Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

TV: States of Undress


States of Undress host Hailey Gates holdes up a Venezuelan mannequin form.

Who: Hailey Gates, host
What: Documentary Series
Where: Viceland. Watch the first season here (requires cable TV sign-in).
When: Season One premiered in April 2016.
Why Watch: 26-year-old Hailey Gates has been the Director of Advertising for The Paris Review; modeled in campaigns for Miu Miu, Target, and Costume National; and starred in movies like Ricki and the Flash (with Meryl Streep). Vice execs liked her film work and contacted her about doing States of Undress. The rest, as they say, is (fashion) history.

How often do you think – really think – about what you’re wearing? In the U.S., clothing tends to be a colorful costume of self-expression, but elsewhere it’s a political or religious act, a form of oppression or cultural celebration, or a method of survival and ambition. In the new docuseries States of Undress, host Hailey Gates explores the social impact of global fashion – with six episodes devoted to Pakistan, the Congo, Venezuela, Russia, Palestine, and China – showing audiences what the world wears and why they wear it.

In possibly the most astonishing – and the first – episode, Gates travels to Pakistan where it’s all too common for men to throw acid on their wives who they deem “too fashionable” or vain. In Gaza, she surfs wearing a burka and walks easily across an imaginary line that her companion would be shot for doing the same. In China, which produces 65% of the world’s clothing, she interviews the factory workers who only see their children twice per year so that they can make a decent wage in a city factory – and sew our clothes. But even as Gates rattles off consumer statistics and import and export trends while walking global red carpets and chatting with locals about their favorite fashions, she also uncovers, at the base level, the idea of clothing as communication.

Caracas, Venezuela, the murder capital of the world, dominates the world pageant scene. Women are groomed from birth to compete (“a responsibility we’ve acquired,” states one), spending 20% of their income on beauty regimes and bending their bodies into impossible ideals (big butt, big breasts, super-tiny waist) with constricting corsets. But it’s not just the women who dress and contort to impress, for winning a pageant means opportunity for upward mobility and a way out of government restrictions and poverty – something all struggling Venezuelans strive for, so much so that one in five people get plastic surgery.

In China, a government promotes national creativity but heavily – and scarily – censors its artists. Russia’s grossly homophobic #realfamily movement means that marriage is a step toward completing oneself, man is a god, and women can’t be happy if they’re single – so they’d better primp and preen to catch any man they can (women drastically out-number men there). Curvy Congolese women attempt to grow bigger butts by injecting bouillon cubes into their rears (sometimes causing rectal disease and infertility). Through it all, fashion is used as the entry point into larger issues of women’s rights, religious extremism, and government corruption. Even as she’s told her ‘look’ is unattractive (Russia), she (literally) can’t get a tampon (Venezuela), and revealing clothing leads to “destruction” (Pakistan), Gates remains an unflappable and endearing host, illuminating issues through fashion with charm and genuine empathy. As legendary street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham says, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” In States of Undress, the armor is different in each country, tailored to a distinct culture and social issues.


Bechdel TestPASS

  • Two named women…: Yes. Since the show follows international fashion weeks, it’s inevitable that Gates speaks to many female models and designers, as well as other native women.
  • Who talk to each other…Yes.
  • About something besides a manYes. Make no mistake: this is solid political and social analysis via the world of fashion.

Racial Bechdel Test: PASS

  • Two named people of color…: Yes. The first season covers a variety of countries and people.
  • Who talk to each other…: Yes. This is a slight cheat, as Gates is involved in every conversation, but she at times speaks to more than one person simultaneously.
  • About something other than a white person…: YesThis is the rare show that barely refers to a white person (except for the Russian episode, of course), though since Hailey is white, that view is inherent to the program.

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