How 'Real' Are Reality Show Wardrobes?

How it all works, from 'Real Housewives of New York City' to 'The Bachelor' to 'The Voice.'
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How it all works, from 'Real Housewives of New York City' to 'The Bachelor' to 'The Voice.'
How real New Yorkers dress to take the train. 'Real Housewives of New York City:' Luann de Lesseps, Julianne Wainstein, Bethenny Frankel, Carole Radziwill, Ramona Singer, Dorinda Medley, Sonja Morgan. Photo: Mathieu Young/Heidi Gutman/Bravo

How real New Yorkers dress to take the train. 'Real Housewives of New York City:' Luann de Lesseps, Julianne Wainstein, Bethenny Frankel, Carole Radziwill, Ramona Singer, Dorinda Medley, Sonja Morgan. Photo: Mathieu Young/Heidi Gutman/Bravo

While watching Bethenny Frankel verbally eviscerate one of her fellow "Real Housewives of New York City" or waiting anxiously to see which finalist snags that 4.25-carat Neil Lane diamond ring from "The Bachelor," have you ever wondered whether their wardrobe choices are as real as the "drama" that's unfolding? After all, when a show has a script, it involves a costume designer to help support the plot line, character development and overall vision. But what about non-scripted shows, or what we all lovingly refer to as "reality TV?"

For a couple of "Housewives," it's very real. First, because, the audience expects a level of authenticity. "Viewers [are] very much interested in non-scripted costumes and what we wear," says toaster oven chef and "RHONYC" co-star Sonja Morgan. "It's our real life. They know we pick our outfits ourselves. We design our lifestyles ourselves within our home and the image we present, so that peaks their interest more than scripted [shows]." Morgan wears clothes selected from her very organized closet, which includes a lot of red — her "signature color" — and vintage collected throughout the years. Of course, Housewives are wont to start their own fashion lines and give their designs some screen time — an organic product placement of sorts — like when Morgan wore a red tuxedo jumpsuit from her self-named fashion line in last season's finale. 

Sonja Morgan in Sonja Morgan. Photo: Heidi Gutman/Bravo

Sonja Morgan in Sonja Morgan. Photo: Heidi Gutman/Bravo

"Yes, that's the thing on those reality shows, you have to wear your own clothes," confirmed fellow NYC "Housewife" Carole Radziwell at a B Floral event. "I go up to my closet and I try to find something that I haven't worn that week. Usually, I like to have a little bit of a uniform," which includes about 18 pairs of leather jeans, Frame Denim and Cushnie et Ochs dresses. 

While most "Housewives" have no problem funding their own wardrobes, "there really isn't a budget for wardrobe at all in reality [TV]," says executive producer Cherie Kloss, who has brought us "Swinger Wives" on TLC and "Neighbors With Benefits" on A&E. "All we do is just give suggestions and if it looks really bad, we might say, 'hey, can you change it?'" Similarly, "Vanderpump Rules" star Scheana Marie says producers will make suggestions for solo interview looks, but for aesthetic reasons. "Some colors look better on camera than others," notes the Sur server and model/actress. "But that's the only time. We bring our own options and they pick what they think will look best with the lighting and background. They like solid colors and sleeveless." (As for Radziwell: "I don't listen.") 

Even if there isn't a script involved, a cast member's style helps establish a character and the narrative. For instance, when a supposedly rugged construction worker from Alabama showed up on set in the Amazon — for History Channel's "Bamazon," naturally — in a country club polo, producers immediately ordered an outfit change from his own suitcase. "He literally looked like he came from a University of Virginia frat house or something," Kloss says.

Paxton Ingram, Adam Wakefield, Blake Shelton and Mary Sarah, dressed by Erin Hirsh. Photo: Tyler Golden/NBC

Paxton Ingram, Adam Wakefield, Blake Shelton and Mary Sarah, dressed by Erin Hirsh. Photo: Tyler Golden/NBC

On the flip side, performance-based reality shows, like NBC's "The Voice," do have a wardrobe budget and a costume designer. Erin Hirsh and her team dress contestants, musicians, dancers and coach Blake Shelton. (Fellow coaches Gwen Stefani, Pharrell and Adam Levine use their own stylists.) The aspiring singers do wear their own clothes for the audition process, but with coaching from Hirsh. If the audition outfits aren't "stage-y" enough, she'll augment them with pieces from the show's closet, which consists of bought, loaned, gifted and vintage pieces. Once the teams are secured, Hirsh is responsible for the contestants' performance looks, keeping the mood of their songs and stage personas in mind. The "reality segments" are a mix of personal and show pieces, though. "There's stage-worthy and there’s TV-worthy," says Hirsh. "What translates in real life oftentimes looks like a slob on camera, so we just try to make everybody look [like] a cleaner version of themselves."

