Window Dressing: Spectacular Costuming in MTV’s The City

MTV The City

MTV’s The City

The conventional role of costuming in film and television is to “complement the narrative, characters and stars.”1 On Sex and the City we know that Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is whimsical because she pairs hot pants with a newsboy cap and Fendi mules and that Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is sexually adventurous because she prefers bold colors and low cut dresses. Costuming is designated as being “spectacular’” if it “interrupt(s) and destabilize(s) character and the unfolding action, offering an alternative and potentially contrapuntal discursive strategy—a vertical interjection into a horizontal and linear narrative.”2 At these moments what characters are wearing becomes more important than what they are saying and doing. In such cases, costuming often takes on an extradiegetic role by encouraging fans to go out and purchase what they’ve seen characters wearing; Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe obsessions convinced many female viewers to procure their own pair of $630 Manolo Blahnik pumps while the clothing worn by Gossip Girl’s young cast can be purchased directly through the CW website.3 Of course, this use of fictional characters as “living display windows” is nothing new; since the earliest days of moving pictures the screen has functioned as a department store window, whetting and motivating the viewer’s consumer desires.4

Sarah Jessica Parker

Carrie Bradshaw’s quirky style

Gossip Girl apparel available on the CW website

Gossip Girl fans can purchase the looks they see after the show ends

However, in the scripted reality series The City—which chronicles reality veteran Whitney Port’s move from the beaches of The Hills to New York City’s cutthroat fashion world—costume serves as the organizing sensibility, over and above narrative or character development. As with most scripted reality programs airing on MTV, very little “happens” on The City. Most conflicts between characters are scripted and major plot points are revealed via internet and tabloid reports weeks or months before an episode airs. For example, on September 9, 2009 The Hollywood Gossip revealed that Whitney and her boyfriend, Freddie Fackelmayer, had broken up, even though this relationship was not introduced into The City’s narrative until a month later, in an October 20th episode (“Meet the Fackelmayers”).5 Consequently, most fans are not watching The City to see what happens next—they are watching to see. And what is there to see on The City? Fashion.

Since the majority of The City is filmed in department stores, the offices of fashion magazines, photo shoots, industry parties, and behind the scenes of runway shows, there are ample opportunities to showcase images of clothing, shoes, handbags, and accessories. Furthermore, cast members frequently draw attention to each other’s fashion choices, commenting on specific details like the color of a shirt, the cut of a dress, and make up choices. In “It’s All Who You Know,” for instance, Whitney has lunch with Samantha, a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman, and compliments her application of blue eyeliner by exclaiming, “You’re so daring, I would never put that on!” Later in the episode Kelly Cutrone, Whitney’s boss and mentor, questions one of Whitney’s design sketches, “Assymetrical? I think it’s going out.” Another episode, filmed at Miami’s fashion week, confirms that “futuristic” looks are “in” for Spring 2010 (“Friends and Foe-Workers”). In all three cases drawing attention to costuming alerts The City’s viewing audience (females ages 12-34) about what is in and what is out in contemporary fashion.6 Furthermore, at the close of each episode viewers are instructed to go to where they can locate and purchase items worn by cast members or possibly listen to Olivia Palermo’s tips for choosing a versatile fall handbag.

The City's costumes available for purchase on

The City’s viewers are encouraged to shop for looks identical to those featured on the show

Occasionally The City’s spectacularization of fashion does serve an explicit narrative purpose by moving the plot forward or developing character motivations. For example, one of the series’ major storylines involves socialite Olivia Palermo’s tenure at Elle magazine as Accessories Editor and her clashes with Erin Kaplan, Elle’s Director of Public Relations. Erin believes Olivia is ill equipped to handle her new position, but Creative Director, Joe Zee, firmly believes that Olivia belongs at Elle (no doubt due to the free publicity generated by The City’s ever present cameras). Joe cites “[her] taste, [her] eye, [her] passion for fashion” as key components of Olivia’s value to the magazine. In order to support these claims, Joe frequently draws attention to Olivia’s costuming. When Olivia dons a bright yellow tunic at a staff meeting, Joe remarks, “I love that color!” And in a later episode he notes Olivia’s high heels and the camera responds by cutting to a close up of Olivia’s feet. At these moments a focus on costuming serves a narrative purpose—as visual evidence of Olivia’s good taste.

