IF ONE HAD TO give an example of the popular expression ‘dressing for the part,’ the television series UnREAL would provide endless material. As the title suggests, the series develops around the fine line between what is real and what is not. The plot of UnREAL follows the making of a fictional reality show, Everlasting; and is, in fact, a show within a show. The highly scripted format of reality TV demonstrates a complicated concept of ‘real.’ The dichotomy between real and fake is clearly reflected in the show’s constant contrast between the behind-the-scenes and on-camera footage; it is this essential overlap that captures the viewer. This dynamic is mirrored by the clothing worn by the characters: as the show’s costume designer Cynthia Summers has explained, ‘Everything in front of the camera is sparkly, and colourful, and twinkly lights and gowns and beauty […] Behind the camera, everything is monochromatic, everything is dark, everything is earth tones.’1 While initially the difference between those dressing for the part – the reality TV show contestants – and those who dress them for the part, the producers, is quite clear, as the series progresses the boundaries become more loose, and the characters’ ethical concerns – or lack thereof – are reflected in their fashion choices. In UnREAL, the clothes make the antiheroes.
Inspired by the experience of writer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who was a producer on the hit franchise The Bachelor, the first season of the series follows Rachel, an assistant producer, as she returns to the set of Everlasting after an on-camera nervous breakdown on the previous season’s finale. Under the wing of executive producer and ruthless mentor Quinn, Rachel has to prove to everyone that she is now mentally stable as well as the most talented producer on set. Rachel’s character is central to the series: fickle and manipulative, but also vulnerable and sensitive, she embodies the ethical contradictions underlying the conditions of reality TV. By extension, her wardrobe offers a way into the parallels between sartorial and moral dilemmas in UnREAL.
Indeed, the first scene in which Rachel appears sets the tone of the entire series. Rachel is in a limousine with some contestants on the way to the bachelor mansion where show is filmed. The girls are dressed in glitzy gowns and the luxurious car interior sets the stage with clichéd tropes of wealth and old-fashioned romance sold by the show. By contrast Rachel is dressed in casual, utilitarian garb: jeans, military green jacket and a grey T-shirt. Her style signals that she’s not participating in the fantasy, but rather that she works behind-the-scenes. The dissonance is amplified by the slogan on her T-shirt, which says, rather cynically: ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like.’ Rachel’s look clearly sends a message in stark contrast to her surroundings. In fact, the T-shirt was based off of Shapiro’s real life choice of clothing on the set of The Bachelor, where she reportedly wore ‘a “George Bush, Out of My Uterus” T-shirt, and jeans that exposed her butt crack’ to protest the fetishised beauty promoted by the program.2 As Shapiro once was, Rachel seems to be stuck in a job that promotes gender ideals that she supposedly opposes in real life.
As the show progresses, however, the viewer begins to wonder about Rachel’s actual motive for returning to work. Her ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirt is ditched in favour of a plain one as she proceeds to use an alleged feminist position to gain the trust of contestants in order to manipulate them. In season one Rachel calls on set a contestant’s abusive ex-partner because a confrontation between the two, in her words, ‘is going to be crazy empowering for the millions of women out there who are letting their husbands knock them around.’ Similarly, in season two she convinces a young African-American activist to drop out of college to be cast on the show, which according to Rachel will give her a broader platform to address gender equality and race issues. Behind the veneer of female empowerment, however, lies the desire to generate good ratings. Rachel, Quinn and the other producers are willing to do almost anything to make the girls conform to the scripted identities required to gain ratings for the show, forming the girls into typecast identities like, ‘the wifey,’ ‘the villain’ and ‘the desperate MILF.’ Their manipulations often entail style tips: when girls act too demure they are told to wear more revealing clothes, but when their clothing is too revealing they are shamed into thinking that they cannot be ‘wife material.’ Some contestants are turned into veritable caricatures: in one early episode a black girl is pushed by the producers into the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype, which leads her to pick a short, tight, leopard print dress in orange to appear more aggressive. Similarly, in season two, a white, conservative girl from the South is convinced to wear a confederate flag bikini upon meeting the new suitor, an African-American football player. As the season progresses Rachel starts to show a darker side, and her talent for manipulating the contestants emerges, as such, her wardrobe begins to take on a more curated look.
If initially Rachel is told by Adam, the show’s suitor in season one, that she looks like ‘a homeless person,’ and by Quinn that she needs to take time off because she ‘looks like crap,’ she slowly appears to take more care in her appearance. By episode four she is wearing a black leather jacket and eyeliner, which causes the response from Adam: ‘Wow, what’s the occasion? You ditched the bird’s nest look.’ Indeed, Rachel’s style appears to imitate her mentor, and the show’s villain, Quinn whenever she attempts to exert more control over her life. Josh, Rachel’s ex boyfriend who also works behind-the-scenes on the set of the show, immediately picks up on the change at the beginning of season two, asking Rachel if she has raided Quinn’s wardrobe. Her monochromatic, model-off-duty power look – a white silk blouse, a fitted, black Helmut Lang blazer, skinny jeans and heeled boots – is inspired by Quinn’s body-conscious dresses, structured blazers and high heels. The style conveys the executive producer’s ruthlessness, ‘Tell them that if they don’t take my call, I’m gonna come over there and shove my Manolos up every one of their slimy asses.’
When Rachel is not able to live up to Quinn’s expectations or begins to question the moral implications of her actions on Everlasting, her wardrobe reflexively becomes more casual. Rachel’s unstable style matches with her waves of insecurity and mood swings; according to Cynthia Summers, ‘The messier her mind, the messier her look.’3 The contrast is particularly striking against Quinn’s fashionable and expensive wardrobe. Unlike Rachel, Quinn does not have any conflict or qualms about manipulating the cast of the show, her moral distance and calculating attitude is mirrored in her consistently sleek, armour-like clothes. In many ways her style is not personal at all, but rather embodies Hollywood’s sartorial ideal of female empowerment: a mix between brand obsession à la Sex and the City and the sensible, minimalist simplicity of traditional American fashion.
What Quinn’s and Rachel’s wardrobes have in common is that they both reflect the antihero qualities of the two characters. As female producers in an industry where men are constantly given more credit and paid better, their dysfunctional, sometimes competitive relationship also provides a sense of comfort. The culmination of their mutual respect is perhaps best represented by the matching ‘Money. Dick. Power.’ tattoos the two women get at the beginning of the second season, the tone of which ironically sounds less like a feminist motto and more like the macho banter of their male counter-parts. As writer and critic D.T. Max observed, ‘You can watch UnREAL for the same destructive women-on-women behaviour you see on The Bachelor or as a witty commentary on it.’4
At a time when terminology around feminism and female empowerment is increasingly co-opted by corporate slogans and branding strategies, UnREAL offers a nuanced, but controversial depiction of self-proclaimed feminist characters, whose often unspoken moral stance is gradually revealed to us through the language of clothes.
Alessandro Esculapio is a writer and PhD student at the University of Brighton, UK.