The Real Housewives brand was built on aspiration. In theory, many of the women are like slightly to moderately unhinged versions of us, but with mansions, diamonds and $3,000 purses.
As the series has evolved, so have the expectations for each season. We tune in for the drama, of course, but also regular displays of opulence and at least one Housewife who claims to be a “fashion expert.”
It’s rare that a greeting between two Real Housewives does not include some platitude about how beautiful the other looks or lackluster compliment of their outfit. While hollow, the gesture feels necessary, if only to acknowledge how much effort every woman on this show puts into her appearance. Also, when you consider that about half of their filmed activities involved shopping for something, you’d hope the results justify the effort.
Each franchise necessarily exhibits a certain regional sensibly when it comes to fashion. The New York women wear a lot of black, the Beverly Hills residents are often dripping in diamonds, and the ability of the women of Atlanta to follow every current fashion trend is a feat of its own. And while the Real Housewives tend to dress well—or at least adhere to a particular aesthetic—a watchful eye can spot a lot of very bad clothing.
We begin this series with the women of Orange County because they are first and perhaps the most egregious. (Although, the housewives of Potomac are certainly fighting for that crown.) Join me for a meticulous anthropological journey through some of the worst clothing in the history of The Real Housewives of Orange County.
The year is 2006 and the world had no idea what is to come. It’s easy to forget that it was the women of the OC who ushered in the era of “girls trips” paid for by the broadcasting network and meeting your girlfriend at a restaurant to loudly discuss personal issues.
In the spirit of fairness, I must remind myself that it was 2006, so some of the clothing can be forgiven with the year in mind. For example, we see a lot of dress pants in Season 1. You remember dress pants—some sort of elastic and polyester blend that didn’t flatter your thighs but were appropriate for everything from bar mitzvahs to actual bars.
In 2006 we are still in the “jeans and a going-out top” era. Spaghetti straps are in, and I can’t understand how any of these women’s breasts are being supported. Lori makes a rather unfortunate hat choice which sets the stage for so many awful hats to come in this franchise. Jo wears the Chanel sunglasses that every cool rich girl in my area got for their birthday.
Still, underneath the early 2000s-ness of it all, its easy to pick up on the very questionable taste of these women and this county’s inexplicable penchant for horrible, awful jewelry.
In 2007 I was really into Lacoste polos, so I feel qualified to judge the fashions of this time. The short-lived Tammy easily won this season because she wore a lot of black and wasn’t very into jewelry. Guys, the jewelry. In 2007, if I had set up a stand in Orange County selling enormous, disk-shaped necklaces, I would be a rich woman right now.
Vicki and Lori are very generous with their cleavage, which continues to look completely unsupported by their tops.
As much as I now hate all of Jo’s outfits, I know that during my senior year of high school I would have killed for all her clothes—especially that hideous belt.
In Season 3 we meet Tamra and so begins the beautiful struggle between attractive clothing and Tamra Barney/Judge.
If it wasn’t clear already, these ladies love a silk blouse—extra points if it’s jewel-toned. I wouldn’t necessarily think that whatever silk/polyester blend they’ve got going on here would be a great fabric choice for the warm Orange County climate. And yet.
Additionally, all of the women—but Tamra and Vicki especially—love a pattern. Patterns, as any loyal Project Runway viewer knows and as anyone who watched this season can see, are tricky.
And here comes Gretchen. Gretchen is easily one of the worst dressed Real Housewives ever. It seems like she’s going for this ladylike, princess vibe with the all the pink, A-line dresses, and pearls, but her outfits always include an element that make them extraordinarily tacky. I don’t know how she does it but I’m sort of impressed. I think it also doesn’t help that she always looks like she’s trying so damn hard.
Tamra experiments with headscarfs, which was cute when LC did it on The Hills but does not translate here.
In Season 4 we also meet Lynne. Poor Lynne. Lynne with the truly terrible daughters (it’s fine, they’re adults now). Lynne with the unsubtle facelift. Lynne with the extraneous “e” in her name. Lynne with the eviction notice. Lynne with the fictional money she keeps spending.
One positive thing with this season is that you can see the beginning of what will eventually become phenomenal makeup improvements. Everyone is still too heavy-handed with the eyeliner, but for some reason, the look is working for me.
Goddamn, these bitches love a jewel tone don’t they? If it’s in a jewel tone and silk, somebody is wearing it.
Jeana hires a great new hairstylist and somebody to slather vaseline all over the camera during her confessionals and I’m here for it. I will not, however, ignore the sundial on her chest.
