Monday, 3 November 2014

Unpacking Ugly Betty (Part I: Fashion)

I underestimated Ugly Betty. The television series, which aired between 2006 and 2010, tells the story of a recent Queens College graduate. Latina writer Betty Suarez gets hired at Mode magazine (Ugly Betty’s Vogue) as the assistant to the editor-in-chief (she slowly works her way up).

I think most of us have always had a certain impression of the series, even if we haven't seen every episode. The cartoony cutscenes, the integration of telenovelas, the often cheesy and unrealistic plotlines. Truly, it does include all of these things, but was so much more. Besides my obvious love for the show, its hilarious writing sequences, and clever character arcs, my main surprise was Ugly Betty's clever alignment with the fashion industry.  

Mode was an exaggeration of the fashion industry. Think The Devil Wears Prada, stretched across 85 episodes of character development. The entire series is fashion-centric. Even Betty’s nephew is obsessed with Fashion Television from the first episode – which seems to be the only news station in the city, always playing on a TV.

Ugly Betty unpacks the idea that fashion is shallow and irrelevant to our every day life. Exaggeration aside, it pretends to be an integral part of the industry. Each episode is packed with fashion references, from side-comments about models, designers, celebrities, to literally having the references come alive through carefully chosen guest stars.

Fashion-related appearances included Nina Garcia, Christian Siriano, Isaac Mizrahi, Martha Stewart, Kathy Griffin, Tim Gunn, Kenneth Cole, Victoria Beckham, Vera Wang, Betty White, Bow Wow, Gene Simmons, Larry King, Naomi Campbell, Regis & Kelly, Adriana Lima, Adele, Shakira, and Nigel Barker - and this is only a small sample of celebrity guest stars who played themselves (or an often exaggerated version of themselves).

Nearing the end of season four, Betty comes up to EIC Daniel Meade and questions him on his decision to book a trip to London Fashion Week: “you said it’s the training bra of fashion weeks,” she told him in the episode. In another episode, receptionist Amanda Tanning decides she wants more out of life than being Mode’s receptionist. She declares herself a stylist, and yells out “watch out Rachel Zoe, there’s a new skinny bitch in town.” These tiny references are completely irrelevant to someone with no fashion knowledge - but for a fashion enthusiast like me, I loved every minute of it.

Betty's character becomes a key component of the viewer's introduction into the fashion industry. Obviously, the themes of her character are clear: you are more than your looks, you don't need to be re-touched to be beautiful, you don't need to stab everyone in the back to make your way up the ranks, etc. From watching her transformation through four seasons, I think it digs a bit deeper from a fashion perspective.

She struggles with her transformation. She fears becoming a cold, power-hungry "Mode girl," and so does the viewer. Betty may have walked in on her first day wearing a bright red Guadaljara! poncho, but she ends the series wearing tailored, expensive clothes. Her wardrobe transformed slowly through the series, until it achieved a definite tasteful level. Betty becomes so fashionable, she gives the creative director a perforated ulcer. 

Does that make Betty's character any less intelligent, worthy, well-rounded? Does ANYONE become less intelligent once they pick up an interest in fashion, develop their aesthetic and taste level? If anything, she is more confident and focused on her career after her transformation than she is before, and so is the viewer.

“I think I finally get it. Fashion is art. It’s just another way of taking what’s on the inside and putting it out there for everybody else to experience it. It’s not shallow, it’s courageous. It’s…it’s beautiful.” – Betty, S3E15

The show tirelessly worked to construct an identity that made you believe it was seamlessly part of the “real fashion world.” In fact, it’s one of the only successful television series that held a dominant fashion perspective. Ugly Betty was an extremely accessible series, about a non-accessible and mostly exclusive industry.

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