(List includes any non-reality TV show whose bulk of episodes came before the year 2000)
By Greg Allard
While no best of list on any matter can be perfect or even completely agreed on by any two “experts,” I have done my able best here to give you a pretty good one, while considering a show’s social influence, historical accuracy (in the case of period pieces) and overall quality.
Television has a long and storied history, so trying to compile an authoritative list of the 10 most fashionable shows in a 50-year period is not only a daunting and impossible task, it tears a TV-junkie like myself up inside. If you criticize me for what I have left out, then please also give due consideration for what I have listed. If you can do that, then I will concede that I might have made a mistake or two along the way. So, without further ado, here are the top 10 fashionable TV shows of yesteryear.
Dynasty was ABC’s answer to the CBS mainstay, Dallas, during the 1980s, and although it never quite achieved the popularity of Dallas,was the number one show in television in 1985 and came to epitomize the old adage that bigger is always better, at least on the fashion front.
The Show didn’t fare too well in the ratings during its first half-season in 1981, but when Joan Collins joined the cast for a full-second season that fall as, Alexis, the calculating ex-wife of Blake (played by John Forsyte), the series took off and cracked the Top 20 for the first time.
Between Joan Collins’ over-the-top shoulder pads, power suits, furs and turbans; Linda Evans’ gold lame jacket, lavish lingerie, and fur that matched her hair color; Heather Locklear’s sex-kitten outfits and Diahann Carroll’s consistent elegance, Dynasty became the fashion event of the week in American living rooms everywhere in the 1980s.
Although the fashion from Dynasty may today seem gaudy or even absurd, it was widely popular and innovative back in its day, much like the use of the keyboards in 1980s’ music might sometimes sound cheesy and over-produced now but back in the day was considered the cutting edge of musical technology.
9. Beverly Hills 90210
This mega-hit show had an 11-season run from 1990-2000 and was quite revolutionary with its ritzy and on-the-edge fashion zip code. The show not only told American teenagers where fashion began back in the day, but took us all into the new millennium.
Everything that Brandon, Brenda, Dylan, Kelly, Steve, Andrea, David and Donna wore on that show during the decade of the ‘90s set trends, like Dylan and Brandon’s sideburns and all the girls’ baby-doll dresses.
Some trends still hold up today and some, well, don’t. Shannon Doherty, who played Brenda, replete with edgy-bangs, flower dresses and bad-girl attitude, was the most popular girl in the tabloids next to Madonna for a while there.
Doherty was the driving force on the show along with her brother Brandon, played by racing enthusiast Jason Priestly. Priestly’s character was pivotal not only because he was Brenda’s brother but because he was close to Dylan, the James Dean-like character in the show who had a problem with authority due in part to his rocky relationship with his father.
While Brandon was more straight-laced, he was was also cool like Dylan, and so the two were able to influence fashion largely on the strength of that quality. By virtue of this, it showed that two types of cool guys were able to get girls.
It should not be forgotten that Beverly Hills 90210 was a downright phenomenon when it started its run, much like recent shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have become today.
8. Melrose Place
Like the show that it spun off from, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place was created in 1992 by Darren Star and produced by Aaron Spelling. This all transpired when Grant Snow appeared as Jake Hanson at the end of the second season of Beverly Hills as both Kelly’s love interest and Dylan’s longtime friend. Snow then carried his struggling biker-laborer character into Melrose Place, a show about a group of 20-somethings stressing with their lives, dreams and ambitions – all joined together by a West Hollywood apartment complex of the same name where they lived.
The show really took off, both in the Nielsen ratings and in the fashion sense when Heather Locklear joined the cast full-time in the second season and bought the apartment complex after guest-starring as Alison Parker’s hard and unreasonable boss in season one.
The show was at its pinnacle in 1994 when Courtney Thorne-Smith (Alison Parker), Heather Locklear (Amanda Woodward), Lauren Leighton (Sidney Andrews) and Josie Bisset (Jane Mancini) appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
From Amanda’s tiny skirt suits, to Sidney and Jane’s cat-fight over a wedding dress that ended up in the pool, to Dr. Kimberly Shaw ripping off what viewers thought was her beautiful hair, only to reveal a massive scar, Melrose Place had more than its share of dramatic fashion moments that will live in the devious hearts of soap opera TV junkies for many years to come.
