CUT-THROAT COMMENTS ABOUT CLOTHING and appearance play a prominent role in Will & Grace, the NBC sitcom that aired between 1998 and 2006 and the first primetime show to feature gay characters as protagonists. Set in a white, upper middle-class environment in New York City, the series follows the life of best friends Will Truman and Grace Adler, a gay lawyer and a straight, Jewish interior designer, and their friends Jack McFarland and Karen Walker, a flamboyant failed actor and a socialite with a penchant for drinks and pills who works as Grace’s assistant to escape her motherly duties. As expected, fashion is central to the characters. On the one hand, jokes about taste and personal style are a key feature for the show’s comedic sensibility; the characters’ merciless comments about each other’s looks are a preferential form of interaction, a form of wit-based bonding that plays with heteronormativity, societal expectations and political correctness. On the other, clothing and style are also able to bring the characters together, acting as a common language or a terrain to negotiate personal relationships.
As evident in the poster of the series (above), each character dons a specific style. High heels, designer suits and feminine blouses are Karen’s staples; Will’s pared-down, sophisticated style conveys the seriousness of his profession but also of his paternal role in this queer family; Grace’s wardrobe is professional but with a twist, as a designer she experiments more with clothes; last but not least, Jack’s suburban dad look is a counterpoint to his over-the-top, diva personality and a strategic choice to make him more palatable to ‘average Joes.’1 Each of the characters transgresses their fairly stable sartorial identity at a certain point in the show. Such transgressions are usually identified as fashion faux pas by the proverbial caustic joke. A classic way in which Karen, the self-proclaimed fashion expert in the group, calls out Grace for going over-the-top is ‘Honey, what’s this? What’s going on? What’s happening?’ These comments are usually accompanied by a condescending smile. Many of the show’s jokes also include references to gay culture, marking the characters as queer while also drawing in a straight audience. It is in this spirit that Jack calls out Grace for looking like ‘sporty Spice’ in the pilot and Karen tells Jack he is as gay ‘as a clutch purse on Tony night’ on episode twenty, season four.
In the same spirit, Will, who usually acts like the responsible father and breadwinner, is called out when he does not live up to masculine ideals. ‘The Third Wheel Gets The Grace,’ the first episode of season four, begins with Will showing Jack, Grace, and her boyfriend Nathan a pair of jeans that he bought in France:
Will: Well, what do you think?
Jack: Nice. Do they sell men’s clothes where you got those?
Grace: I love those jeans.
Will: Thank you.
Grace: I wore them to my bat-mitzvah after party.
Will: These are men’s jeans.
Nathan: Willard, relax. It’s a very smart-looking pant. It’ll save you having to tell people you’re gay.
Will is mocked for not looking masculine enough and Nathan, despite being straight and stereotypically masculine, is in on the joke and thus temporarily ‘in’ with the queer family. A mainstay of the humour of Will & Grace, this type of joke relates to the practice of ‘reading’ in New York’s 1990s vogueing subcultures. This is captured in the documentary Paris Is Burning by performer Venus Extravaganza: ‘Reading is the real artform of insult. You get in a smart crack, and everyone laughs and ki-kis because you found a flaw and exaggerated it.’ So while ‘reading’ entails bringing someone down for a flaw or fashion faux pas, it also brings everyone who is present together when the joke lands. Furthermore, everyone is in turn subjected to ‘being read,’ which makes this sense of humour completely democratic within the elective family.
The same sense of humour and fashion-savviness simultaneously demarcates those who belong to the circle and those who do not. An example of the latter is an episode when Karen finds herself at a support group where gays and lesbians are ‘converted,’ she observes: ‘Good lord, look at these people. Just because they stopped being gay doesn’t mean they have to stop having taste.’ Later in that episode, ‘The Third Wheel Gets The Grace,’ all the characters go to the annual Barneys sale in New York, a ritual that Will and Grace have observed since they were teenagers, and from which Nathan feels excluded. Threatened by their clique-like dynamic, he decides to join them. Despite his good intentions he finds himself cracking under the pressure when it comes to decoding clothes:
Grace: Okay, is this a powerful madam executive having cocktails at the Mercer Hotel or is it a PTA mom trying to cover up an affair with a superintendent?
Nathan: Erm… the other one?
Grace: What other one?
Nathan: You know, the whore at the hotel.
Nathan: I don’t… I don’t…
Grace: Okay okay. How about this one?
Nathan: Oh, that’s the nice PTA one.
Grace: No! If anything this is the whore at the hotel! I mean, I’ve actually seen whores in hotels wearing this! And if that’s the case, why do I want this? Why do I want this?!
