Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Monday, March 30, 2020

What Next In Fashion Fixes About Project Runway

I am a Project Runway fan from way back. I've been watching since season 1, own several seasons on DVD and have watched and re-watched them over and over again. I once skipped work to see Nick Verreos at a meet-and-greet at a La-Z-Boy furniture store.

Still a life highlight

So believe me when I say I'm a genuine fan of the show. But around season 8 it started to break my heart and get bad. And then it just got stale. I have to admit that I haven't seen it since it moved back to Bravo so I can't speak to those seasons. But I recently watched Next in Fashion on Netflix and was amazed how good it was and how it highlighted what has gotten so dull about Project Runway.

But while thinking about it, I realized that all the "bad" things about Project Runway had started as strengths. Let me break it down:

1. Next in Fashion has more experienced designers than Project Runway

Why inexperience was good at first on Project Runway: Project Runway is all about watching a group of scrappy, unknown designers be put through their paces and seeing which ones come up with exciting looks each week. These are people for whom a showing at Fashion Week is a dream, and winning "a mentorship with Banana Republic" would be considered a prize (that actually something you could win on the first two seasons). Season 1 came to a thrilling conclusion when lovable weirdo Jay McCarroll won with a collection that felt like a genuinely fresh point of view.

Still Iconic

Why it got stale: There was a period where Project Runway was growing in popularity and attracting people with more experience. But as so few winners found success in the industry, savvy designers stopped signing on for the show. Instead it filled up with a lot of clueless dreamers who didn't know much about the fashion industry at all. There were people who didn't seem like they could name any current designer or trend and would put a peplum on a dress and think they invented fashion. And the show sometimes rewarded them. It was embarrassing. 

Should you be allowed to win Project Runway if you can't make a sleeve? 

What Next In Fashion got right: Oh hey it turns out designers with more experience know a lot about the industry, what is on trend right now, and what might actually be new and different and fresh.

2. Time is limited but still within reason

What was good at first: Again, part of the joy of Project Runway was seeing what creative people could come up with when given limited time and resources. Some results were amazing!

Made in two days by Christian Siriano and Chris March season 4
No "Avant-Garde" look on the show has ever lived up to this

Why it got stale: The producers started to think that the less time given, the more "exciting" it was. They started having designers make gowns in half a day and a few times even forced designers to go head-to-head and design something in an hour. But it turns out the less time you have the less ambitious you can be. The time crunches caused a lot of drama but not very many interesting looks.


What Next In Fashion got right: Two days for every challenge means actual time to plan, and execute a design.

3. No gimmicky challenges


What was good at first: Project Runway started with a gimmicky challenge. Season 1 episode 1, Tim Gunn took the designers to a grocery store instead of a fabric store and they had to "Make it Work." Challenge winner Austin Scarlett made a dress out of corn husks and the world was never the same. 


From then on, the show tried to replicate that magic with surprising, unexpected challenges.

Another highlight: The car parts challenge in season 5

Why it got stale: Each season had challenges that were increasingly wacky, incorporated strange product placement, or simply didn't make any sense. The stilts challenge in season 9 was memorably bad. 


Now, occasionally magic still happened, even with terrible challenges. Season 13 had this one where Tim Gunn began by talking about a great new Samsung TV and how innovative it was and then there was a sound of thunder and he announced they would show "innovative" avant-garde garments on a "rainway." Umm...what? Contestant Sean filled the seams of his white dress with dye and so the dress burst into color when wet. It was genuinely jaw dropping. 

You can watch the clip here

But 90% of the time the gimmicky challenges were just bad. It was like "make an avant-garde look inspired by the zodiac but you have to collaborate with an eliminated designer who you hate and then the two of you have to sell it to some random people at a cocktail party."


What Next in Fashion got right: Make a gown. Make streetwear. Make something out of denim. Make a suit. It was amazingly refreshing to have very clear, simple parameters for designers to work within.


While drafting this post, I started watching Amazon's new show Making the Cut with Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. And while it made some of the same improvements as Next in Fashion, I found myself immediately annoyed by Tim and Heidi's same old schtick. I feel like a monster saying anything bad about Tim Gunn, but on TV he has started to become a parody of himself. And his dynamic with Heidi has gotten cheesier and cheesier. 

Every Project Runway season he tearfully tells the designers that this is the strongest group he has ever seen. Every season Heidi jokingly flirts with Tim and acts like they are a couple. 