7. Charlie’s Angels
Before Bo Derek, Cheryl Tiegs and Lonnie Anderson burst onto the pin-up scene, there was Farrah Fawcett, the All-American model and subject of every schoolboy’s fantasy during the second-half of the 1970s. Charlie’s Angels was a far-fetched ABC show about a wealthy mystery boss known as “Charlie” who spoke to the “angels,” the three beautiful young women he hired as detectives, through a speaker phone and with the help of his loyal assistant Bosley.
Much like Pamela Sue Anderson on Baywatch, Fawcett used Angels to strut her femininity and increase her worldwide fame. During her time on Angels, her haircut, simply known as “The Farrah” became the most popular female haircut in the world. She, along with her two other angels in comrade, Kate Jackson and Jacylyn Smith also influenced the world of fashion in a host of other ways. Bell-bottoms, flared pant suits and trousers became all the rage during the Angels’ reign.
Although Charlie’s Angels later made a couple of films for the big screen, it never quite reached the popularity that the series experienced in its heyday.
6. Wonder Woman
Starting in the mid-1970s, there was a mini superhero craze on television with pilots of Spiderman, Dr. Strange, The Incredible Hulk, The Greatest American Hero, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman all being contemplated as regular primetime television shows. While women no doubt loved Lou Ferrigno’s muscular chest ripping through David Bruce Banner’s day shirt when he morphed into the Hulk, the hands-down sexiest hero of them all was Wonder Woman played by Lynda Carter.
Wonder Woman was a goddess from the perspective of both men and women — a sex symbol for men and an icon for feminism for women. You have to be a very wonderful woman to be able to pull off both (excuse the pun), and Lynda Carter fit the bill, being perfectly cast as Wonder Woman. In attempts at remakes since, every actress has fallen short of equaling her stature.
According to comic book legend, Wonder Woman was Princess Diana Themyscira, a member of the eternally youthful Amazons, inhabitants of a hidden island near Paradise Island. When Air Force Major Steve Trevor crashes on the Amazon’s island, Princess Diana rescues him. It is from him that she learns of the world war against the evil Nazis. Wonder Woman, who was said to be blessed by divine deities in her crib to become as beautiful as Aphrodite, as wise as Athena, as strong as Hercules, and as swift as Hermes, wanted very much to use her special powers to help the world defeat the Nazis.
She left the world of her people and fought for truth, justice and the America way against the evil plots of Hitler, much like Captain America did for Marvel Comics. After the war, she was depicted as a secret agent continuing to fight for the American way of truth and justice. Her red, white and blue costume with decorations at her bust and below her magic belt attracted both patriots whose love for America was both beyond friends and something sexual.
In the show, Wonder Women was armed with a special belt around her thin waist that gave her herculean strength and her stylish bracelets had the ability to deflect oncoming bullets. Her lasso had the effect of truth serum. Any bad guy who got roped in by her cowgirl-like skills had no recourse than to lead her up the hierarchy of evil.
Carter was a voluptuous specimen of a woman who ran and pivoted and jumped and jiggled all around in a skimpy outfit of pure Americana. Sporting knee-high boots and short-shorts while kicking ass and lassoing bad guys, she not only delighted the vast majority of the male population in America but made her boots and shorts two of the biggest influences of fashion-culture for women in the 1970s.
5. My So-Called Life
Although My So-Called Life, which introduced film and television star Claire Danes to the world, lasted only five months and 19 episodes between August 1994 and January 1995, TV Guide gave it the honor of listing it as one of the top 100 TV shows of all time. Its nuanced handling of teenage angst, centering around the emotional lives of Danes character Angela Chase’s social circle at the fictional Liberty High School in Pittsburgh, won praise and accolades from multiple critics.
The show dealt with such sensitive issues as homophobia, teenage alcoholism, censorship, school violence, child abuse and adultery, without coming off as either preachy or self-indulgent. Although the show wasn’t what you would call highly successful (ABC cancelled it after just one season), it has developed a huge cult following since and is an excellent resource for what kids were wearing when grunge was in full force.
