What Not to Wear vs. Ma come ti vesti?

Don’t judge me for how much I know about the popular TLC show or why I decided to watch its Italian equivalent this evening.  Nor should you blame me for not following “the rules” of fashion in my own life, even though I’ve seen the show.  I only write this comparison between the two because I think it serves as an interesting way to look at the contrasting lifestyles of Italian and American citizens.

For the uninitiated, What Not to Wear is an American television series in which fashion expert hosts Stacey London and Clinton Kelley come to the surprise assistance of someone who is completely unaware of her (or his) inability to dress in an acceptable manner.  The “lucky” subject, who is given a Visa card of some amount of money (I forget how much it is), so long as she also gives control over her closet and wardrobe to Clinton and Stacy—meaning that any item, no matter how sentimental its value, can be thrown out if the hosts find it objectionable.  The subject of the show then goes on a shopping spree across New York’s fine stores, usually failing to follow Stacy and Clinton’s instructions at first, but, with intervention from the hosts, ends up with a great new set of clothes and a changed outlook on herself and fashion.  The lucky winner also gets a makeover, courtesy of hair and makeup artists, and is finally revealed to friends, who are amazed at the subject’s transformation in a few short days.

The Italian show follows the same general pattern, but the differences, I think, reveal quite pointedly the contrast in our our two cultures, and, at least, demonstrate how fashion is viewed in each country.  The first—and perhaps most obvious—difference is in the title of the shows.  Ma come ti vesti—translated literally: “But how do you dress yourself?”—is automatically an attack on the person who becomes the subject of each episode.  I don’t mean to say that the title is used in its most malicious sense, but throughout the episode I saw, blame was placed squarely on the girl receiving the makeover for her poor fashion decisions.

What Not to Wear generally seeks out a deeper meaning to the fashion choices of those it examines.  In the American show, it’s not just about being clueless as to what’s in style, but rather about what drives a person to dress the way she does.  Often, it has something to do with a person who has lost a great deal of weight in the recent past, or maybe it’s about not having the confidence to show off one’s body (you have to love yourself before anyone else will love you).  Either way, Stacy and Clinton spend time coaxing whatever it is out of whomever they help.

The Italian hosts have no such interest.  In this vein, the often-emotional scenes in the American hair dresser’s chair or under the brush of the makeup artist are eliminated completely from the Italian version.  It is here in the American show that some of the telling and inner-most details of the subjects’ lives and are revealed.  When asked about their hair, subjects will often admit that they have not had it styled for a long time and that it’s more important that it be easy to deal with than anything else.  When confronted about their lack of makeup, women will tearfully confess that they do not have time for it, and don’t consider taking care of themselves a priority in their lives (“I never spend time on myself, because I’m a single mom, caring for my entire family…sob…sob…”).  The hair dresser and the make-up artist reveal the secret beauty that lies within each person, while insisting that there is always time to do little things that will boost a person’s self-confidence.

There is no “video diary” portion of the show in the Italian version, where the American participants reveal their frustrations with the makeover process and their trouble with following the rules set out for them by Stacy and Clinton.  The Italian show is much more about the clothes, and it is very much about what–I guess–could be described as “real” fashion.  Toward the end of the show, when the subject shows off three outfits of her choice for the hosts, the Italian participant gets a new hairdo and makeup for each set of clothing.  In America, it really seems genuine, as if the participant selects her favorite outfits to show off.  In Italy, however, each outfit seems handpicked by the producers in order to show off the figure of the person wearing the clothes.  In short, the result is too perfect—it doesn’t seem real.  One need only look at the prices of the clothing the Italian subjects buy.  The Italian outfits run north of 500 euros—much more than the Americans are allowed to spend.

I’m not trying to implicate Ma come ti vesti? as part of an overall Italian culture of decadence and excess; I actually think that What Not to Wear  is pretty indulgent in its own right.  Yet, I think a comparison of the two shows just highlights the different things each country’s TV viewers want to see.  In America, we are much more interested in the emotional and personal stories of the people we watch.  If anything, the fashion faux pas and rebirths of each subject just add a bit of flair to proceedings.  It’s the transformation—physical, but especially emotional—that is compelling.  In Italy, the subject is just a frame in which the wardrobe can shine based on the merits of the clothing.  The hosts kept talking about the girl’s wonderful figure.  Their complaint with the way she used to dress was cast as the “waste” of such a nice body by the clothing she used to wear.  She was not letting herself down by dressing poorly; rather, she was guilty of not doing justice to fashion itself—a crime that—especially in her hometown of Milan—was too terrible to go unpunished.

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~ by pminnig on September 12, 2011.

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