It’s the golden age of TV and as we binge on box sets, television is influencing our wardrobes more than ever before. From Sex and the City to Mad Men, and more recently Peaky Blinders, Carolyn Moore looks at why TV is so good at selling clothes.

Hands up if you can remember your first ever style crush.

For me it’s not that difficult, as the photographic evidence lingers in old family albums. 

When my brother made his communion, I turned the task of outfitting him for the occasion into my first de facto styling gig. 

He was to wear a flecked charcoal suit with a baby pink tie, and I would wear a pink cotton pencil skirt with a matching oversized blazer, sleeves rolled up, of course.

There was a reason I wanted us to look like a pair of shrunken grown ups, and I had a specific pair of grown ups in mind. 

If anyone asked, my brother was Bruce Willis and I was Cybill Shepherd, AKA David and Maddie from Moonlighting, and the next time we played at running a madcap detective agency, by God, would we look the part.

It was the start, for me, of a life long love affair with the fashion I saw on TV, and growing up — trying to find myself and my own sense of style — I never hesitated to try on the personas that flickered across my small screen and struck me as people I wanted to be, or at the very least, be more like.

There was the regrettably hat-filled Blossom phase (I didn’t want her hats, I wanted her stage-school confidence); the woefully unsuited to the Irish climate Beverly Hills 90210 phase (I didn’t want their midriff tops, I wanted their charmed lives); the “where can I buy two-toned Oxfords?” Twin Peaks phase (I did want those shoes, and I finally got them in 2013); the ubiquitous ‘Rachel’ haircut phase, and many more besides.

My point being, prior to this millennium, it was not unheard of for people like me to fall so deeply in love with everything they thought a TV character’s wardrobe signified, that they adopted it for themselves. And it’s an even bigger phenomenon now. 

Perhaps you’ve recently found yourself wondering if — like Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe — you too could pull off a pair of lacy tights with a crop top and a printed romper?

Like every great TV wardrobe, Sharon’s clothes are an outward manifestation of everything we love about her — her irreverent humour and refusal to conform to society’s prescribed notions of a wife and mother — but while the clothes may maketh the woman on TV, in real life no amount of skilled colour blocking will give you Horgan’s killer wit; no body-con dress can bestow upon you the steely resolve of Claire Underwood; and it takes more than a white silk blouse to affect the insouciant air of The Fall’s Stella Gibson.

What is equally certain in this Golden Age of Television is that we have no shortage of aspirational female characters to model ourselves after, and we risk turning into fashion chameleons as a result. 

We emerge from a Scandal binge watch one day, firmly believing we could take over the world if we could first overcome the impracticality of white tailoring; and we vow to start mixing our prints the next, when a date with The Mindy Project has us lusting after some garishly fabulous separates.

The impact of TV costuming on our fashion choices cannot be denied, and the game changer was, of course, Sex and the City. It changed fashion — and TV’s relationship with fashion — forever. 

Arriving just as the high street was shifting gears and discovering the fast lane, the show’s reciprocal relationship with the fashion industry paved the way for TV to overtake film as fashion’s big influencer.

Its success as a fashion showcase can’t be attributed to any one factor. Rather it was a perfect storm of Patricia Field’s inspired costume design, Sarah Jessica Parker’s willingness to embody our collective style goals, the carefree abandon of boom time excess, and the high street raising its game to respond more rapidly to emerging trends. 

You want a nameplate necklace? We got you. An oversized corsage? We got you. Knock-off Fendi baguette? Pick a pattern!

By deftly mixing vintage finds with show-stopping designer pieces (often snatched straight off the catwalk for filming), Patricia Field moulded Carrie Bradshaw’s playful, eclectic style, and a noughties fashion proto-type was born. 

Carrie broke all the rules, and she gave women everywhere the confidence to do the same. The effect of this is still felt in fashion today, just as Field’s legacy can be traced through countless TV shows since.

The hype surrounding the show cultivated an environment in which an online store dedicated to giving people instant access to their favourite TV wardrobes could go on to become one of the world’s largest retailers. 

Before it was a byword for online shopping, ASOS was an acronym for “As Seen On Screen”, and the path from TV to fashion retail soon became a two way street, with brands clamouring to place product in fashionable shows, and influential costume designers — Patricia Field; her protégé, Gossip Girl’s Eric Daman; Scandal’s Lyn Paolo; and Mad Men’s Janie Bryant — producing fashion collections that made it even easier for viewers to emulate their shows’ stylish protagonists.

With wiggle skirts, sundresses and impeccably tailored suits, the fashion worn by the cast of Mad Men had an enormous influence on men’s and women’s styles<strong>.</strong>
With wiggle skirts, sundresses and impeccably tailored suits, the fashion worn by the cast of Mad Men had an enormous influence on men’s and women’s styles.

Bryant’s three collections for Banana Republic gave Mad Men fans a chance to enjoy the show’s perfect ’60s style with the convenience of contemporary fits and fabrics — a commercial opportunity also spotted by Cork design duo Charlotte and Jane. 

“Mad Men had a big influence on how the public perceived women’s figures and clothing,” explains Jane Skovgaard. 

“It was one of the inspirations for our label. We knew there was a huge interest in a ’50s and ’60s silhouette, its curviness and shapeliness was appealing to so many women.”

Indeed, while it could reasonably have been anticipated that the impeccably dressed women of Mad Men would send female consumers into a frenzied search for the perfect Betty Draper sundress or Joan Holloway wiggle skirt, what Mad Men also proved was that male fashion fans were not immune to the lure of a stylish TV character either.

“Don Draper broke the mould and made the tailored look acceptable outside office hours,” confirms Primark menswear designer Lynsey Carroll. 

When Mad Men hit our screens, she says, “the suit no longer had to be the simple understated black or grey two piece, we saw different varieties — Prince of Wales checks, boxier silhouettes and 1960s inspired shades.”

Following on from this, the high street behemoth continues to look to TV for its menswear inspiration, with suiting a big trend again for Autumn Winter ‘16.

“TV shows like Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders are giving men a reason to dress up,” Lynsey continues. 

BBC drama Peaky Blinders, including actor Cillian Murphy, is giving men a reason to dress up.
BBC drama Peaky Blinders, including actor Cillian Murphy, is giving men a reason to dress up.

“Both the 1920s British gang of Peaky Blinders and the 1930s New York gang of Boardwalk Empire were suited and booted and demanded respect,” she says, and inspired by the aesthetic, men are embracing trends like three piece wool suits, dress coats, trilby hats, and cutaway collars.

And Lynsey cites another TV show as having a strong influence next season, with a Fargo-inspired ’70s aesthetic running through the brand’s more casual offering. 

While the decade has already had a strong showing in this season’s womenswear collections, that influence will continue to be felt in the months to come, and Primark’s menswear collections will reflect Fargo’s depiction of Midwestern life in 1979.

“The costume design was true to the everyday life of the American working man” Lynsey explains, highlighting “indigo denims, check shirts and Borg collar denim jackets” as the key items that are “easy to wear and don’t look out of place today”.

As for the shows we can expect to impact our wardrobes in 2017, trend forecaster Janet Holbrook says we should hold on to those ’70s pieces for next year. 

“The Get Down — a new Netflix series created and directed by Baz Luhrmann — is due to air this August. Set in 1970s New York, based around the birth of Hip Hop, from what we have seen the costumes look great and are sure to have an influence on future seasons,” she says.

Whether or not I’m ready to embrace sports socks, hot pants and vintage adidas next summer remains to be seen, but after all of my years of falling for unlikely TV heroines, I suppose I should never say never.


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