Angela often wore floral dresses and denim vests, while her love interest Jordan Catalano, played by now movie star and 30 Seconds to Mars front-man Jared Leto, dressed like a semi-rebel to try to hide the fact that he wasn’t too bright in the head-bone (In real life Leto is actually one smart cookie). Catalano’s garb included ripped jeans, flannel shirts and Sherpa jackets.
The rest of the cast, who played the rebel chick with a drug and alcohol problem, one of the first TV-teenage homosexuals of mixed-race, and the nice-guy male friend, whose unrequited love for Angela caused him much pain and suffering, all dressed stylishly according to the time and their individual personalities.
My So-Called Life was one of those nicely-made shows that didn’t initially make it, due to the lack of patience with the network and the almost predictable poor taste of the American public.
4. Freaks and Geeks
Freaks and Geeks was a brilliantly conceived, excellently written and very-well acted period piece produced by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, set circa 1982 in Chippewa, Michigan and broadcast just before the commencement of the 21st century by NBC.
Although the network cancelled the show after airing only 12 episodes (18 were made in all), like My So-Called Life, the show has developed a large cult following and has also been named to TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Television Shows of all time.
The show follows two groups of teenagers at the beginning and ends of their attendance at William McKinley High School, with a cast that turned out destined to do big things after the year 2000. Centering on Lindsay Weir (played by Linda Cardellini and now a star of Mad Men) and her little brother Sam (played by John Francis Daley and now a star of Bones), as brother and sister and friends of the freaks and geeks respectively, the show does a very good job of recreating the time period of the early-80s, just before the culture was about to make a marked change in the music and fashion world alike.
Lindsay’s friends were the freaks. James Franco (now Oscar-winning mega film star, director, screenwriter, producer, poet and author) played the James Dean-esque, lone-wolf character Daniel Desario, awash with cut-off tee shirts, jeans and denim and leather jackets. Busy Phillips (Dawson’s Creek and Cougar Town) plays bad-girl Kim Kelly and Daniel’s girlfriend while fighting an equally bad reputation and making believe she didn’t care – all decked out in her hoodlum attire.
Jason Segal (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) plays Lindsay’s on-again, off-again love interest, Nick Andropolis. Nick is a stoner drummer, who is way up with rock ‘n’ roll and way down with disco (spoiler alert: except for the last episode). He’s dressed appropriately for the era and stereotype with loose-fitting blue jeans, rock and roll t-shirt and the occasional open-button flannel draped over his torso. Their cynical friend, Ken Miller, played by Seth Rogen (Knocked Up and a ton other Apatow films) dresses somewhere in between Nick and Daniel.
Sam’s friends were the geeks, two not-so-cool 9th-graders trying to make the social scene in high school with checkered results at best. With his short-physical height, dark curly hair and signature sweater vests, Neal Schweiber (played by Samm Levine who later was in Inglourious Basterds) looked like a boy teddy bear from a box of Celestial Seasonings. The other friend, was an even geekier Bill Haverchuck (played by Martin Starr who later went onto the show Party Down, and have roles in films such as Knocked Up, Cheats and Adventureland). His lanky frame, awkward glasses and goofy facial expressions somehow matched his mismatched striped shirts and occasional plaid pants.
Freaks and Geeks makes it high on this list not so much for its lack of high fashion but more for its uncanny portrayal of the fashion and anti-fashion of the period just before the ‘80s left the ‘70s behind for good and went wild with over the top style and excess.
3. That Girl
While the vast majority of the fashionable dramas and sitcoms from our “today” list take place in the Big Apple, Marlo Thomas’s That Girl is the only one from our “yesterday” list is set in Manhattan. Thomas plays a struggling actress named Anne Marie, who moves from Brewster, New York in an attempt to make it big in the big city. Although the parts she gets are now and then and haphazard, Thomas exudes a style that reflects the mid-to-late 1960s perhaps better than any show prior to Mad Men. Thomas, the daughter of famous television star and comedian Danny Thomas, treats her days in New York as if she was in Milan, Paris or London and she dresses quite appropriately.