And every season they constantly remind the designers how EXCITING each challenge is and what a HUGE DEAL this is and CAN YOU BELIEVE WHAT AN EXCITING HUGE DEAL THIS IS. And basically all of that happened in the first episode and I was immediately exhausted. 

TO BE FAIR the schtick between Tan and Alexa on Next in Fashion frequently borders on obnoxious. But at least it was different. I think the moral of the story is that good things can become bad things if they go on long enough. 

Hmm, kind of like how a month ago staying in to sit on the couch and watch TV seemed like some kind of treat and now it is ALL THERE IS. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Why The Tudors Is Kinda Good

If you know anything about Showtime's The Tudors you know that it is...rather trashy. It has been maligned by critics, fashion historians, and regular historians. But having recently re-watched it, and watched it alongside Wolf Hall, I am ready to make the case that it is, at times, actually good.

First, to recap why The Tudors gets a bad rap, and why it is mostly deserved:

The pitch meeting for the show seems to be: History, but make it SEXY. And this being the 2000s, SEXY meant that all the actors are all young and hot, the clothes are all ready to fall off at any moment, and there are lots of sex scenes that are gratuitous and unrelated to the plot. The show tries to aggressively sell everyone on Jonathan Rhys Meyers as hot beefcake Henry VIII and he mostly comes across as gross.

He enjoys aggressively and sensually eating fruit for some reason

The costumes are frequently hilarious, but I particularly enjoy how they keep trying to find ways to show off Henry's body even in scenes where he isn't having sex. Like, how about he is with his tailor and his tailor hasn't put sleeves on his doublet yet, but then he is angry so has to have a big important argument without sleeves?

So hot

In summary: Henry VIII is HOT and has SEX and everyone in his court has SEX and it is all just so HOT.

You get the idea

But the other thing is that it is still a multi-episode television show. Each episode is an hour and the Anne Boleyn story is stretched out for two 10-episode seasons. So that is 20 hours to fill and it can't be 20 hours of Jonathan Rhys Meyers ripping his shirt off.

Some of that time has to be filled with actual historical events and details of Henry's reign. Sure, there is stuff that is totally made up or wildly stretched, but some of it is actually accurate. And historical figures who are usually flattened down to a few basic traits in a movie retelling, get more screen time and stuff to do.

Take for example the two women at the center of the story: Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.  Queen Catherine is usually depicted as either stoic and saintly or dried up and stubborn. Anne Boleyn is either slutty and conniving or romantic and heroic. In The Tudors Catherine is shown as strong and pious, but also savvy about the politics of the court and knows how to play her hand. Anne Boleyn is calculating and power-hungry at times, but she also is shown as vulnerable and aware that she is being played as a pawn for her family's own ambitions. She is sympathetic to the Protestant church but also argues with Cromwell about money from the monasteries going to the needy instead of into Henry's pocket. Gosh, maybe women are full human beings with complex emotions and motivations?!

In a similar vein are Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. In most versions of the Henry VIII story, More is a hero and Cromwell a villain. More, a great scholar and thinker of the time, felt his conscience wouldn't allow him to support Henry's marriage to Anne. He was tried and executed as a traitor. There is understandable respect for him and he was even sainted by the Catholic Church. In The Tudors he is played by Jeremy Northam so he is principled AND attractive.


But The Tudors also shows us his less palatable side-- like when he was Chancellor he jumped at the opportunity to burn as many Protestants as possible.

The non-sexy kind of hot

Then there is Thomas Cromwell, who is usually viewed as an opportunist who had no problem doing Henry's dirty work. In The Tudors he is a major character for three seasons, so he gets a lot of screen time. He is clever and capable, sympathetic to the Protestant cause, zealously against aspects of the Catholic church, eager to please Henry, and not terribly afraid of making enemies. Again, they cast an actor (James Frain) who is much younger and more attractive than the real Cromwell.

Dark curly hair yes please

While doing some googling I found this article by a Cromwell biographer who begrudgingly admits that The Tudors is the most accurate portrayal of Cromwell on screen. Her reasoning is that the real Cromwell was quite complicated, not fully hero or villain (as it true for most people) and The Tudors came closest to showing that.

Ok, so I mentioned Wolf Hall earlier. If you don't know, Wolf Hall is the name of both a novel by Hilary Mantel and a miniseries made by the BBC (which was actually an adaptation of both Wolf Hall and the second book Bring up the Bodies. The last book The Mirror and the Light was just published). Mantel positions Cromwell as the hero of the story and makes him very charming and sympathetic. Both book and miniseries are FANTASTIC and I'm sort of obsessed.

