What Not to Wear (WNTW) on The Learning Channel (TLC) is a personal makeover television show that teaches unstylish individuals how to dress and style themselves according to middle-class norms. The original WNTW is British and began airing on the BBC Two in 2001. The American version of WNTW began airing on TLC in 2003 and is now in its sixth season. At this time, WNTW is the longest running of any U.S. makeover show.
Participants are nominated for the show by their friends and family, who contend that the participant’s lack of style interferes with her career and/or love life. Nearly all of the participants are women; most are white and middle class. In exchange for appearing on WNTW, participants receive the expertise and advice of the hosts of the show, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly; a free trip to New York City; a paid hotel stay; and $5,000 with which to buy a new wardrobe.
As in all makeover shows, the participant must be humiliated and broken down. First, the participant watches her secret footage—clips of her going about her ordinary life, unaware that she is being filmed—with Stacy and Clinton. She is humiliated by Stacy and Clinton’s critical commentary on her outfits. Stacy and Clinton examine the participant’s wardrobe and throw away the clothes deemed bad. The participant then enters the 360-degree mirror, a tiny mirrored room. Here, humiliation and teaching occur at the same time. After the participant views herself in a favorite outfit from all angles in the mirror, the hosts enter and explain why those particular clothes make her look bad.
In WNTW, the participant must also learn how to appropriately dress herself. After establishing that the participant does not know how to dress herself, Stacy and Clinton explain the rules the participant should follow in order to make her body look good—long, lean, and curvy—and show her three example outfits. The participant exercises her new knowledge by spending a day alone shopping for a new wardrobe in Manhattan. After watching her struggles, Stacy and Clinton join her on the second day to help her shop.
In the third part of the show, the participant is remade. Nick Arrojo styles and cuts the participant’s hair, while Carmindy applies the participant’s makeup. The participant then must put her final look together for Stacy and Clinton. The hosts invariably compliment her on both her physical transformation and mastery of the rules. Having passed their test, she returns home to present her new look to her admiring friends and family. In the final scene, the participant reflects on how the makeover has changed her life.
WNTW teaches women to value themselves through their appearance and that they must appropriately care for their appearance in order to move ahead at work and to attract a good (middle-class) man. The show promotes the ideology that you are what you wear; one can improve one’s life through dressing well. Ambition requires consumption, much to the profit of the beauty industry.