The show, a forerunner to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, depicted Anne Marie as a single woman, trying to make it on her own and not dependent on her parents or a man. Thomas, did have a boyfriend, though, and many of the episodes centered around her trying to balance him with her temporary jobs she took to get by and her attempts for stardom.
Thomas was a master of looking good in a little black dress. Her hair was often typically shing ding ‘60s, with bangs hanging down, hair fluffed at the top and curling out symmetrically at the shoulders. At the same time, she could also pull off wearing her hair straight like Pocahontas with a semi-beaded Indian blouse or dress and knee-high boots made for walking, a la Nancy Sinatra. Thomas looked good in all styles, from elegant to hippy to business formal to sexy lingerie, and she wore it all with class and style.
2. The Mod Squad
The Mod Squad (1968-1973), was a counterculture undercover-cop show on ABC. It featured a black lead, Clarence Williams III, as Linc Hayes, who was on equal footing with the other leads, Michael Cole as Peter Cochran and Peggy Lipton as Julie Barnes. This was the first time a black man was a lead star on TV since the very heavily stereotyped Amos ‘n’ Andy of the 1950s.
Linc’s verbiage of “solid” and “keep the faith” still permeate our culture today. While often used words from the show like “pad,” “dig it,” “groovy” and “what it is,” certainly were popular in America back in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s.
The show’s three main characters, Linc, Peter and Julie were all troubled youth who agreed to help the disaffected young people of the city when Captain Adam Greer suggested they form a team acting as undercover cops during the height of the hippy movement. Their far out dress reflects the times that they lived in, as does the style of the rest of the cast and extras.
“Mod” is literally defined as “A young person of a sub culture characterized by stylish dress,” and The Mod Squad took fashion enthusiasts back in time to the early ‘70s with the stories of the white, the black and the blonde infiltrating the youth culture and changing it without ever using a gun.
Peter Cochran was a rebel with long hair, whose Beverly Hills parents had kicked him out of the house after he stole a car. His big collars, open v-necks and Dylan-esque hair combined with his rugged good looks to create quite a presence on the screen.
Linc Hayes was the ultra-cool African-American-near superhero with full-afro, sun glasses, big-collared shirt and occasional leather jacket. He grew up in Los Angeles in a family of 13 kids and was arrested during the Watts riots.
Julie Barnes was a very pretty hippy girl who ran away from her prostitute mother in San Francisco and was subsequently charged with vagrancy. She could wear almost anything from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and if it ever got in front of her, she did.
Together, The Mod Squad brought us some pretty far-out fashion, man.
1. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Who could turn the world on with a smile? Who could take a nothing day and certainly seem to all make it worthwhile? Well, it was Mary Tyler Moore and you should have known it. With each glance and every little movement she showed it.
The poster child for the independent woman of the 1970s without being an in-your-face feminist, Mary Tyler Moore was smart, capable, strong, pretty, and nice to almost a fault. Everybody loved her and she loved everybody, but when it came to romance, she was both very picky and unlucky. At the same time, she was perfectly content going on as a single woman while working as a co-producer for a local news show in Minneapolis.
Mary dressed tastefully and appropriately. Her sense of style vibrated on the same wavelength with her ability to enjoy herself and radiate her charming quirkiness. She based her fashion-sense on single separates that were very versatile in their use. With those, she often wore prints that echoed her casual side. And with whatever she wore, she usually liked it accented with at least (but usually not more than) one bold color.
Her friend Rhoda, from the Bronx, and played by Valerie Harper, had a style of dress that might best be described as part bohemian, part gypsy, and part Jew. Her signature head scarves, bright colors and penchant for calling Mary “kid” were all part of her endearing personality, at least until she got a spin-off of her own show.
Character’s Like Betty White’s Sue Ann Nivens and Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom, Ed Asner’s Lou Grant and Ted Knight’s Ted Baxter showed off quite an ensemble of styles and fabrics for the CBS show that ran from 1970-1977.
Mary Tyler Moore turned the world on with her style as well as her smile.
While I am sure that almost no one will agree with the exact order of these and what was left on and left off the list, I hope that thinking about these shows has stimulated both your memory as well as your fashion sense.