Tag Archives: television

Why Fashion Reality TV Needs to Be More Like The September Issue

I’m not much of one for watching television, but I’m always a sucker for anything that is related to fashion.  Project Runway is still on my list, at least until I get so frustrated by the obvious manipulations in production.  I’m still hoping that a US version of Great British Sewing Bee will appear here.

Last year designer Betsey Johnson and her daughter Lulu did eight episodes of a show called XOX Betsey Johnson.  I did not get the channel it was on so I did not see it.  According to the interviews I’ve read with the two Johnsons, the show was unscripted and they were just “living their lives.”  Somehow I don’t completely buy it, especially since the show included an “inspiration” trip to Tokyo, mother-daughter mammograms, and a retrospective fashion show complete with performance by Cyndi Lauper.

Betsey was recently on another reality show of a sort, Dancing with the Stars.  Did you recognize her in the very poor photo of my television screen, above?

Recently, two new fashion “reality programs” have hit the airways.  First up is The Fashion Fund, with is actually a showing of the proceedings behind choosing the winner of the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America)/Vogue Fashion Fund.  It might be interesting except for one thing: the winner was announced before the program started.  Why would anyone care about watching a competition where the winner is already known?  It’s a mystery to me.

The other show is House of DVF, in which eight young women compete for a job as Diane von Furstenberg’s style ambassador, whatever that is.  It seems so contrived, with fake situations and anything for an excuse for Diane to walk up and down the stairway to her office.  The contestants are not likable, and they seem to be entirely clueless about what actually happens in a fashion house.

On the episode I watched the contestants were instructed to make style inspiration boards with the theme of the Côte d’Azur.  There seemed to be no instructions on what an inspiration board actually is, and several of the contestants did not even know where the Côte d’Azur is located.  I’m betting none of them gets the job.

What I really hate about this nonsense is that there is a real opportunity lost here.  Much in the way The September Issue film showed the inner workings of Vogue magazine, House of DVF should be about how a fashion house operates.  The September Issue worked because the producers saw the actual story in the day to day workings in which interesting people interact when putting together the most important issue of the fashion year.  Scenarios were not created nor were the events manipulated.  How much more interesting House of DVF would be if we were treated to how the business actually functions instead of a fabricated for TV mess.

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Currently Viewing – The Great British Sewing Bee

I had pretty much given up on “reality TV.”  I’ve been over Project Runway for a very long time, and all of the “old stuff” shopping shows I’ve seen are seriously flawed.  Vintage seller Doris Raymond’s L.A. Frock Stars was actually quite good, but it was on the Smithsonian Channel, which isn’t included in most cable packages, and each 20-something minute show costs $2 on pay-per-view or Amazon instant video.

But then I discovered the latest from BBC2 – The Great British Sewing Bee.  It is everything a reality contest type show ought to be.

There are eight contestants who were picked from over a thousand entrants.  All are experienced sewers (sew-ers)  who come from differing backgrounds in relation to the process of sewing.  How completely wonderful it is to have a show where being older is not a liability!  Unlike US shows where there is an age limit, or where producing something mature is the kiss of death, the older sewers actually have the advantage of experience.

The lack of catty drama is refreshing.  The contestants hang out with each other over a cup of tea when they are between challenges.  They seem to actually like each other, with a sense that they are each rooting for the other.  There are no instances of contestants throwing another “under the bus” on this show.

Another strength is the experience of the judges.  There are only two: May Martin, a sewing teacher with 40 years experience, and Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant.  There are no actresses here who were picked to judge clothing merely because they know how to wear pretty clothes.  No, these two really know their craft, and the comments they make while observing the contestants sew add a great deal to the program.

But what has been the deal maker for me is how the program weaves in bits of history.  In episode three we get a look at how Queen Elizabeth inspired a legion of women sewers to sew for the war effort.  And if it could not get any better, the oldest contestant related her own experience with make do and mend during the 1940s.