'Who made your dress?' Photo: ABC/Rick Rowel

'Who made your dress?' Photo: ABC/Rick Rowel

Then there are the dating-based reality shows. ABC's "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" employ a stylist, Cary Fetman, to help communicate the charisma of the Ben Higginses and Kaitlyn Bristowes of the long-running shows. "I'm merely there to facilitate giving them a little more polished version of who they are," he says. After a chat with the titular star, Fetman will begin fittings a week or 10 days before filming starts, which can last two 14-hour-days. "We set up a wardrobe room that is just rack after rack after rack, so you might have 70 gowns on three racks and then you move on to pants," he explained. He creates up to 134 outfits for "The Bachelorette" lead to accommodate date settings, international locales and drastic weather changes.

However, "The Bachelor" contestants do stuff their own crop tops, Chucks and lace — the fabric, not the person — into the regulated two suitcases for as many dates and rose ceremonies as they last through. "I'm so hands off of the contestants," Fetman says. "I would die if somebody actually won or lost based upon [how he or she is dressed]. I don't want to be a part of anything that will influence that." With some exceptions: Fetman helps dress contestants on those "Cinderella dates" and the finale. "When I do do them, you know I've done them," he says.

JoJo wears a Mac Duggal gown as Ben says he prefers Lauren. Photo: ABC/Matt Dunn

JoJo wears a Mac Duggal gown as Ben says he prefers Lauren. Photo: ABC/Matt Dunn

Fetman both shops and, with increased fashion interest in the shows, enjoys more access to borrowing clothes from brands that approach him, like Randi Rahm for high-end gowns. He also tries to incorporate accessible pieces, as blogs like Possessionista document all the fashion for obsessed fans. "I like the fantasy part of our show, but I also like the realistic part where you, too, can be dressing like Emily [Maynard] or like this one or that one," he says.

An on-screen wardrobe may involve business arrangements, too. "I do a lot of stuff with lulus.com," says Marie of "Vanderpump Rules." "Pretty much all of last season, I was wearing Lulus in every interview look and most scenes and now I'm wearing a lot of Style Delivers on Melrose." She also enjoys some gifting, but either way, Marie makes sure to tag brands on social media. "Because so many people ask," she says. "It's like, 'where was that orange romper from?' and I always will shout out the companies I’m wearing just so people know where to get it."

Radziwell and Frankel wear their own clothes while probably talking about the other Housewives. Photo: Matthew Eiseman/Bravo 

Radziwell and Frankel wear their own clothes while probably talking about the other Housewives. Photo: Matthew Eiseman/Bravo 

Radziwell sometimes wears gifted items, but "it's random," like T-shirts, "but nothing that stands out." And she doesn't seek out loans because the "Housewives" filming schedule doesn't allow enough time to tailor pieces to fit her "shrimpy" frame. However, Morgan, a former model, has reached out to her designer connections for loaners. "I wore Alexander Wang before I was wearing my collection [on the show]," says Morgan, who cameoed in the designer's T by Alexander Wang 2014 short film starring Chris Kattan's Mango and Behati Prinsloo. "I borrowed Valentino, Vera Wang, Ralph Lauren." 

Despite the different styles of programming, all these reality shows do try their best to avoid one very real predicament: duplicates. On "The Voice," Hirsh goes as far as performing mathematical equations to ensure certain colors aren't overused throughout the show. It's also her job to make sure that in group numbers, "everybody has their own lane," i.e. their own color palette. That helps differentiate contestants and prevents the group from looking "matchy-matchy," like an early aughts boyband. Fetman gets a little involved during the "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" contestants' solo rose ceremony prep to avoid potential bitch-stole-my-look situations. "I would never allow them to be embarrassed by having two people wearing the same dress," he says. While Fetman would never explicitly tell someone what to wear, he does employ a little subtle encouragement. "'Maybe show me the second choice?'" he says, as an example. "But that's the only thing I do."

The resourceful ladies on "Vanderpump Rules" take that responsibility into their own hands. "We have a group chat and we usually talk about it before, like who's wearing what color, and we'll ask each other for approval. Or we shop together," Marie says. There must have been a communications breakdown before Katy and Tom's "linen and lace"-themed engagement party, however.

Stassi (center) in her light blue lace dress. Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo

Stassi (center) in her light blue lace dress. Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo

"Stassi had says she wanted to wear light blue to the engagement party and then Kristen showed up in almost the exact same color and Stassi was like, 'um, we talked about this, like, why are you wearing the same color as me?' And Kristin was like, ‘oh no, this is, like, silver,'" Marie explained. (You be the judge.) I mean, it happens, considering that good friends (or frenemies) tend to share sartorial leanings.

"I have a memory of Ramona [Singer] and Sonja coming in with the same leopard print kind of dress," laughed Radziwell. (Oh, Ramonja.) "I mean, it happens in real life. You go to an event and you walk in and some other girl's wearing your dress and it's OK. Girls are cool about that. You know, we did probably do a 'who wore it better' — behind their back."

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