Off the small screen and into the closet

Movie stars and models used to set the fashion standards. Now, TV characters are influencing the choices of millions.

Debra Messing, better known as funny-girl Grace from the television show "Will & Grace," was draped across the cover of the February issue of Vogue. She wore a gauzy white halter dress with playful pink spots, a look slightly reminiscent of the 1950s. The photo was classic Vogue, the cover girl anything but.

When the fashion world searches for a mannequin, it has traditionally turned either to a model or movie star. Vogue says as much in its February cover story: "Fashion trends have always shown up first in the movies, then on TV, not the other way around."

So what was Messing, a sitcom luminary, doing on the issue that dotted newsstands during New York City's fashion week?

Jessica Bush, a senior at the University of Arizona, might know the answer.

The way that she and her friends dress, she explains, is influenced much more by television than film.

"You see TV on a more regular basis than movies," says Ms. Bush, who recently changed her major from retail marketing to a broader degree in marketing. "You get to know the characters, and you learn their styles."

The show she and her roommates follow most closely for fashion ideas is "Friends." If Bush could, she would dress like Jennifer Aniston's Rachel or Courtney Cox's Monica.

"I would love to wear their clothes....," she muses, trailing off. "If I could afford those clothes."

To be sure, fashion has always been influenced by television. An entire show on the subject recently aired on Nickelodeon's TV Land.

"Inside TV Land: Style and Fashion" documented how the high heels and pearls worn by housewives across the country in the late 1950s - à la June Cleaver on "Leave it to Beaver" - gave way to the more practical flats and capri pants inspired by Mary Tyler Moore's character on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

It showed how, in the 1960s, television laid bare for public consumption all things Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: from the pill box hats, oversized sunglasses, and demurely draped handkerchiefs down to her strappy sandals.

In the 1970s, droves of children donned tacky Brady-Bunch-style plaid, stripes, and polyester.

Shows like "Dynasty" reflected the high-powered style of the '80s with big glamour and big shoulders. And "Miami Vice" breathed a fresh - albeit sketchy - casual air into men's business attire: T-shirts under sport coats, shoes without socks, linen, pastels.

MTV has offered up Madonna's tarty lace, Seattle-style flannel and jeans grunge, and hip-hop's low-slung pants, in both the baggy male version and the tighter female equivalent popularized by such pop stars as Britney Spears - all of which have been hungrily imitated.

Most of Americans' exposure to celebrity - actors, musicians, society, royalty - has, in fact, come by way of the small screen.

"As much as we're influenced by Hollywood," says Michelle Lee, author of the new book "Fashion Victim," "we don't go see a movie every day. We do watch television every day." And whether or not we realize it, she points out, "when it comes to fashion, we're all influenced by what we see."

But does TV really dictate what we wear more now than when there were only three or four networks to choose from?

Ms. Lee thinks so, if only because of the sheer volume of stations available. "Just the amount of TV there is out there, we can't help but be bombarded by fashion," she says.

But why do we care so much?

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Language of Clothes," Alison Lurie lists what you might be able to tell about a stranger, just by the clothes she wears: age, class, occupation, personality, tastes, current mood.

"To choose clothes, either in a store or at home," writes Ms. Lurie, "is to define ourselves."

Some may disagree with that, but what we wear communicates something about who we are.

From 'oh wow' to 'oh yuck'

When costume designer Bob Mackie was dressing Cher for "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" and "Cher" between 1971 and 1976, he was more interested in weaving fantasy than reality. On any given night, Cher could appear in as many as 20 outfits, making her way to the front of a stage that more closely resembled a runway.

Mr. Mackie never thought much about igniting trends. "We were trying to make [the clothes] right for the show and visually entertaining at the same time," he says. "It was just to enhance the performance."

He sounds a bit wistful when he talks about the clothes on TV today. "What do we have?" he asks. "We have lots of people in kitchens, in their sweatshirts, T-shirts, and jeans. We have people in offices wearing pretty much what you buy in the store.... Even the sitcoms don't have much of a fantasy world about them."

Though Cher's slinky, skin-baring gowns were far from sensible, her look caught on with viewers. "It kind of capture[d] their imagination," Mackie says. Peek-a-boo holes and bias cuts sprung up in stores everywhere.

"It isn't the most practical thing that becomes a style," says Mackie. Today, "we see these pants that are clear down around ... everyone's butt ... which is kind of revolting."

Lee agrees. "It doesn't have to be something that's inherently beautiful to catch on," she explains. "If you see something enough, it starts to look sort of attractive to you." It's a little like a bad pop song, she says; if you hear it enough, eventually you'll be singing it, too.