For those of you who have never sewn a stitch, this is a great introduction to the craft.  For each challenge, they require certain skills and construction techniques which are then explained to the viewer.  You can actually learn a great deal about how a garment is constructed.

And for people like me who already sew, it is fun to sort of play along in one’s mind, to think how I might attempt the challenges.

Usually we here in the States have to wait months to see new British programs, if we can see them at all, but the first three episodes of Great British Sewing Bee are on YouTube, and I imagine that next week the last installment will be posted. ( One  Two  Three)  For people in the UK, the show can be watched on the BBC2 site.  The finale will air next Tuesday.

Photo copyright BBC2

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Thoughts on Downton

FAIR WARNING!  This post contains spoilers about Downton Abbey, season 3, so read no further if you are not wanting to know how the season ended.  And if you are not a Downton fan, I think you’ll want to sit this one out.

It’s the show we all either love, or love to hate.   For the most part, I enjoy watching the show, but I’ve become increasingly irritated by all the bad history.  I guess you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher.

There has been so much discussion about clothing along the lines of are they or are they not properly attired.  As in most costume dramas, there is a combination of the good, the bad, and the downright silly.   For the most part I think that costumers today are much more aware of the need to be historically accurate than they were in the past.  All you have to do is watch a few episodes of M*A*S*H* or Happy Days to see how bad TV costuming was in the 1970s.

Generally speaking, the clothing in Downton Abbey has been pretty much correct to the era, but it is in the details that it goes awry.  After the sinking of the Titanic, Lady Mary complained about being forced to go into mourning and wear black.  But then, even when released from it, she continued to wear black on many occasions.  Of course, black began its move toward chicness during the war, but it is unlikely that she, a young woman who was not in mourning, would have worn it out of choice.

Then there is the problem of the same clothes being seen over and over and over.  A family as rich as the Crawleys would never have been caught dead in last year’s clothing.

But I think that the worst case was this season when Cousin Rose sneaked away to meet her married boyfriend in a “jazz club”.  This was 1921, I believe, and all the pretty young things in the club were dressed like a bad version of 1926 flappers.  Dresses were to the knee and much too tight.  Yes, I know that people automatically associate the 1920s with a wild, frenzied party of flappers, but this is just bad history.

There are also problems with the characters exhibiting modern sensibilities.  Would Lord Crawley have discouraged a suitor for his 26-year-old daughter merely because he was a little old?  Would an older man actually have defended a homosexual saying it was not his fault as he was born that way?  It seems unlikely.

I’ll only touch on the speech anachronisms because there are entire websites and blogs devoted entirely to exposing the dozens of them found in each episode.  Some are pretty obvious, but in order to find them all, some people are using a function of google that isolates English expressions by date of usage.  We all can isolate phrases and expressions that have come into the language during our own lifetimes, but the ones that predate us are just a natural part of our language.  So I didn’t realize that the word “rematch” was not used until 1941, but the usage of “I’m just sayin'” and “steep learning curve” and “a lot on my plate” were more obvious, and frankly, distracting.

Which is the problem of bad history.  It irritates the people who know better and ill-informs those that do not.

But if it is so bad, then why do we keep watching.  My guess is because it is so pretty.  My favorite scenes continue to be the ones that really don’t have a lot to do with the overall story line, but that show the Crawleys engaged in the leisure pursuits of a wealthy family of the time.  They are at their best when shooting or playing cricket or just rambling about.  It helps that they pick spectacular backgrounds.  Anyone care to join me in a trip to the Scottish highlands?

There were rumors that the show would have only three seasons, but the overwhelming and unexpected popularity of the program shelved that idea.  I’m thinking that it just cannot go past four or five, as there is just not going to be anyone left to inhabit Downton Abbey.  I suppose they could move the venue to Heaven, where so many of the characters now reside.

Why is there so much death on this show?  I guess we should not be surprised considering that it was the deaths of the heir and his son that form the basis of the series.  There have been 24 episodes and at least 12 deaths, for an average of a death every other week.

