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What to make of Lena Dunham's fashion (and the Girl's inevitable marketing complex)

Do you like Hannah's clothes? And what about her underwear?

I know. I cringed a bit, too, when she doffed her dress to leap into bed with her new lover at the end of the Season-2 opener of Girls, Lena Dunham's hit HBO TV series about a quartet of girls navigating their 20s in New York. But I wasn't sure if it was Hannah's sheer, thongy thing or just her bare butt that made me gasp.

And what about Marnie's prissy-pink manicure? Did you notice that, too? I loved the cleavage-baring, J.Lo-at-the-Grammys dress she wore to Jessa's odd, impromptu wedding. It was elegantly trashy, if that's possible. A lot of the time, though, I'm annoyed by the characters' fashion choices. I mean, please, can't Hannah, who is played by Dunham, find some dresses that don't look like baby-doll pyjamas? You don't need lots of money to look half decent.

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But here's my real problem with the style on the show. I understand that what we wear helps articulate who we are, but the metaphor of outer style as a reflection of inner development feels overplayed, too heavy-handed at times. And let's not be witless style followers. The show's creators know that the audience is talking about the style (or lack of it) on the show. They want us to. Fashion is what a female audience likes to talk about among themselves, in person or on social media. And word of mouth is golden buzz.

Sure, experimentation in clothing, nail colour, makeup and hairstyles is germane to twentysomething characters. And it's fun, entertaining. But at what point do characters' fashion choices become little more than product placement? And when do viewers become pawns in someone else's brand-marketing agenda? This is the future, after all. Girls costume designer Jenn Rogien explained to me on the phone that, with social media and the new ways we can consume TV programming (on tablets or smart devices), "viewers connect more directly when they watch characters. It happens more quickly. You can take them everywhere with you, watch them again, freeze a frame on your device to stop and really study the characters and what they're wearing."

It won't be long before you'll be able to freeze a frame, zero in on the outfit one of the characters is wearing and get the name of a store where you can buy it. Just make sure you're watching TV with a credit card handy.

We have always been interested in TV fashion. In the seventies, what woman didn't tune into The Sonny & Cher Show to see what amazing Bob Mackie get-up Cher would come out in? It's just that now it's easy to monetize the fascination. TV style and retail are the latest BFFs. Imagine the increased following and retail links that Sex and the City , which made Manolo Blahnik shoes a household word, would have had if Twitter, Facebook and blogs had been around then. (The prequel to Sex and the City,The Carrie Diaries , which made its debut in Canada on City earlier this month, comes off as an attempt to cash in on the franchise but with a younger, hyper-digital target group. The interplay between character, plot and fashion is as subtle as a Kat von D tattoo.)

In Season 1 of Girls , there were tight shots of the characters' hands with their character-specific nail colours. And consider that Deborah Lippmann, a celebrity manicurist with her own brand of luxury nail products and colours, is now launching a collection based on the Girls characters, to be sold in Canada at Holt Renfrew. When I spoke to Lippmann on the phone (she was in New York at a fashion shoot for French Vogue), she explained that Season 1 had been shot before her collaboration with Dunham and HBO was inked, but that, in Season 2, "there's even a [story line for an upcoming episode] associated with nail polish."

At that point, the newfangled TV fashion/social media/merchandizing behemoth hove clearly into view.

Interestingly, the style consultants on Girls seem aware of the potential downside of appearing too consumerist. Rogien explained that the clothing choices she makes for the characters come "right from the script, which is very different from where fashion gets its inspiration." Originally, she had Hannah in more fitted clothing. "But we looked at her and thought, 'She looks too good.' You wouldn't believe that someone who looks this put-together is not put-together in her life or in her emotional/sexual identity." So she altered hemlines on dresses so that "they didn't hit Lena's legs at a flattering point." She removed belts. She played with sleeve lengths.

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The imperfect fashion choices of the show are more authentic, she explains. "TV is often a stylish escape from what you see in everyday life. But this is not fashion. It's an effort to create their world." To dress the characters, Rogien shopped at retailers, vintage shops and flea markets in Brooklyn, the New York borough where the fictitious characters live.

Lippmann also is quick to point out that she never approaches celebrities to endorse her products. "For me, it has to happen organically," she says, distancing herself from companies that actively pursue celebrity endorsements by explaining the many instances when stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Cher and Kelly Ripa have asked her to help them concoct the "vision colour" they couldn't find elsewhere. She had known Dunham for a couple of years before the HBO series. For a gift bag for the launch of the first season, Lippmann donated a nail polish called Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Dunham sent her a thank you e-mail with a picture of her hand sporting the nail colour and, at the bottom of the note, mentioned that it might be fun if Hannah had "some weird, hip green colour" for her nails. Lippmann didn't have a green polish in her line. So she made one. "The whole thing started with her as a girl and me as a girl going, 'Oh my God, nail polish is so cool! We just love it.' Gradually, it led to thinking that maybe this should be put into a line."

Now, I don't mean to be a cynic. I get it – this is television. Light fare! But the show creators' emphasis on organic style interests is also a shrewd marketing angle – very much in tune with the Millennial generation. We live in an age of authenticity – or at least wished-for authenticity. We don't want to be force fed information. We want to find it ourselves or have it come from a grassroots movement (tweetroots?) and real passions. It's why many celebrities want to manage their own tweets in order to give their fans the real connection they crave.

As for Girls, everything about it is clever. Very clever indeed.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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