From Rags to Riches, the Policing of Fashion and Identity: Governmentality and “What Not To Wear”

Sheri Gibbings, Jessica Taylor


Even the most casual perusal of television over the past ten years should reveal an increasing number of self-improvement reality shows. This paper explores the Learning Channel (TLC) television show What Not to Wear (WNTW), which provides fashion advice to deviant dressers. We use Foucault's concept of governmentality to understand how WNTW engages women in their own projects of self-improvement in ways that are simultaneously disciplining and pleasing. Women who participate in the show are taught by the hosts, Stacy and Clinton, how to view themselves through the gaze of an imagined middle-class public. We suggest that WNTW tells us that outward appearances are the privileged site from which identities and self can be read. Even though the goal of the show is not to change identities, many of the women claim to experience a radical transformation. These transformations are often in the direction of a new professional and feminine identity, one maintained within the structure of the show by the continuing possibility and internalization of surveillance.

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