The scene ends with both of them in tears and Nathan saying ‘I miss Will!’ and adding ‘There’s no way we’re gonna have sex together after I helped you pick dresses for five hours! Find your friend, finish each other’s sentences. I love you Gracie, but I gotta go find a sports bar.’ Indeed, as the scene unfolds Will spots Grace crying and comes to save the day. When asked what he thinks of the outfit she has just shown to Nathan, he confidently offers: ‘It’s fine, Mrs. Fleischman, if you’re gonna continue that affair with the superintendent at the school district.’ Harmony in the queer family is quickly restored through the joke. Nathan’s distance from the circle is further reiterated by Will, who observes: ‘Poor guy. Making him choose designer clothing when the only labels he owns say “Nathan” in red marker.’
In the same episode Jack is working on his relationships with Elliott, his biological son, and Karen re-negotiates her relationship with Rosario, her maid. The characters do so through clothes, which reveal their mediating power in the show. Jack accompanies Elliott to Barneys to look for back-to-school clothes as a father/son bonding activity. Jack is naturally confident in his taste and chooses tight leather trousers and a floral shirt for Elliott, who tries them on hesitantly:
Jack: What’s the matter, don’t you like it?
Elliott: It makes me look like Ricky Martin.
Jack: So you do like it! … Oh, that’s a bad thing.
Elliott: I’m sorry.
Jack: That’s okay, if you don’t like it we can get something else. Go change.
Elliott: I just think wearing leather pants for PE would be a mistake.
Jack: Then why did you say you liked it when I picked it out for you?
Elliott: Well, you seemed so excited about them and…
Elliott: I just wanted you to like me.
Jack: Well you don’t need to get these clothes for me to like you, Elliott. I do like you. We’re good.
Elliott: You do?
Jack: Yeah. Besides, I’m your father. I may need a kidney one day.
Through their clash in taste both realise that they are looking to get to know each other and connect at some level. Jack understands this and accepts that his fashion sense does not work for Elliott. He finally agrees to take Elliott to Target to find something that he will feel comfortable in.
Similarly, Karen agrees to accompany her long-time maid Rosario to buy shoes at Barneys in occasion of their fifteenth anniversary. The occasion itself marks a typical trait of their relationship, which mocks straight companionship with Karen playing the capricious woman while Rosario takes on a decisive, pragmatic male role. This dynamic is reinforced at the beginning of the episode by Karen, who hands her credit card over to Rosario and says ‘Here, take my charge card, go down to the men’s department and buy yourself some new shoes.’ But Rosario insists that they go together and Karen reluctantly agrees. Once at Barneys, however, Rosario is very indecisive and takes forever to pick a pair of shoes. This makes Karen suspicious and creates the set for the surreal dialogue that follows:
Rosario: What if I said I don’t want any of these things?
Karen: I’d say you’re crazy.
Rosario: What if I said I’ve just been stalling so I could spend more time with you.
Karen: I’d say you’re a lesbian.
Rosario: What if I said that’s all I wanted for our anniversary?
Karen: I’d say you’re a crazy lesbian.
Rosario: Well it’s the truth, that’s all I wanted.
Karen: …You wanted to be with me because you like me? Okay, this is getting too real. Here, buy whatever you want. I need to get out of here, I can’t breathe.
Karen then runs out of Barneys. When Jack spots her and attempts to start a conversation she simply replies ‘Can’t talk, feeling something.’ While her relationship with Rosario is left unresolved in the episode, this is the first time the viewers see them connect at a deeper level. Karen’s conviction that ‘in order for people to like you, you have to buy them things’ is also implicitly questioned by Rosario’s desire to spend quality time with her. In this sense, Karen’s surface is scratched and the ability of clothes to mediate social interactions unveiled.
‘The Third Wheel Gets The Grace’ shows how fashion operates at different social levels on Will & Grace. The appearance-centric sense of humour and the framing of clothes as social objects are two of the elements through which the characters create a special ‘queer’ family with its own rules, one that makes their respective biological families, and heteronormative society at large, seem dull in comparison. The importance of appearance and surface in the show, then, can be read as simultaneously stereotyping and subversive: it is the particular ‘queer’ sensibility of the humour in the series that allows for these two seemingly contradictory readings to fruitfully coexist.
Alessandro Esculapio is a writer and PhD student at the University of Brighton, UK.
‘Jack is a preppy type. I’d love to put him in tighter clothes, but the studio’s scared that if he looks too gay the boys in Oklahoma won’t watch the show.’ Costume designer Lori Eskowitz-Carter quoted in Liz Hoggard, ‘Behind The Scenes – Hello campters: What really happens on the set of America’s most popular gay sitcom,’ Sunday Mirror, 05 May 2002. ↩