Every once in a while, you stumble across a new series that takes you by surprise, pleasantly upending your expectations by turning out to be quite a bit different — and quite a lot better — than what you’d imagined it would be.
It doesn’t happen very often with lifestyle shows, most of which tend to adhere to a set of wearingly familiar templates, irrespective of whether the topic is fitness, diet, gardening, cookery or home improvement. It happens even less often with fashion makeover shows, which, if anything, are the most formulaic of all lifestyle television.
From Gok Wan to the boys from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the building blocks are always the same: tragically unhip fashion disaster enters one door and, after some primping, crimping and polishing by expert hands, exits through another door a changed person. Cue gasps of astonishment from friends/family.
It’s rarer still to find it happening on an Irish fashion makeover show. Rather than come up with their own original creations, domestic broadcasters find it easier to slavishly follow the designs of others by copying formats from their UK counterparts and then sticking their own labels on them.
As an old(ish), hipster-averse fart with thinning hair and a thickening waste, who mostly lives in jeans, T-shirts, casual shirts and runners (but never, EVER tracksuits — I have some self-respect), I’m hardly the ideal man to expound on fashion. You’d have more success asking Sarah Sanders to give you a definition of truth.
But I know a good television series when I see one, even if I’m not necessarily the intended target audience, and RTE2’s new Monday night fashion makeover show The Fitting Room is a good television series.
It’s not that the concept is earth-shatteringly original. In fact, it’s not really any different from any other fashion makeover programme.
What sets it apart from the herd is the people involved, both the ones presenting and the ones being presented to the viewers. Ebullient host Paddy Smyth was born with cerebral palsy — and, he cheerfully adds, is gay too. Not your average bloke, then.
The volunteers putting themselves in the hands of the programme’s resident experts also, for the most part, live lives less ordinary than the majority of us, and considerably more challenging too.
Whether due to non-standard body shape or size, gender identity, physical disability or something else entirely, they often find it impossible to find clothes that fit, suit their tastes and personalities, and say something about the people they are on the inside.
Enter The Fitting Room’s clothes designers Ruedi Maguire and Zoe Carol Wong, and stylist Ciara O’Doherty, all three of them extremely likeable, who offer the volunteers fashion and style advice, and create bespoke outfits for them.
The Fitting Room dons the outfit of a regular fashion makeover show, but its real aim is to celebrate difference and diversity. It’s certainly succeeding in doing that.
The volunteers across the first two episodes included a woman born with dwarfism; a wheelchair user, who was paralysed from the waist down after a dive into a swimming pool; a middle-aged transgender woman, and a plus-size student whose confidence has been dented.
In the spirit of full inclusiveness, there was also a young man with terrible taste in clothes and a habit of ripping his trousers (at the crotch, don’t you know) whenever he bends over, and a stay-at-home father who just needed to be introduced to the company of a good suit.
Clothes, it’s said, make the man (or woman). Ultimately, though, what makes this series is the volunteers, who come across as interesting and engaging people, rather than the shallow, attention-seeking bubbleheads you regularly encounter in lifestyle shows.