If he loves cats, how bad can he be?

While historians may quibble about how favorably Mantel portrays Cromwell, everyone agrees that her books are painstakingly researched and evocative of the Tudor period. But watching The Tudors back-to-back with Wolf Hall highlighted how surprisingly historical much of The Tudors actually was--it just got lost under so much schlock.

So to summarize, The Tudors isn't so bad, Wolf Hall is amazing, and I maybe have a crush on Thomas Cromwell.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Why Doctor Thorne Is Bad But I Re-Watched it Anyway

Last night I re-watched Doctor Thorne on Amazon Prime and it was just as head-scratchingly bad as the first time I saw it. This is a four-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope's book of the same name, adapted by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows.

Why it is bad:

1. The main romance is between two people who are already in love

A good period movie does not need to have a love story, but if it is going to be a central part of the story, the "in love since childhood" trope is the most booooooooring of all possibilities. We don't get to see them meet, exchange any exciting banter, or thrillingly touch hands while dancing/helping into a carriage/handing a teacup

Not a scene from Dr. Thorne

[SIDE NOTE: this pandemic may just revive the idea that hand to hand contact is forbidden yet thrilling]

More hand porn from North & South

Instead when we see them together for the first time on screen we get swelling music that tells us they are IN LOVE and then they just goofily grin at each other.

Nothing new or exciting happens between them. The only conflict is that he is rich and she is poor and his family is against it. Now, an "in love but can't be together" story could be salvaged by some tortured glances but even then, nada. The two leads are both just bland and sweet. So they either smile at each other or look sad. But not dramatic sad. Sort of "well gosh this sure is a pickle" sad. 

2. The resolution of the plot is clear from the first episode 

Ok, so actually the "rich" guy's family is terribly in debt and so he must marry a wealthy woman in order save the family. Also, his romantic interest is from a sketchy, most likely illegitimate background. So here comes a spoiler, but like I said, you find this out very early on:  There is this other super rich guy in town who is about to die. When he does his son will inherit everything. BUT if his son dies the money will go to his sister's "oldest child" and SHOCKINGLY that turns out to be the same young woman who thinks she can't marry the man she loves because she is poor.

All that needs to happen for everything to work out is that the rich guy's son needs to die young. And when we meet the son, he is the absolute worst. He doesn't care that his father is dead, is straight-up cruel to his mother, is skeevy toward women, and has a serious drinking problem. 

Oh yeah, this guy is toast

So somehow there are four episodes to get us to a resolution that plays out exactly as you would expect. 

3. Julian Fellows thinks he is Alistair Cooke / Russell Baker and he is NOT

Greetings idiot Americans

If you watch this on Amazon there are these unbearable fireside chats where Julian Fellows condescendingly explains what is going on in this very un-complex story. 

4. Flower crowns, bad hair, and skirt scrunching

The gals over at Frock Flicks have an excellent post on some very strange costuming quirks of this adaptation:

Also more about why skirt-hiking is obnoxious and unnecessary

But despite all that, I re-watched it anyway!!

Here is why:

1. Despite all the skirt schrunching, the costumes are pretty

Ballgown pastels

Mean ladies = fab dresses 

Love the blues 

2. Alison Brie plays the only character that isn't a familiar 19th-century trope

She is an over-30 wealthy American who enjoys watching men embarrass themselves by trying to marry her.


3. I find even bad period movies (and shows) to be strangely comforting

And here is the meat of it: I like seeing pretty costumes walking around on screen. My absolute favorites combine good visuals with compelling stories, but even when the story misses the mark, the good costumes can make it worthwhile. I put on Doctor Thorne to chill out and also half-watch while doing a couple other things. One of the things that was bad about Doctor Thorne (virtually no drama) was also good. It was safe and gentle and easy to digest.

So if you want something to watch that will be pretty, take very little mental energy, and make you angry about something as unimportant as skirt scrunching, I highly recommend Doctor Thorne. 

Blogging about stupid stuff during the Coronapocalypse

I've taken a long break from blogging, but sitting at home by myself last night I had a lil' anxiety freakout about the possibility that this might just be what life is like for a couple of MONTHS. And so I watched a period movie and it made me feel better. But also I had lots of opinions about the movie and felt like writing them down. So if you are also stuck at home and want to read something that isn't terrifying or a massive guilt trip about leaving your house and maybe touching something that someone else will touch, join me for some opinionated blogging about shows I am watching.

And you know there will be gifs.