Olivia’s costuming denotes her taste

Olivia’s costuming denotes her taste

Olivia's denotative pumps

Olivia’s denotative pumps

More often than not, however, fashion in The City exists merely to be looked at and emulated. Rather than using establishing shots to locate characters in a specific geographical locale, episodes frequently open with establishing shots of high end clothing and jewelry stores (Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren) or of anonymous but trendy New Yorkers, while loving close ups of expensive clothing items occasionally even serve as transitions between scenes.

Shots of stylish New Yorkers serve as transitions between scenes

Shots of stylish New Yorkers serve as transitions between scenes

Shots of stylish New Yorkers serve as transitions between scenes

Rather than orienting the characters in space, such shots place them in a generalized “fashion world,” as if New York City itself was merely the colorful backdrop for an Elle fashion editorial. It is fitting, then, that the final shot of the season 1 spring finale, “I Lost Myself in Us,” in which Whitney breaks up with her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Jay Lyon, was of a pair of boots. In scripted reality programs like Laguna Beach and The Hills emotional climaxes are often punctuated with a close up on the heroine’s face, a device known as the “egg.” Traditionally employed by soap operas, eggs allow the savvy viewer to read layers of emotion into the seemingly blank look of the actor.7 But as Whitney leaves Jay in the street and dramatically reenters the doors of Diane von Fürstenberg’s store (a visual rendering of Whitney’s decision to choose a career over romance), we see a close up of her purple, high-heeled booties. Here the display of fashion triumphs over narrative: the viewer must read meaning into these shoes, rather than Whitney’s facial expressions. The editors’ decision to make a pair of shoes the final shot of the spring season8 speaks to the very blankness of The City’s cast, who, much like fashion models, exist as unobtrusive frames for the display of clothing and goods.

Whitney's booties

Whitney’s booties are more fascinating than her face

While the conspicuous display of contemporary fashion and the placement of the stylish female body in exciting locales are fundamental to the appeal of many programs featuring single and/or career-driven women living in urban environments (Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Ally McBeal, Melrose Place, Lipstick Jungle), The City’s use of spectacular costuming is employed to provide its audience with pleasures that exceed or defy the boundaries of its otherwise flimsy narrative. Indeed, because The City’s narrative has been rendered superfluous through the proliferation of multi-platform content venues (tabloid weeklies, fashion blogs, internet gossip sites) that inform viewers of crucial plot details months or weeks ahead of an episode’s air date, viewers are instead offered a living, breathing fashion editorial.

Image Credits:
1. MTV’s The City
2. Carrie Bradshaw’s quirky style
3. Gossip Girl fans can purchase the looks they see after the show ends: screen capture from CW website: screen capture from the CW’s website
4. The City’s viewers are encouraged to shop for looks identical to those featured on the show: screen capture from MTV’s website
5. Olivia’s costuming denotes her taste: screen capture from the streaming episodes on
6. Olivia’s denotative pumps: screen capture from the streaming episodes on
7. Shots of stylish New Yorkers serve as transitions between scenes: screen capture from the streaming episodes on
8. Shots of stylish New Yorkers serve as transitions between scenes: screen capture from the streaming episodes on
9. Whitney’s booties are more fascinating than her face: screen capture from the streaming episodes on

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  1. Bruzzi, Stella. Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1997. p. 3. []
  2. Bruzzi, Stella and Pamela Church Gibson. “‘Fashion is the Fifth Character’: Fashion, Costume and Character in Sex and the City.” Reading Sex and the City. Eds. Kim Akass and Janet McCabe. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. p. 123. []
  3. Lauren Lipton. “Style & Substance: After ‘Sex,’ Fashion World Looks for a New TV Showcase.” Wall Street Journal 17 Sep 2004. B1. []
  4. Eckert, Charles. “Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window.” Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. Eds. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog. New York: Routledge, 1990. p.103. []
  5. “Whitney Port and Freddie Fackelmayer Break Up.” The Hollywood Gossip. 9 Sept 2009. 27 Dec 2009. . []
  6. Weprin, Alex. “Can MTV Get Its Groove Back?” Broadcasting and Cable. 23 Feb 2009. 27 Dec 2009. . []
  7. Levine, Elana. “The New Soaps? Laguna Beach, The Hills, and the Gendered Politics of Reality ‘Drama’.” FlowTV Vol. 4, No. 10 (18 Aug 2006) . []
  8. The second half of season one did not resume until the fall of 2009. []


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