Fashion on TV
A CultureMap®
by Christine Sismondo
Published on 9/10/13

In the 20th century, television wardrobes established character, from the fashionable 1950s frocks on I Love Lucy through the big-shouldered suits of 1980s nighttime soap Dynasty to the miniskirts and heels of Ally McBeal (1997–2002). Then came Sex and the City. Its characters model haute couture, name-drop designers and tout Vogue magazine. The show’s success, and that of Project Runway and Gossip Girl, marked TV fashion’s shift from story line accessory to leading role.

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Sex and the City  (TV show | 1998–2004)
to  Sarah Jessica Parker  (b. 1965 | American actor)

Sarah Jessica Parker had an established career on stage, in movies and on television (including a role as an awkward teenager on the 1980s sitcom Square Pegs) when HBO offered her the lead role in a new series, Sex and the City. The actor had landed steady film work after her performances in L.A. Story (1991) and Ed Wood (1994) and reportedly had some initial reluctance about taking the role that would make her a household name as relationship columnist and fashion writer Carrie Bradshaw. But her doubts were dispelled, and the show endured six seasons and spawned a pair of big-screen spin-offs. It’s too bad Parker hadn’t had a few qualms about that second flick, set in Abu Dhabi and roundly ridiculed for some of the worst on-screen lines ever (e.g., “Lawrence of my labia”).

Audiences loved Carrie for her flaws, insecurities and often questionable life choices. But the couture-clad character, some critics claimed, would surely have declined to endorse the middle-brow Gap clothing line, as Parker did after the show ended. Sex and the City, though, not only transformed Parker into a style role model; it also made fashion a member of the cast.

Sex and the City  (TV show | 1998–2004)
to  Eric Daman  (b. 1970 | American costume designer)

Stylist Eric Daman worked on Sex and the City for three seasons, logging in 31 episodes as assistant to renowned costume designer and boutique owner Patricia Field and nine episodes as assistant costume designer. That stint was instrumental in both launching his career and establishing the series as a significant force in the fashion world. “Defining Moments,” a season four episode Daman worked on, earned Sex and the City the Emmy for outstanding costumes for a series. After leaving the show, Daman parlayed his experience into creative directorships of the shopping-mall chain Charlotte Russe and the TV show Gossip Girl (2007–2012), which The New York Times called probably the “first [show] to have been conceived, in part, as a fashion marketing vehicle.” The characters’ wardrobes on the teen drama, both eccentric and extravagant, transformed Daman into an industry authority, ultimately leading to his recognition by Allure magazine as one of the top style and beauty influencers in 2012. In 2013 Daman came full circle, once again dressing Carrie Bradshaw, now in the Sex and the City prequel series, The Carrie Diaries, which recounts the character’s younger days during the fashion-challenged 1980s.

Sex and the City  (TV show | 1998–2004)
to  Manolo Blahnik  (b. 1942 | Spanish footwear designer)

If shoes—especially designer Manolo Blahnik’s towering contrivances—became a slightly tiresome trope in Sex and the City, nobody expressed it more succinctly than Blahnik himself. “If people talk to me about Sex and the City, I get sick,” he told The Sunday Telegraph in 2009, after the show’s film version had appeared. In the movie, Mr. Big (Chris Noth) proposes to his longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend, protagonist Carrie Bradshaw, with a pair of blue satin Manolos. The “Something Blue” pump was merchandised, and Blahnik admitted it was a boon, even joking it had saved his company. This wasn’t the first time his shoes played a pivotal role in Sex and the City. Two separate episodes chronicle the trauma of lost Manolos; in one, a pair of $485 strappy sandals symbolizes nothing less than a woman’s right to choose a child-free single life.

Blahnik had encountered celebrity before. In the 1970s his designs had shod hip Londoners such as actors Jane Birkin (the inspiration for Hermès’s Birkin bag) and Charlotte Rampling, and the designer had appeared on the cover of British Vogue. Sex and the City merely brightened the spotlight on the renowned craftsman.

Sex and the City  (TV show | 1998–2004)
to  Project Runway  (TV show | prem. 2004)

Although the reality television genre had been firmly established by the time Harvey Weinstein and company pitched Project Runway, a show about people designing clothes still wasn’t an easy sell to the big four networks. Runway’s team of producers had achieved success with The Real World and, more modestly, Project Greenlight, but the new program remained homeless until Bravo decided to take a shot at the fashion show–reality contest hybrid. It turned out to be a perfect fit for the cable network, given its new mandate to ditch arts programming and experiment with boundary-pushing lifestyle shows. Bravo’s first foray into this field was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show often compared to Sex and the City for its breaching of long-standing TV standards—Queer Eye by employing a coterie of gay hosts, Sex and the City for its female characters’ questioning of heterocentric norms such as marriage and children. (The latter show also had a memorable gay character, Carrie’s friend Stanford Blatch, dubbed the “fifth lady.”) Sex and the City also helped pave the way for Project Runway by proving there was a market for fashion programming on prime-time TV.

