Carrie Bradshaw: fashion roadkill or revolutionary?

The anti-hero exists in a place between how women are and how they want to be seen

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Carrie Bradshaw on the runway in a Dolce and Gabbana trenchcoat, about to become fashion roadkill

“Carrie, you live for fashion!”

“I do not live for fashion”

In an episode entitled “The Real Me” (the second of its fourth season), Sex and The City provided audiences with one of the most self-referential moments in the show’s six season run. Carrie Bradshaw, its protagonist, is asked to participate in a New York fashion show that combines real models (Heidi Klum makes a cameo) with ordinary stylish people on the Manhattan media circuit. The episode is perhaps a response to its creators’ conscious awareness that Bradshaw’s styling, by 2001, had become as much a part of the show’s reputation and legacy as its sexual candour.

By the time of the feature length films, especially the disastrous second movie, fashion and consumerism had swallowed the show and its characters whole but – in The Real Me – there remains true guile in its engagement with fashion. Carrie does participate in the show, after some prevarication, and sets off down the runway in slashed-front Dolce and Gabbana trench coat and bejewelled underwear. Halfway down it, she falls spectacularly in front of the entire New York fashion cabal. To add to the indignity, Klum is directed to literally walk over her – at which point, her gay best friend Stanford Blatch yells “oh my GOD, she’s fashion roadkill!”

Sex and The City both looks and feels dated whenever I watch it now. Maturing, as I have, during the “fourth wave” of feminism – sometimes called ‘Tumblr feminism’ – in which social media and the internet have created a new lens for almost all pop culture to be ruthlessly analysed for defect, Sex and The City’s unquestioned assertions often seem bizarre. It’s about four women who are admittedly spoilt, long before a recession which would make their world seem almost laughable.

At other times, the show is painful – its only discussion of race is an episode where Samantha encounters “reverse racism” from the sister of a black man she is dating, later in the series she is kept awake by a bunch of loud trans women of colour soliciting sex work under her window and the gay men of the series are often little more than fashion accessories themselves. If it had existed in the Tumblr age, much like Lena Dunham’s Girls (itself the next generation’s answer to Sex And The City) it would have been ripped to shreds.

“To add to the indignity, Klum is directed to literally walk over her – at which point, her gay best friend Stanford Blatch yells ‘oh my GOD, she’s fashion roadkill!’”

That said, Sex and The City, for me, is an antecedent for a culture of feminine self-documenting that has now become par for the course online; its use of fashion is integral to this. Carrie predates the era of Instagram but she is the modern self-narrator par excellence. In the sixteenth episode of season four she realises that she has spent $40,000 on shoes and cannot buy her own apartment. “I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes,” she exclaims. It is at once grandiose and absurd – two dynamics that vie for dominance in Carrie’s style.

Carrie often narrates the melodrama of her personal life in her outfits – the first time she plans to have sex with Mr Big she wears a nude dress literally termed “The Naked Dress” for its (white) flesh tones and revealing fabric. When she forces Natasha (whose marriage she destroyed) into a confrontation, she memorably wears a Galliano slip dress with a newspaper print. Get it? she’s literally living her own tabloid scandal!

In the final episode of season two, as Big is engaged to Natasha, Carrie parts from him and has a moment of identification with a horse (crueller viewers often noted the equine proportions of Sarah Jessica Parker’s face) – as she turns in slow mo away from the horse, her own curly mane surrounds her face and her voiceover declares “Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with.” It’s as subtle as a bull in a china shop, yes, but one of my favourite things about the show: Carrie is less a ‘fabulous’ style icon for others, more the architect of her own personal iconography, someone who lays bare her thoughts through her outfit choices.

But she wasn’t always allowed to get away with it. The show’s writers, along with its stylist Patricia Field, frequently allowed her to become ‘fashion roadkill’ and humiliated her with the divergence between her own style intentions and the unpredictable reality of life. In the opening credits of every episode, she begins gleefully strutting through Manhattan’s streets in a pink tutu – it is fey and childlike in intention – but she is suddenly drenched by a passing bus and stumbles (Carrie publically falls three times – here, on the runway and in Dior Paris in the show’s final episode). She looks at the suited New Yorkers around her, looking wildly out of place, and it’s revealed that the bus which caused this humiliation bears her image on its side – she has been brought low by her own iconography and the tutu is now a source of embarrassment.

The tables are regularly turned on her in this way. What begins as grand sartorial self-narration often becomes both excruciating and infantilising in the blink of an eye. She wears a beret twice – once to tell Big she is fine to continue their relationship when he moves to Paris (he promptly breaks up with her) and again when she arrives in Paris to live with Petrovsky (accompanied with tragically overstated Parisian stripes) and she is quietly scorned by his haughty French daughter – this is not going to be the romantic French film she believes herself to be starring in.

“What she and her looks do offer, as much as any pop culture heroine can, is an insight into the construction of a feminine narrative that is still under discussion in our own anxiety around selfies, blogs and tweets”

The examples are endless – she meets Natasha, her replacement in Big’s affections, in a cowboy hat and beach outfit that is doubly humiliating: Natasha is much younger, but Carrie is the one who looks immature. For a birthday dinner where no-one shows up she wears a halo-esque headband as she sits at a table alone: the image is pathetic, like a sad Da Vinci Last Supper with no disciples. Carrie needs no big runway to be cruelly run over.

It is this, I believe, which chimes most about Carrie still and why I love her: she is no modern feminist beacon, nor is her style particularly relevant to the women who grew up with her – we can neither afford it nor particularly relate to it. What she and her looks do offer, as much as any pop culture heroine can, is an insight into the construction of a feminine narrative (women protagonists and narrators are still a rarity) that is still under discussion in our own anxiety around selfies, blogs and tweets. Carrie survives in a visual chasm between what she intends to do and what she achieves and the show is an unyielding presentation of this crisis. It’s here, more than the passé blowjob quips, that she remains – not an icon – but a reference point for any of us who struggle to negotiate that most feminine of dilemmas: how we wish to be seen and how we actually are. 

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