Cloth crap?

Lawrence Parker confesses to liking Trinny and Susannah's TV programme What not to wear

Trinny and Susannah - I guess most readers hate both of them, together with the What not to wear BBC television programme that propelled them to the status of a national institution. I quite like them. Partly because I fancy Trinny but also because no other television programme can instil quite such a sense of cultural despair. The basic idea is that Trinny and Susannah select a couple of dowdy washed-out people (but with some stylistic potential), erode any lingering sense of respect their victims may have by laying siege to their wardrobe, give them some fashion advice and £2,000, send them shopping, turn up during the shopping to enforce the previously given advice, give their victims a hairdo and some war paint, show them the results and voilà ! Somebody who had a week before looked like Barbara Windsor on Benzedrine is transformed into a pre-Dynasty Joan Collins. Cynicism aside, there is clearly something positive about the moment when people are shown the results of their makeovers (we all benefit from a few nice threads and I am not advocating we dress ourselves in bin liners). But this is only a moment, being saturated by a host of less benign messages. The current series has thus far dealt with divorcees, young women on the cusp of a new career, pensioners and (god save us all) mid-life crisis men. Trinny and Susannah appear to have become something more than fashion advisers. In the episode with the two female divorcees it became clear that the presenters were acting more in the guise of life coaches (or at certain ghastly points, amateur psychiatrists), hanging the makeover on an attempt to resolve major conflicts in these women's lives. This idea is reinforced by the framing of the programme after the divorcees have been chosen: Trinny and Susannah start by living their victims' lives for a day and end up watching a videotape of the women taking their makeovers back into their lives. Lurking beneath this is a thoroughly batty idea. Clothes are being pitched way beyond their use-values (keeping warm, signifying social codes and so on), circumventing their function as commodities into some sort of nether world where they can magically transform a web of social entanglements and experiences. What not to wear thus establishes itself as a richly embellished advertisement. It would, of course, be wonderful if personal agony could be overcome with a waltz around Selfridges. The absurdity of this message makes you wonder whom Trinny and Susannah will line up for the next series? Heroin users? Victims of terrorism? And what of Trinny and Susannah's famously bossy personas? In What not to wear, the presenters always lay down 'the rules' to their victims. If they decide that stripes make you look fat, then you cannot have stripes. These 'rules' are then enforced in a variety of 'Love, you look like shite' interactions. This is all about as natural as tinned cat food, Trinny and Susannah's ultimate skill being to translate the dictates of the fashion industry into an ultimately likeable act. The fashion industry is interesting in that it is comfortable in projecting itself as a thoroughly alienated spectacle. Pick up a copy of Vogue and try and find any human empathy with the airbrushed mannequins you see on display. Consider the whole discourse around 'supermodels'. And think of the catwalk itself, which is essentially a means to confront an audience with clothes. The fashion industry thus glowers down on its public from a very great height. Therefore, Trinny and Susannah are its true daughters, as - with the voices of Enid Blyton and the force of Pol Pot - they dictate 'the rules' to their victims in changing rooms across the land. However, as stated previously, this is a programme with some endearing moments. This ultimately stems from the relative commodity-dependent 'freedom' on offer to its participants. Even for those of us on a reasonable wage, a stroll around a clothes shop involves a host of calculations not related to need, wants and desires, but to more prosaic matters such as budget and cost. In What not to wear, the BBC chucks £2,000 at its participants to change their wardrobe. Of course, it is still a budget and wraps people up in commodities, but only a fortunate few can blow this sort of cash in one go. This throwing over of the immediacy of alienation is one of the few small mercies on offer here. And for that, I suppose, we should all be thankful.