Saturday, January 25, 2014

Say Yes to the Lamborghini

"Say Yes to the Dress" recently made the absolute perfect appearance in The Onion. As this is the treadmill show that replaced "What Not to Wear," I could maybe slightly identify.

But! I actually don't think it's a terrible show with an evil message. Because:

-It's from the perspective of the retail workers, a very Old New York bunch, even the young ones. (Remember that Miss Fine on "The Nanny" got her start at a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens.) Not the owners, and definitely not - as you'd expect if you hadn't seen the show - that of the women shopping for expensive gowns. (Women who need to stay under "three" - code for $3,000 - are considered frugal.) The show follows the saleswomen around and is completely on their side. Even when the things that annoy them are customers doing things anyone but their Kleinfeld's consultant would deem reasonable - bringing friends and family, needing a moment to think about a $10,000 purchase, not seeing anything they like and leaving without a dress, etc. The last of those is called "playing dress-up" and is, in this recreated premodern shopping experience (consider the history of the department store - this type of shopping, where you can't just browse, supposedly went out in the late 19th century), unacceptable. It's all about how hard they work, how skilled they are at their jobs, how put-upon by the customers, behind the smiles. It's clearly not a normal retail job, but because of this perspective, it implicitly asks the viewer to be less bratty in retail situations.

-It's a show about sales. If it were set in an expensive car dealership, say, and the cast was made up of men, we'd think it was the reality-TV "Glengarry Glen Ross." But it's about dresses, and so, a big joke. Not so! It's fascinating even if you don't care about wedding dresses. And I say this because... I don't care about wedding dresses. Are there other frivolous things I could see spending far too much on? Yes. Are there vaguely bridal dresses I do like, but that would never be sold in a wedding-gown store? Yes, like the one I got married in. Or the one the tragic Caroline Bessette did. But I have trouble seeing the difference between one proper wedding gown and the next. Sometimes a customer will say that a particular dress looks too costumey, and from what I can tell, at least out of any context (like, say, a wedding) they all look like Renaissance Faire outfits. The best of the bunch tend to be the least expensive, with the possible exception of the Pnina Tornays, which look like high-end fetish lingerie, which does seem odd for a wedding dress, but isn't necessarily unattractive.

-It's a show about family drama. Not waaaah, daddy will only spend $15k on my dress. That's occasionally it, but rarely. The women getting crazy expensive dresses are generally doing this because it's expected for the kind of wedding they're having out of deference to their relatives. Families go through all manner of tragedies and neuroses along the way, and it all comes out in something as symbolically loaded as wedding-dress-shopping. Body image! Sibling rivalry! Because the people who spend $5,000 on a wedding dress do not appear to be the same ones who spend that on everything, the viewer doesn't end up resenting them for being 1%-ish or even, necessarily, poor decision-makers.

-Once 2008 or so rolls around, it becomes a show about the economy. The interviews with the staff reveal some recognition that times are tough, but there's also a sense in which the entire endeavor becomes more cutthroat. Brides are urged to just invite fewer people, to spend less on the food, because it's all about the dress. Meanwhile, where it does get ethically dubious is when women come in, announce they've just been laid off and have no money, so they're going to keep their budget to, say, "four." And it'll be like, noooo, why are you doing this? That's four thousand dollars! Is it right to push a super-expensive dress on someone who's as good as announced they can't afford it?

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