Alexis Bellino makes her debut in the third episode. Her commitment to a modified version of “The Rachel” all the way into 2009 is rather bold.
Gretchen rocks a hat that would make an American Girl dolls around the world blind with jealousy.
Gretchen discovers feathers in Season 6 and we are all one step closer to death. Do you see what I’m saying about the one extra element thing? That maroon sweater is fine—nice cut, good color. But then somebody hot glued a bird’s ass to the side and my will to live goes down the drain.
Vicki is still figuring out cleavage and Alexis’ extensions look pretty good. This is the season where Alexis debuts her “dress” line and the purple number that looks like fancy pajamas is featured in the collection.
Now, I’m not going to act like I never owned or proudly wore a bedazzled t-shirt in my day. However, there was a very narrow window when tight bedazzled t-shirts were acceptable and the women of the OC swan dived out that window. It’s 2011, guys.
This season you might notice a marked improvement in the makeup department for everyone except Tamra
We also meet fancypants Heather Dubrow, who steers clear of any major missteps probably because there is some stratosphere of wealth where even if the clothes aren’t great, you don’t look like a train wreck. I think what helps Heather is that she wears a lot of black and a lot of Chanel accessories, which are sort of tacky, but Chanel tacky is not that same as Orange County hair salon jewelry tacky. She does wear one ill-advised headscarf, but the blending of her eyeshadow is so nice that I can mostly forgive it.
In Season 7 Tamra has yet to become a born again Christian, but you wouldn’t know it by the size of the crosses she wears around her neck.
Gretchen never got the memo that if you’re wearing a giant bejeweled collar, you probably don’t also need three other pieces of sparkly jewelry. Also, those sneaker boots. Those fucking sneaker boots.
In their introductions, Heather rocks a color, Gretchen wears something very similar to her Season 6 opening number and Vicki reminds me that peplums were still a thing in 2013.
One compliment I have to give Alexis is that she’s always had great hair and her lob was an excellent choice. Her odd, unflattering rompers were not.
Heather took some risks this season and they didn’t quite pay off. Although, that cropped leggings look is what half the moms at my school wore to the carpool line so at least she’s on-brand.
When I first saw Gretchen’s heavy collared look I thought she had a blowfish around her neck. Upon further review, I realized that it’s a jumpsuit and why must this woman do this to me?
Vicki has still not given up on those goddamn cowl necks.
You can tell that when these women are told to get ready for a “classy” evening, they immediately reach for their furs. What they fail to realize is that the mere presence of fur on an item of clothing doesn’t make it classy.
Lil’ Lydia who was much too level-headed for this program didn’t make much of a splash. Most of what she wears is a tad too cutesy for my taste but it’s never as offensive as, say, Alexis’ headpieces.
Poor Lizzie. I like Lizzie but my god, this woman’s taste. To be fair, one of the outfits was for an ugly Christmas sweater party and Lizzie thought she’d be cute by taking a tight sweater and sticking bows all over it. That is cheating but not an altogether terrible idea—until you add the awkwardly pleated miniskirt.
In her debut season, Shannon follows the Heather Dubrow rules of fashion and wears lots of black and neutrals. It’s when she tries to get a bit too adventurous that she runs into minor issues.
Vicki Gunvalson is still wearing Ed Hardy in the year 2014 which is beyond unacceptable. Still, her new face is settling in nicely and it seems that the production’s lightening budget skyrocketed overnight. That’s a Oprah Winfrey Network special programming quality lighting.
In a very weird move, Bravo used the same introduction footage from Season 9 and just replaced the voiceover taglines. I have no explanation for this.
The jump in how good these women look from this season—even compared to the one before—is remarkable. Everyone’s hair is on point. The makeup is mostly flawless and almost everyone seems to gave gotten it together. Although Vicki still loves those deep halters (I’ve included one look from her that I had to throw in just because her transformation is so heartwarming), she looks great.
Of course, not everyone nailed it. For some reason Shannon started showing a lot more cleavage, which would be fine—her boobs look great—if the tops didn’t look so uncomfortable and restricting.
Lizzie is not technically a housewife this season, but I’m including her anyway because she was always around and the clothes were still so bad.
Meghan takes by far the most L’s but it’s her first season so I’m willing to cut her a little bit of slack, but not too much because the headbands were a bit much.
Next time, we head across the country to the big apple for a look at all the ways the Real Housewives of New York disrespected one of the world’s fashion capitals.
Images via Bravo