Poor Matthew.  The moment I heard that Dan Stevens was leaving the show I knew that Mary was destined to be a widow, so I watched the entire finale peeking out from under a blanket that I used to shield my eyes from the impending doom!  I feel bad for the little heir, as he sure looks expendable to me.  With the succession secure, who cares about who Mary marries or how she and Edith spar?  Yep, that baby is toast.

All photos copyright Carnival Films for ITV

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Is Watching Other People Shop Fun?

I’ve got flea marketing on my mind because I have a little trip to one planned for the end of this week.   It’s one of my favorite things to do – wander through mounds of junk in search of the treasures that appeal to me.

One of the dangers of modern life is that we have the capability to “engage” in an activity without really engaging.  I’d like to think that this phenomenon started with the advent of VHS tapes of goldfish in a bowl, but I’m afraid it goes back much farther.  For years people who never cook have accumulated cookbooks.  People who never travel have gone to screenings of travelogs.  Now you can even go to the flea market from the comfort of the Lazyboy.

A little over a year ago I wrote a post about why I dislike American Pickers.  At the time I pretty much said that I just wasn’t drawn to all the man-tiques, that all the rusty bikes and car parts just were not my thing.  But now we have two more “picking” shows, and I can’t say I like them either.

Oddly enough, one of the shows, Market Warriors, is aired by PBS.   It features the four people in the photo above, who are taken to a flea market, given some money and told to find a certain type of item, say a piece of art glass.  Then they shop again, this time for one or two items of their own choosing.  The point is for them to make the best deal possible because all their items will be sold at auction, and the one who makes the most money on the re-sell is the winner.

There are all kinds of problems with the show, the least of which is the fake trash talk that occurs between the four contestants.  This is PBS after all, and so no real trash talk is allowed, evidently.   I’m sure these are four perfectly nice individuals, but they just don’t come across as being authentic.  Yes, I do know this is a reality show, but somehow one just expects more from PBS.

The way the show is set up is working to guarantee failure.  One of the weeks I watched this show, the “winner” was the person who lost the least amount of money.  That’s right – all four contestants lost money on their items.  Part of the problem is they are buying for a specific auction house that has a specific clientele.  In the past I’ve been very successful at buying vintage clothing at flea markets and then reselling it and making money, but I have a strong suspicion I’d lose money if my clothing was taken to an auction that specializes in art pottery.

The second new program is Picked Off, which is made by the people who bring American Pickers into our lives.  It airs on History.  I watched the first episode, swore off of it forever, and then had to give in and watch a second time because two local men were appearing on it.  In this show we are given four teams, all of which are different each episode.  They start small, with $100, and try to pick an item worth more than the other teams’.  The team with the least valuable item has to leave.  Then another team is eliminated, and then another, until the last team standing wins $10,000.

Again, the rules get in the way of any real “picking” experience.  There are tight time restraints, and the worth of the items is determined by a pair of brother experts (though I strongly suspect they are getting behind-the-scenes assistance, from the internet perhaps.)  But the worst part is that it just feels hokey, with all the judging taking place in a “barn” with suspenseful music and cliffhangers going into commercials.

The episode that had my homeboys in it was filmed in the New Orleans area.  One of the challenges was for the pickers to find a piece of Mardi Gras memorabilia.  None of the teams knew a thing about such, which is to me a problem with both shows.   In requiring these types of narrowly focused purchases, you end up relying on luck instead of the knowledge of the pickers.

And now the answer to the burning question:  Did Lizzie’s hometown boys come home heroes or zeros?  I’m pleased to report that they did win the $10,000.  One of them is the son of the auctioneer who handled my MIL’s estate, and he was literally brought up in the antique business.   I’m thinking that all those Saturday nights being a runner for daddy’s business finally paid off.