Television may also influence the way we dress more now because it has become so self-conscious about how it employs fashion and designer labels.

Justine Bateman, who played fashion-savvy Mallory Keaton on "Family Ties," knits her own line of clothing these days. She says there is a greater "emphasis on [using] designer clothes" on TV today, whereas in the past, "you were really just dressing the character."

Watching some shows, says Lee, can feel like watching an hour-long advertisement. In the first season of "Dawson's Creek," for example, the cast not only dressed exclusively in clothes from J. Crew, but they also appeared in the catalog. Now the show has a deal with American Eagle Outfitters.

A trend is born

Then there is "Sex and the City," the most fashion-conscious show of all.

"No other show in the history of television has inspired more trends ... than 'Sex and the City,' " writes Lee in "Fashion Victim." "In many ways, fashion is like a fifth character."

With scenes shot in Dolce & Gabana's Manhattan store and exclamations like, "Oh, my Dior," when main character Carrie trips into a pond, drenching her Christian Dior dress, that fifth character may be more like a lead.

Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, has made Manolo Blahnik brand shoes a household name among HBO viewers.

For a look to take off there must be a balance between fantasy and reality. No one wants to turn on a TV set only to see an actor who dresses exactly as they do. Audiences want something they can "aspire to," Lee says.

When college student Bush watches "Friends," she doesn't notice the designers - which she usually can't identify anyway - as much as styles, like cargo pants or cute tank tops.

While the clothes Rachel and Monica wear on "Friends" represent a fantasy, it's the prices more than the styles that are fantastical. "You see all these clothes that you'd love," says Bush, "but it's not realistic to think that you could buy a $500 T-shirt."

But sometimes the clothes worn by TV stars are just too fashion-forward. For example, the red tube-top over a bra paired with miniscule terry cloth gym shorts, which Carrie wore to accept a marriage proposal. What viewer would be able to tailor that to her own lifestyle?

Not Bush. "Would I ever go out in that type of outfit?" she wonders. "No. I think you pretty much have to be Sarah Jessica Parker to pull that off."

So the question arises: Do most viewers just want to see a slightly more stylish version of themselves on TV?

Of the Debra Messing, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jennifer Aniston triumvirate - celebrities Lee would call "idols of style" - Aniston's Rachel may best embody the attainable.

Rachel's closet, packed with designer names, also mixes in items from more mainstream stores such as J. Crew, Diesel, and BCBG. Yet, even though she lolls around her apartment in outfits that are pricier and more polished than those Bush and her friends can afford, there's always an array of cargo pants, tank tops, jeans, and T-shirts they can use for inspiration.

This may give Rachel a broader appeal; her style is more accessible to more people. And accessibility is something the small screen has always done better than the movies.

"Even a television show that's not a hit still has millions of people watching it," says Mackie. "So it's bound to be an influence. Never underestimate anything anyone wears on camera."

Tress success: the styles everyone wanted

The "Farrah," the "wedge," the "Rachel," The "mop," the "Caesar."

Television hairstyles have been as imitated as its fashions.

When the Beatles first appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, the impression their shaggy mops left was as infectious as their music, ushering in a scandalous new style of longer, looser hair for American boys and men.

Farrah Fawcett sported a sexy, ash-blonde, feathered look on the 1970s show "Charlie's Angels" - known simply as the "Farrah" - that set American women off on a cutting craze.

For those who couldn't quite manage to juggle the blow dryer, curling iron, and hairspray required to copy Farrah's face-framing halo, there was the "wedge." When Dorothy Hamill took to the ice in the 1976 Winter Olympics, she won gold and introduced the straight-haired to a lower-maintenance look - her sig- nature "wedge" hairstyle, a sort of female bowl cut.

The "Rachel," a modern choppy shag with chin-grazing layers, came about by accident in 1995 as Jennifer Aniston's hair stylist on "Friends" worked to grow out her bangs over a series of cuts. Aniston became as well known for Rachel's hairstyle as her acting. In fact, she once lamented: "Why am I getting noticed for my haircut and not for my work?"

George Clooney's close-cropped cut, with structured pieces peeking over the edge of his forehead, made its debut on "ER" in 1994. His "Caesar" style was to men what the "Rachel" was for women.

TV hairstyles change with each season, sometimes with each episode. The long, curly tendrils Sarah Jessica Parker wore on early seasons of "Sex and the City" have morphed into pin-straight strands, and in the last season came to rest in a wavy bob.

Aniston's shag has since grown out and become longer, lighter, and sleeker - but is still coveted.

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