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How Sitcoms Prove a Character’s Clothes are Crucial
This article was originally posted on my website on 3/21/23.
While I was obsessively editing and re-writing my novel, Perfect, I drew inspiration and advice from two writing reference books penned by two of my favorite authors: Stephen King’s On Writing, and James Thayer’s The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel. In their books, both King and Thayer claim that a character’s wardrobe is unimportant and a writer should avoid spending time describing what a character is wearing. As someone who has watched and studied every single episode of What Not to Wear, I respectfully disagree. In fiction, as in real life, a person’s wardrobe reflects their personality, either intentionally or unintentionally.
The best evidence to prove my threads theory comes from TV. Many TV characters wear iconic outfits that fans immediately associate with them: Columbo’s rumpled raincoat, Kramer’s garish vintage clothes on Seinfeld, Kolchak’s seersucker suit and straw hat, Monk’s crisp suit and buttoned-up shirt, and Walter White’s “Heisenberg” black hat on Breaking Bad, just to name a few.
Speaking of Breaking Bad, the characters’ wardrobes on that show feature symbolic colors. For example, characters involved in the meth trade often wear yellow. Green represents money, and blue represents loyalty and purity. This fascinating article explains it more detail.
On Bones, Agent Booth (David Boreanaz) has a habit of wearing flashy socks with his boring black FBI agent suits. In one episode, Dr. Gordon Wyatt (Stephen Fry) suggests that Booth’s socks are a small form of rebellion he uses to cope with the frustrations of everyday life. Dr. Wyatt and I are on the same page.
No type of TV show substantiates my significant style surmisal better than sitcoms. Here are some examples of when my favorite sitcoms proved that wardrobe matters.
The Patty Duke Show — Patty and Cathy’s Signature Looks
The Patty Duke Show was a sitcom about two identical cousins both played by the same person — Patty Duke. This unique premise presented a challenge to the TV creators of the 1960s: they had to figure out how to convince an audience that one actress was actually two different people.
Not only was the show a technical triumph in the way it managed to make Patty Duke seem to be literally beside herself, but it proved to be a master class in nuanced acting thanks to Patty herself. At only 16 years old, Patty proved her performing genius by adjusting her tone of voice, mannerisms, and facial expressions to create two completely different characters: Patty and Cathy Lane. She was so good that even when the two cousins supposedly switched places and pretended to be each other, you could tell that Patty wasn’t really Patty and Cathy wasn’t really Cathy.
An essential part of pulling off this small screen illusion was wardrobe. Giving each cousin a distinctive style helped to convince the audience they were separate people (plus you could tell when they were pretending to be each other because they switched up their wardrobes and hairstyles). Cathy, the quiet, well-traveled, bookish cousin, gravitated toward more conservative styles with high necklines, long skirts, frills, and lace, which were representative of her shy and reserved nature and childhood spent travelling around the most classy places in the world with her reporter father. Patty, the fun-loving, hip, hyper Brooklynite, always sported the hottest 60s teen fashions, including sleeveless tops, capri pants, and minidresses. Patty was outgoing and popular, and she thrived on being one of the cool kids, which was reflected in her edgy fashions.
NewsRadio — When Lisa and Beth Switched Outfits
Never was the importance of wardrobe more apparent than in the Newsradio episode, “Zoso.” Beth (Vicki Lewis) creates a hat that looks like the one Donald wore in Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (although everyone keeps mistakenly calling it a “Mushmouth hat”), and she’s getting ready to make a business deal to sell them. In order to look more professional for her meeting, she convinces Lisa (Maura Tierney) to trade her conservative black suit for Beth’s skimpy, tight, satin dress and mesh top.
Seeing the two characters in each other’s wildly contrasting outfits is nothing short of alarming. Beth looks somehow wrong in a bland, boring suit, and Lisa looks extremely awkward while scantily clad in Beth’s quirky garb. Seeing Beth dressed that way felt normal and comfortable because it matched her weird, bubbly personality; however, seeing Lisa dressed in the same clothes was jarring because it was totally at odds with her modest, businesslike manner.
The Young Ones — When They All Switched Bodies
On the delightfully weird, avant garde British sitcom, The Young Ones, each of the four main characters has a unique style that fits with his personality: Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson), the punk, dresses in a torn denim vest complete with studs and patches; Neal (Nigel Planer), the hippie, wears bellbottoms and a dingy sweatshirt; Mike (Christopher Ryan), the cool guy, wears stylish suits and sunglasses; and Rick (Rik Mayall), the artsy, socially-conscious one, dresses in black with bright red shoes and an occasional beret.
In one episode, all four of the guys switched bodies, with each actor adopting another’s wardrobe and persona. They each did such good impressions of each other that at first, it was hard to tell exactly what was different. Mike’s diminutive height was the only indication that something was amiss.
When one character put on the clothes and personality of another, they became that character. It would be weird to see Vyvyan dressed like Mike and still acting like Vyvyan. Vyv’s a crazy punk and Mike’s a chill hipster. But when Vyvyan put on Mike’s clothes and started acting and talking like Mike, it seemed totally natural. The clothes were an essential part of each character.
Newhart — Larry’s Hat
Throughout its eight-season run, Newhart featured many memorable characters, but the three who really stole the show were Larry (William Sanderson), Darryl (Tony Papenfuss), and Darryl (John Voldstad). Of these three brothers, Larry was the only one who spoke, and he was known for introducing himself and his brothers every time they entered a room: “Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”
The brothers always wore the same tattered and stained clothes, including Larry’s prominent hat. Neither of the Darryls regularly sported a hat, and in one episode, we learn why. Larry explains to Dick (Bob Newhart) that he discovered their birth certificates while rummaging around their attic, and when he re-read the dates, he found to his shock that he was not the oldest brother, but one of the Darryls was. In the next scene, Darryl #1 is wearing Larry’s hat and standing at the front of the line. Later in the episode, Larry discovers that he was wrong the first time, and the other Darryl is actually the oldest. Darryl #2 briefly puts on the hat, then gives it back to Larry when the burden of leadership makes him uncomfortable. The hat appears to be a sort of birthright that signifies the oldest brother and head of the family.
In another episode, Larry switched hats with George (Tom Poston), who regularly wore a hunting cap. Both of them felt and looked awkward wearing each other’s hats. Seeing George in Larry’s skull cap felt wrong. It suddenly made him seem like an unkempt and dirty woodsman like one of the Darryls. Just a simple hat made all the difference.