Top photo copyright PBS

Bottom Photo copyright history.com

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Sally Draper and Me

Me, circa 1963

As a rule, I don’t like to post about television shows during their current season, but after last night’s Mad Men, I knew that I’d be posting about Sally Draper this week.  If you are not a fan of Mad Men, my apologies, as this one will not be very interesting, except for the cute photos of me as a kid!

Of all the characters on Mad Men, the one I find myself identifying with is Sally.  Maybe that is because I am Sally, or a semi-rural Southern version of her.  We were both eleven years old in 1966, and while my childhood had nowhere near the drama that Sally’s does, I find that I really do get her, more than I do the other characters, who, honestly, are simply infuriating at times.

Sally, circa 1964.  Copyright AMC

I’ve often wondered why it was that in the early 60s people were dressing little girls exactly like their grandmothers.   All those dark, somber plaids and prints that were considered appropriate for women of a certain age were somehow just the thing for 8 year olds as well.    I thought it was because the grandmothers were all making the dresses, but that was true only in my case!

My family, circa 1965

Then, there was the headband.   My mother tended to favor the stretchy nylon ones, but I think that was because I kept playing with the hard plastic ones, bending them in and out until I went a little too far and they would snap.  Maybe Sally wasn’t quite that fidgety, as her headbands are of the hard variety.

I love how the costuming of Sally extends to the way her clothes fit.  They are often just a tab too small, a problem I remember having whenever a growth spurt would outpace the availability of new clothes.  And then there is the back and forth of little girl clothes, and more modern, grown-up looking ones.  I can remember negotiating for “adult”  shift dresses, and they crept into my wardrobe as the full-skirted plaid dresses were gradually outgrown and discarded.

Like Sally, I was a huge fan of The Man from Uncle, and of Illya Kurykin in particular.  She was a bit more mature than I in her expression of her love for Illya, but then I was forced to watch the show in the company of five other people!

A lot has been written about how it is going to take years of therapy to straighten out Sally’s head, but I see her reacting to the madness around her in perfectly normal ways.  And I’m not just talking about the madness at home either.  In the mid 1960s the world was an ever-increasingly scary place.

Last night’s show took place the week of July 14, 1966, during which eight student nurses were savagely murdered in their Chicago dorm by a drifter.  Sally’s curiosity about the details and her resulting fear really struck home.  I remember the event only too well.  For weeks afterward I studied the Life magazine that detailed the crime.

Because my older brother was 13, our parents had agreed that we were old enough to stay home by ourselves every afternoon while they rode to town to get groceries and the mail.  I would watch them drive out of sight and then close and lock the doors, even though there was no air conditioning and this was the middle of summer.   Had someone offered me a sleeping pill during that time, I’d surely have taken it, and I spent more than one night curled up under the bed.

Analyzing Mad Men and all the details of the set and costumes has become pretty much a Monday pastime.  And while I’ve had some quibbles about this season’s costuming, for the most part, the show gets it right.  I’d be curious to know how Matthew Weiner knows so much about what goes on inside the head of an eleven year old girl, because I felt like in this episode, as in so many in prior seasons, Sally’s reactions were spot on.

A suggestion to younger viewers:  to get the full effect of so many of the episodes, it really does help having a good knowledge of the historical events being played out.  In “Mystery Date,” last night’s show, it was almost essential knowing the story of Richard Speck and the Chicago murders (beyond that creepy synopsis of it given by Grandma Francis).  I’d read up on it, maybe starting with the Life article that left such an impression on me, and then watch the episode again.

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Currently Viewing – Land Girls

Until quite recently, not a whole lot was being written about the Women’s Land Army, at least not that I ran across here in the USA.  Today, this branch of the service has its own BBC television series, and is, thanks to the media exposure, experiencing a bit of moment in the sun.  And none too soon, as the Land Girls, as they were called, are now Land Seniors.

