Left to right: Flea Market Flip (Screenshot); Worn Stories (Photo: Netflix); Stylish With Jenna Lyons (Photo: HBO Max)
Shopping was one of the few activities that was never fully suspended during the pandemic. But the days of perusing the wares of businesses and vendors on some city block or commercial corridor have been put on hold. (At least, they should be on hold, if we want to avoid another spike.) Sure, you could scroll through online retailers, but there are some elements of in-person browsing and buying that just can’t be recreated: the thrill of a great find, getting a friend’s opinion on the spot.
But, as has often been the case over the last year, TV has offered an alternative. Let’s face it, fashion competition series—be it Project Runway, American’s Next Top Model, or Making The Cut—replete as they are with extravagant, out-of-reach-for-most-of-us looks, are tantamount to window shopping. There are other promising newcomers, though, as well as some hidden gems. The A.V. Club has put together a winning ensemble of fashion docuseries and reality TV shows that will allow you to safely indulge.
Worn Stories (Netflix), season one
This enchanting docuseries from bestselling author Emily Spivack and Orange Is The New Black creator (and author in her own right) Jenji Kohan recreates the intimate vibe of a clothing swap, one of the many staples of our social lives that have been shelved over the last year. At clothing swaps, you usually get the history of a new-to-you cardigan or pair of cords, or share the anecdote behind the pair of heels you’re parting with. Worn Stories reinforces that human connection throughout its eight chapters, as interview subjects reveal the bond established by a late-night search for a beloved coat, or the sewing prowess that enabled a matriarch to look after generations of her family. There’s also a range of joy in a non-binary teen’s giddy preparations for their b’nai mitzvah and another teen’s donning of her beloved grandmother’s chambray pants. And, because there’s always someone at a swap who’s just looking to unload items they’d rather not live with anymore, Worn Stories kicks off with a few segments with nudists from a Florida community. There are also more than a few tearjerking moments, as we see how clothes offer one man a way to start over after spending most of his life in prison, while a quilt reunites a family separated by the criminal justice system. That’s a bit beyond the scope of the average clothes swap, but who knows what we’ll be willing to share once we can be around each other again?
Flea Market Flip (Discovery+), 13 seasons
This HGTV stalwart remains on hiatus due to the pandemic, host Lara Spencer recently revealed. But there are 13 seasons of Flea Market Flip available to anyone looking to scratch an itch for antiquing or a new DIY project. The show’s premise is simple, but a classic. Two pairs of flippers—some are seasoned pros, while others struggle to distinguish between mid-century modern and Mission—shop for items that can be upgraded for a three-project design competition. Ideas abound, as these flippers team up with master craftspeople to reimagine and refinish their finds. The show has seen everything from old dressers to ladders and rusty oil barrels upcycled into practical and sometimes downright gorgeous furniture. And while the reveal of the end product is usually exciting (though occasionally flummoxing), the real draw of the show is the transformation process. The contestants apply both creativity and elbow grease to the challenge, sometimes learning to sand or cut glass for the first time. Satisfaction comes as much from seeing their vision come to fruition as selling it to some LIC Flea & Food shopper.
Stylish With Jenna Lyons (HBO Max), season one
Season one of Stylish With Jenna Lyons sees Lyons, the former creative director and president of J. Crew, try a few new roles on for size as she prepares to launch a lifestyle brand. There’s a bit of everything: smart, ready-to-wear looks are showcased along with upcycled furniture and home goods (and a whole lot of succulents), as Lyons branches out beyond personal styling and fashion into her role as a budding lifestyle guru. Stylish pairs Lyons’ foray into impresario-dom with some good old-fashioned competition: an ambitious group of designers, artists, and stylists all vie to join the still-forming company. At times, this combination recalls season two of America’s Next Top Model, when Tyra Banks sought to kickstart a music career while also judging up-and-coming models. (Sadly, there’s no Lyons counterpart to “Shake Ya Body.”) But mostly, Stylish With Jenna Lyons is the equivalent of window shopping: taking in a bit of everything while buying little (if any) of it.
A Stitch In Time (Acorn TV), season one
If, as Louis XIV said, “fashion is the mirror of history,” then this delightful BBC Four series is intent on capturing the ways fashion reflects changing social mores and even political rule. Hosted by fashion historian Amber Butchart, A Stitch In Time explores the ways fashion has shaped history and the ways it’s been shaped by history. Despite its half-hour runtime, each episode is quite an undertaking in re-creations. The inspiration for a project comes from a famous painting, like Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait” or the scandalous “Marie Antoinette In A Chemise Dress” by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. As historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her talented team of tailors work to recreate the memorable or provocative look, Butchart tries to uncover what the garments have to say about their respective time periods. The pooling skirt and verdant green of the “Arnolfini Portrait” speak to the wealth of the growing merchant class, which unsettled the nobility. A trip to a textile company in search of the wool for the dress reminds us that fashion has always been big business; that theme carries through to the story of Marie Antoinette, who dabbled with a “pastoral shepherdess” look late in her ultimately brief life. The French queen’s influence was so vast that her preference for muslins over silks threatened to undermine the country’s textile manufacturing as a whole. A Stitch In Time offers a moving look at an aspect of culture that is all too frequently dismissed as ephemeral or capricious.
Inside Dior (CuriosityStream), season one
This two-part limited series from 2017 combines two of our favorite activities: drooling over haute couture and listening to Olivia Colman. For six months, director Michael Waldman (Stephen Fry In America, Inside The Foreign Office) was given exclusive access to the maison de la couture founded by Christian Dior. The filmmaker and his team journeyed to the French designer’s exquisite home, Château de La Colle Noire, which now serves as more of a museum. They visited with everyone from the “small hands,” or tailors in the ready-to-wear department, to Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman to serve as creative director for Dior. The decadence that Dior promoted with his early collections ran counter to the beliefs of many in a post-WWII world—the docuseries even notes that a model dressed in one of his designs was besieged on the street by women who took offense at the extravagance. But Dior believed everyone should share in that luxury, which is why he wanted to sell everything from evening gowns to perfumes (which make up a huge chunk of the brand’s multi-billion-dollar sales). And the resilience underpinning the history of Dior, one of the most storied designers, can be seen in the artisans and designers keeping high fashion going strong in 2021, when we’re still mid-pandemic. (Plus, the footage of Princess Margaret enjoying a personal Dior show at Blenheim Palace is just a nice complement to Colman’s narration.)