OPINION: One of my biggest challenges as a stylist is helping my clients unpack the ‘rules’ they have around what they wear, self-imposed or otherwise, so they can find clothes that really bring them joy.
In the 1990s and early 2000s Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine rose to stardom as the straight-talking stylists from TV series What Not To Wear.
Women rushed to buy shapewear and banish their wardrobes of anything on the NOT list, while Trinny and Susannah’s books became the fashion bible for women around the world.
For the sake of research, I recently opened Trinny and Susannah’s pocket guide, What Not To Wear 1 – the Rules, and this is what I read:
“WORST TROUSERS – Too tight, jean cut: The stomach spills out over the garrotting waistband. Or, Hipsters: Too low to hide any stomach or leave a tummy with dignity whatsoever.”
“BEST TROUSERS – …low waisted jeans one size too big. These hang around the waist making it look like the jeans are too big for your embarrassing secret”.
Trinny and Susannah have always been very prescriptive about what women should wear, but the loathing with which women’s bodies were discussed surprised me.
I didn’t remember them as being quite so brutal – well actually, fatphobic.
Gok Wan was another popular stylist in the early 2000s and his campaign to help women feel good about themselves extended from mall appearances to a book series and even his own TV show How to Look Good Naked.
While Gok himself always seemed to genuinely love the way the women featured on the TV show looked, the methods used to try and encourage body positivity were questionable.
Each week, Gok would take his client to see a giant image of herself in her underwear projected onto the side of a building and ask passers-by what they thought of her body.
Men were asked if they thought she was sexy, as the woman looked on uncomfortably, giggling from embarrassment, or even worse, thrilled at the attention from a man.
This is the perfect example of seeing ourselves through the male gaze. Styling of the time was about making ourselves more attractive to others. My philosophy is about wearing our personality on the outside, so we can show up for ourselves.
Gok’s style advice was much more about having fun with clothes than changing bodies, except for the foundation garments we were supposed to wear from knee to chest to give us a ‘slender’ line under our clothes.
Shapewear is a form of slow torture and should be abolished – but otherwise I think a lot of Gok’s styling tips still stand.
I loved his positivity towards women and felt he genuinely cared about his clients and of course he taught us all to be creative with our wardrobes and mix and match to our hearts content. I miss watching Gok if I’m honest.
I’d work with him in a heartbeat, alas he is now a fabulous TV chef and supporting body positivity in other ways, like candidly opening up about his own struggles with anorexia.
Fast forward to today and Trinny is a star on Instagram. Follow her account and you’ll see a visual feast of sequins galore and beautiful outfits which she matches with her own products from the Trinny London Makeup line (it’s brilliant makeup, I highly recommend it!)
Her videos are addictive, you get to see every single belt in her wardrobe – but you also get told that you should hide parts of your body. Trinny tells you she has to wear a wider belt because her torso is too long, and that you should go with a skinny belt to disguise your tummy.
I am somehow simultaneously entertained and horrified as she slaps her naked size 8 thighs and tells how we can get expensive cosmetic treatments to shrink them.
All of this from a wealthy, straight-size woman with an unlimited budget and access to any clothing she desires, as well as personal trainers, chefs, assistants and so on.
The idea that the average woman would even have the time to jump through the hoops that Trinny does to look the way she looks is ludicrous – check out the tour of her skincare wardrobe below.
While Trinny’s message is to have fun with fashion – it is underpinned by a theory that is about ‘fixing’ your body with fashion instead.
The body shaming is undeniable. If I have to listen to her talk about how her legs are too short and her bum is too long one more time I will scream.
The harder thing is watching the women in the comments section thanking her for her wise council and applying her advice to their own wardrobes. A dear friend of mine recalls the moment she saw the very pants she was wearing on What Not to Wear.
Trinny’s voice-over telling her that ¾ pants absolutely should not be worn by anyone short, they’ll just make you look shorter. At the time this friend was a stay-at-home Mum of two toddlers with very limited money. These pants were stretchy, they were affordable, they worked for every part of her day.
Just a moment ago something that felt chic, now felt dowdy. What was she supposed to wear now? As a stylist I spend so much time freeing women from these rules so they can actually be themselves.
You actually can wear something just because you like it, it doesn’t have to be about pleasing the eyes of others or minimising your body. Is Trinny’s styling empowering women, or is she just another voice telling us to shrink? To disguise our bodies instead of embracing them?
I am not saying that the stylists of the 90s are solely responsible for the insecurities we women have about our bodies. These publications and TV shows were a reflection of society’s views at the time – that women’s bodies were something broken that needed to be fixed. Something to display to please the eyes of others.
But life has moved on, and we are beginning to see ourselves not through the male gaze, but through our achievements, our relationships and our contributions to society.
Stylists need to move on too. Women don’t need other women keeping us in check by creating or fuelling insecurities, we need to help each other to focus on our strengths and our talents so we can rise together.
All relationships on and off the internet are nuanced. Like an offensive relative, you can simultaneously love them and want them to change and grow. That’s how I feel about Trinny. I love her styling, I find her hilarious. And she is always completely herself – I just want to her to allow other women to do the same – in any body.
Women lean on a set of fashion rules (provided by the likes of Trinny) because we don’t want to get it ‘wrong’. But when it comes to fashion there is no wrong. Perhaps it’s not the style of our skirts we need to change, but the role models we aspire to.
There are only clothes that help you wear your personality, show up for your life and take up the space you deserve – and clothes that don’t. And if you follow the ‘rules’ prescribed to you by others, you may never find them. The rules don’t apply to you.
- Monique Doy is an Auckland-based stylist and owner of Dressing Up. She specialises in working with women size 14 and above.