, and I got out of there fast.

While doing the touch-screen body type test, I learned that my tall, non-curvy frame calls for fitted straight pieces, layers of clothing and -- of course -- high heels. Landon, who was helping me, reiterated the thought -- even when I protested that I’m already quite tall and that yogis don’t wear heels, not to mention the whole dead-calf thing. “You should try the shoes that Megan has.”

Like a robot (hey, he was cute), I went across the way and tried them on.

They fit perfectly. They looked great.

And even though they weren’t “me,” I considered getting them for a moment. Which is exactly how long it took for me to realize that they hurt like hell.

But Beebe was ecstatic about her pair when I spoke to her on Monday. “I wore them all day at school [with the jeans and sweater combo] and I love them,” she said. “I got compliments all day.”

She admitted that she usually buys her shoes at Wal-Mart and is still learning how to walk in heels. “I never would have bought a pair of pointy-toed shoes,” she said. “But these are so wonderful, you don’t feel like your toes are squashed.”

Interestingly, she said she found the experience empowering rather than degrading, and ended up buying some expensive new bras at Field’s afterwards. ”I’m so converted right now,” she said. “It’s making me feel better about the body that I have. I know what I need to do to change, but they really helped me feel better about what I already have.”



*This means I'll have to return Stacy London and Clinton Kelly's crappy new book Dress Your Best. But I'll definitely keep Trinny and Suzanna's far more useful What You Wear Can Change Your Life; they even show you exactly how to clean your closet (not a euphemism).

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