Dynamist Blog

"Hard America" on the Runway

I'm a fan of Bravo's Project Runway. In each episode, aspiring fashion designers complete a challenge, from concept to execution, sometimes solo and some in teams. Like Junkyard Wars, it's a rare spot on TV where you can see creative people solving problems. And, like the folks on Junkyard Wars, the designers demonstrate not just creativity under pressure but excellent manual skills. They typically have a day or two to design, buy materials for, drape and create patterns for, cut, and sew a dress. (At my best, three decades ago, I might have been able to complete the buying, cutting, and sewing parts in the time allotted.) Of course, like all good reality shows, it also has strong characters, artificially generated tension, and occasional surprises.

Project Runway exemplifies something I've noticed in covering design professions over the past few years: Design of all sorts, from the most engineering-oriented to the most "frivolous," is a redoubt of what Michael Barone calls "hard America". When Heidi Klum gathers a half dozen designers on the runway and tells them, "You represent the best and the worst," she isn't worrying about their feelings, or even their character, but about their work. Try talking like that to an English major or MBA student and watch your teaching ratings plummet.

As in life, however, the judgments aren't based only on one-dimensional notions of creativity or merit. What the client wants matters. Getting along with other designers matters (at least in some cases). Sometimes people survive a round just by being less bad, because they take fewer risks, than the competition. The process is basically fair, but the outcome doesn't always seem right--not a bad model for real life.

Here's the Amazon page for Michael Barone's book, Hard America, Soft America. The always superfantastic Manolo blogs regularly on Project Runway, with an archive here. I completely agree with his assessment of the latest challenge.

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