Fashion, fashion, fashion. It's all I've ever wanted to do!" cries Ali Redcliffe, a young designer and protagonist played by Leonora Crichlow in the BBC's new drama Material Girl, which airs tonight. "Does that make me a bad person?"
Yes, Ali, it does. It irrevocably and overwhelmingly means you will never, ever be one of the nice ones – on TV, at least.
Both the movie and television industries can't get enough of fashion at present. Dramas such as Ugly Betty and The Devil Wears Prada went behind-the-scenes at glossy magazines to follow hapless interns and abused assistants trying to worm their way into this most ruthless and competitive of industries, facing adversity in the form of bullies and vampiric bosses. Then there were the reality shows, like Project Runway, where wannabe designers competed for a job at a prestigious label, and America's Next Top Model, a literal face-off to win a contract with a top cosmetics firm. Needless to say, the judges were either beastly or crazed, and the participants ruthless or wretched.
Material Girl is the latest addition to the list, romping through an incarnation of the fashion industry as seen through the eyes of a BBC scriptwriters. It's a bit like the world of state education according to Waterloo Road, or ecumenical matters in The Vicar of Dibley – that is to say, not terribly accurate. But we're prepared to suspend our disbelief; it's TV, after all, and it doesn't really matter.
It doesn't matter that the collection supposedly designed by Ali's internationally acclaimed ex-boss and arch-enemy Davina Bailey, played by Dervla Kirwan, looks like it was created by Cher in about 1992. It doesn't matter that the hair and make-up are more Julian Clary than Julien Macdonald, and it doesn't matter that none of the characters are really very fashionable. We licence-fee payers understand that there's a wardrobe budget and that it, ironically, won't stretch to a pair of Louboutins or a Balenciaga blazer.
But what isn't OK is that Material Girl falls back on the same old clichés and stereotypes, perpetuating the myth that everyone who works in fashion is either damaged or gay (sometimes both), a psychopath or a narcissistic monster. Many of them are: let's get that out of the way first. But for a show whose very plot revolves around its young heroine picking her way to the top without standing on anyone else's head, what's the use of watering down her motivation to the point where you don't understand why she wants the job in the first place?
There are numerous moral puzzles for Ali to figure out. Should she follow her heart or her bank balance? To pander to celebrities or not to pander? To fight or keep her dignity? These are all reasonable dilemmas at the outset of anyone's career, but the script has her consistently wavering, until fate and the fashion gods take the decision out of her hands lest she dirty them with the smears of ambition or wilfulness. The situation is resolved in a suitably harmonious way, without Ali having to do anything ethically suspect or even show a bit of backbone. And all the while there are rivals and sniping writers confounding her at every turn.
It's the same in Ugly Betty: our aesthetically impaired narrator wants to be a magazine editor, but she's much nicer than any of her contemporaries. The only way to succeed which doesn't involve clawing someone's eyes out or killing her boss in cold blood (which is what everyone else is doing) is for her to win everyone over with ingratiating, cloying and unfeasible niceness. Similarly, the moral message in The Devil Wears Prada is be ambitious, be driven, be passionate, but, whatever you do, don't become "one of them". The only way to get ahead in TV fashion is to be anti-fashion, to be derisory of a whole industry and to emerge self-righteously unaffected by it. But why, when it's an industry that so many people are fascinated by and one that most people enjoy buying in to? It seems that audiences are too suspicious of the fashion crowd to get behind anyone who looks like they could actually belong to it. Siding with the normal girl rather than the cool one isn't just the particular British fondness for an underdog, it's also informed by a hefty dose of corporate terror – in case TV execs are tarred with the same size-zero, avarice and monster-ego brush that the rest of industry is. The telly-watching public needs a non-threatening representative of fashion. The success of Gok Wan is demonstrates that clearly enough.
Another problem with the clunky morality of Material Girl is the equally clunky script that accompanies it. The right-or-wrong approach would be less objectionable were this series intended for children, as it initially appears to be. But with sexual favours and one-night stands embedded in the plot, it's clearly meant for a more mature audience – one which doesn't need to be patronised with fairy tale-style goodies and baddies. The fashion industry is often accused of being superficial, but the characters in Material Girl – even the ones we're supposed to like – are as two- dimensional as they come.
You might suppose this is a case of familiarity breeding contempt: that spending one's days working with and writing about the fashion industry leads to the sort of ennui that means one could never relax and enjoy this new series.
But that's simply not the case: fashion is interesting and it is not always the villain of the scene. Take last year's The September Issue, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about life at the offices of American Vogue. Following Anna Wintour – seen by many as the original fashion monster – and her creative director Grace Coddington through a series of photoshoots and wranglings, it is an elegantly handled, realistic and humane rendering of the personalities, the judgements and the humour involved in working in fashion. You don't have to be "one of them" to enjoy it – the warm reception from critics and the public alike was proof of that, and it went a long way towards rebuilding the industry's reputation amongst 'civilians'.
So, enjoy Material Girl for the pantomime that it is, but don't expect to learn anything about fashion from it. Easier said than done, of course – I nearly became a barrister off the back of Kavanagh QC and Judge John Deed, after all. There is a lot wrong with fashion, we can all agree on that, but it doesn't follow that everyone involved is to blame.
The first episode of 'Material Girl' is tonight at 8pm on BBC1.
Material Girl: The cast list
A young designer and the herione of the show
A designer, Ali's nemesis and former boss
Ali's business partner and backer – a real smooth operator
Ali's friend and wannabe stylist
Mouthy supermodel and Ali's friend
Ali's GBF and former colleagueReuse content