The Women’s Land Army was actually started during World War I, as food shortages in Britain became overwhelming.  As soon as World War II began in 1939, the British government reinstituted the WLA, hoping to stave off the shortages before they became so bad.  Women from all over Britain first volunteered, and later were conscripted, to be farm laborers.  By 1943 the US had also established a Women’s Land Army, made up of volunteers.

By all accounts the life of a Land Girl was hard.  Most were not used to this type of physical labor, the hours were long, and the living arrangements were often rugged.  But they persevered, and provided a hungry country with badly needed food.

In 2009, the BBC developed the five part Land Girls, in part to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the beginning of  WWII.  The story follows the lives of four Land Girls who are working together at Hoxley Hall, a grand estate somewhere in the English countryside.  All four young women are, of course, vastly different, even though two are sisters.  Unfortunately the characters as they are introduced in the first episode pretty much live up to what would be expected of their stereotypes: the citified glamour girl makes a play for the lord of the manor, the wide-eyed ingenue is seduced by an American GI, the older sister plays the role of the mother hen and the girl with the big heart manages to hold it all together.

And I could not help but notice how very active this small farming community was.  It was almost like the complete history of the home front war in five easy lessons.  If it was a problem that the British had to deal with during the war, you’ll find it here.

Strafing from a German planes?  Check!

Farmer dealing in black market?  check!

American GI cad impregnating innocent country girl?  Check!

Girl’s family lost in bombing of her city?  Check!

And that is just in the first episode.  This is not to say that I did not enjoy the series, because I did.  I just felt like the main characters were a bit two dimensional and that they tried to throw in every possible scenario associated with WWII.  And yes, it was a bit melodramatic in spots, but on the whole I did enjoy it and would watch it again.  There are actually fifteen episodes in all, but I have only seen the first five as they are all that Netflix offers at this time.

I really did enjoy the costumes.  The Land Girls were issued a uniform consisting mainly of a dark green pullover sweater, a pair or two of light brown corduroy breeches, a brown felt hat, and several light brown tee shirts and shirts.  They also wore brown coveralls, like is shown in the publicity photo above, and on hot days, wore shorts. The photo below shows part of the Land Girl’s gear.  Click to see enlargement.

Photo copyright and courtesy of Chris Wiles, Chris Wiles Photography.

To learn more about the Land Girls, I suggest that you start at this page of resources, which was assembled by the granddaughter of a member of the Women’s Land Army.

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Downton Abbey

As overdone as the talk about this series has been, I had to post about it today, if for no other reason than to carry on about Lady Mary’s hunting ensemble.  If this is not the British tweed of perfection, then I do not know what is.  I’m not much of one for shooting at birds, but otherwise I could put myself at that hunting party and be quite happy thank you.  That is, provided I could have an equally fabulous tweed outing suit.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the clothing of this era (1910s), but I do want to say a thing or two about the costuming.  The designer for the series, Susannah Buxton, says that the clothing is a pretty even mixture of actual vintage from the era, clothing the costume department has recreated from vintage fabrics and trimmings, and costumes hired from costuming companies.   On a site that I can’t seem to locate at the moment, a British blogger posts photos from Downton Abbey and photos from other costume dramas of the same period, and you can see how the costumes often led a prior life in other shows.

I’d like to have a score card to guess which costumes are actual period pieces.  It would be a fun game, don’t you think?

All through season 2 the women seemed to continue to wear their mid 1910s Poiret-inspired evening wear, so last night it was a jolt to see them suddenly sporting clothes from the early 1920s.  Unfortunately the show does not show them in London and Paris, shopping for the post war fashions, but it was pretty obvious there was a chunk of  Lord Lady Grantham’s money being spent on the Couture!

Before the shopping trip to Paris:

After the shopping trip to Paris:

I couldn’t find a decent photo of the new clothes, but you can sort of see what I mean in this dress worn by Mary.  Earlier in the show she wore a very unfortunate choice – a straight chemise that from the rear made her look about twice her size.  And just when are those girls going to cut their hair?

All photos copyright Carnival Films for ITV.

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