Sarah Jessica Parker  (b. 1965 | American actor)
to  Vogue  (magazine | est. 1892)

Writer Candace Bushnell was best known for her satirical New York Observer column, “Sex and the City,” which provided the basis for the television show and ensuing feature films starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Bushnell’s alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw. A freelancer, Bushnell wrote for a number of publications, including Vogue, a fictionalized version of which winds up employing Bradshaw. Unlike Bradshaw, Bushnell never had her own column in Vogue, and the scriptwriters also departed from the literal regarding Bushnell’s other connection to the magazine: In the 1990s she had dated its publisher, Ron Galotti, the model for the Sex and the City character Mr. Big.

In the 2008 movie Sex and the City, the fictional Vogue temporarily derails the Big-Bradshaw relationship when Carrie’s elevation into celebrity threatens to turn their wedding from a small ceremony into a circus. Coinciding with the film’s release, the real Vogue featured Sarah Jessica Parker in a wedding dress; she was also on the cover, her fourth time since becoming a flesh-and-blood fashion icon. Parker had a later role as a Vogue employee in the fourth season of the Fox series Glee, this time as a website executive.

Sarah Jessica Parker  (b. 1965 | American actor)
to  Project Runway  (TV show | prem. 2004)

In 2007 fashion fans got the obvious crossover: Sarah Jessica Parker appeared on the garment-construction competition Project Runway to plug Bitten, her line of clothing. It was high time a favor was returned. Heidi Klum had a cameo on Sex and the City back in 2001, before she became the Runway host. In that episode, “The Real Me,” Carrie Bradshaw is invited to take a turn down the runway despite her lack of modeling experience. When Carrie falls on the catwalk, Klum steps right over the splayed writer, prompting Carrie’s friend Stanford Blatch to declare her “fashion roadkill.” Moments later, however, Carrie gets back on her feet and receives a generous high five from Klum to mark her “act of bravery” in finishing the circuit.

When Parker appeared on Project Runway six years later, she clearly no longer needed Klum’s approbation; she had already transformed into a style powerhouse. The show’s contestants cried at the chance to design an item for her line. One remarked that Sex and the City was what made him want to move to New York and work in the city’s legendary clothing industry.

Vogue  (magazine | est. 1892)
to  Elle  (magazine | est. 1945)

Although Vogue dates to 1892, when it was the New York elite’s gazette of choice, its legacy as the grande dame of style began in 1909, when publisher Condé Nast acquired it. Nast reinvented Vogue as a fashion magazine, which he perceived as the ideal editorial format for attracting advertising revenue, and added British and French editions by 1920. Under a succession of dynamic editors, Vogue has held its own ever since, subtly repositioning itself to succeed even in challenging times, such as World War II. The first postwar editor in chief, Jessica Daves, expanded the magazine’s focus to reflect, in the words of her editorial colleague Alexander Liberman, “her feeling that a woman’s world was not just frills and clothes.”

Displaced Russian French anthropologist, journalist and occasional Vogue contributor Hélène Gordon-Lazareff, meanwhile, on returning to Paris from her U.S. exile, inaugurated what would become one of Vogue’s main rivals, Elle. The magazine launched on October 1, 1945, with in-depth articles along the lines of those printed in France-Soir, her publishing magnate husband’s newspaper. Gordon-Lazareff’s strategy succeeded, and Elle grew into an international brand, launching English-language editions in the 1980s and offering itself as a cheeky alternative to Vogue.

Elle  (magazine | est. 1945)
to  Project Runway  (TV show | prem. 2004)

Elle has boldly expanded its empire from print to television, starting with Project Runway, which publisher Carol Smith helped launch, followed by Stylista (2008) and All on the Line (2011). The foray into another medium was a risk for the magazine, but Elle milked the cross-marketing opportunities by rewarding each Project Runway season’s winning designer with a spread in its pages. Nina Garcia, then Elle’s fashion director, became one of the show’s judges, joining designer Michael Kors and model Heidi Klum.

While Elle retains firm control of its on-screen representation, Vogue was thrust into the spotlight in 2006 when the behind-the-scenes reputation of editor in chief Anna Wintour inspired both a television show and a movie. The death of Wintour-esque Fey Sommers, editor of the fictional glossy Mode, kicked off ABC’s series Ugly Betty. The Devil Wears Prada has roots closer to reality, having been adapted from the 2003 roman à clef by Wintour’s former assistant Lauren Weisberger. Everybody loved to hate her tyrannical Runway editor, Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep. In 2009 Vogue participated in The September Issue, a documentary that provides a more dimensional, marginally warmer portrait of the woman known as Nuclear Wintour.