For our money, costumers are television's unsung heroes — or in some cases, its secret villains. Mad Men's glorious period precision makes the show that much more enticing, without ever distracting from the drama; conversely, we frequently sit up during the otherwise eminently true-to-life and hard-hitting 90210 and wonder, Wait, is she wearing hot pants with that cardigan? and then before we know it, we've missed all the nuance of why somebody's yacht is on fire. But let the wardrobe department feel neglected no longer: To reward the righteous and slap the wrists of the wrongdoers, we've put together a slideshow celebrating ten characters on TV today whose looks we love, and suggesting ten who need to go to style rehab, stat.
BEST: Nikita, Nikita
For a spy on the lam, presumably with very little time or opportunity to go to the mall, Nikita has an enviable stash of "disguises" — like one silver-beaded number from the premiere that she was very lucky to have lying around her otherwise spartan loft. (Guess she's a whiz at untraceable online shopping.) Nikita also wears a lot of leggings — and while this should not be construed as an endorsement of the Spandex Scourge, we do feel like they're an understandably flexible choice when you're constantly running for your life, performing random acts of ass-kicking, and/or trying to look nondescript in public. Plus, she wears them with lethal boots. We respect shoes that could kill a man.
BEST: Lily Aldrin, How I Met Your Mother
Somewhere around the beginning of season two — where, possibly, the show's increasingly praising press coverage earned it a better wardrobe budget — Lily started sporting a raft of reliably cute dresses, the likes of which (a) you realistically would never wear as a kindergarten teacher NOR as an artist, because they'd get ruined by little fingers smeared with paint, boogers, or snack-time cookie pulp, but whatever; and (b) left us salivating when the credits rolled. Indeed, when Lily eventually confessed a massive shopping problem, we were like, "Screw your debt issues. TAKE US WITH YOU."
BEST: Olivia Palermo, The City
Although technically not a fictional character, we certainly pray that Olivia is playing a part (could anyone be that bad at her job on purpose?). Luckily, Olivia does manage to get at least one thing right: She's arguably the best-groomed person on television. Her wardrobe also looks mind-blowingly expensive, to the point where it almost seems like parody of what a bratty dilettante/low-level editor would wear to the job she doesn't take seriously. If only MTV were actually that thematically layered.
BEST: Emma Pillsbury, Glee
If there's anything we've learned from Glee's hyper-realistic look at the human condition, it's that the upside of being the world's most neurotic guidance counselor is that the position comes with an adorably prim wardrobe packed with vintage accessories. Emma may have questionable taste in men, but at least her eye for cardigans is peerless.
BEST: Neal Caffrey, White Collar
His FBI colleagues make fun of Neal's loyalty to his porkpie hat, but we dig his Rat Pack vibe and heartily appreciate a man who takes the time to be as dapper on the outside as he is underneath all that fabric. Those pecs — and odds are, if you've seen the show, you've also seen his six-pack — deserve nothing but the suavest.
BEST: Joan Holloway Harris, Mad Men
We very nearly discounted this show from contention, since it's devotedly and perfectly period-specific, and thus it's not like anyone is storming into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce wearing meat twin-sets or pillbox hats that are actual pill boxes. But on more than one occasion, we've found ourselves coveting a certain item that actually could pass for spiffy right now. And when we do, it's usually on the back (and hips, and bust) of everyone's favorite redhead. Funny how in real life Christina Hendricks says people still balk at loaning her dresses, and yet she makes everything she wears as Joan look like hot-buttered awesome.
BEST: Alicia Florrick and Kalinda Sharma, The Good Wife
Neither of these women regularly sport anything particularly flashy or overly fashion-forward, they both just look good. It's a measure of how skilled The Good Wife's wardrobe team is that they manage to nail both Classy, Brainy Lawyer and Kick-Ass P.I. in the same hour, every single week, and in a way that has us jonesing for pieces in both their divergent closets. Bonus points for that time they put Josh Charles in casualwear.
BEST: Manny Delgado, Modern Family
You will not see this kid in a torn T-shirt, or jeans sagging so far down his butt that they actually drop off. In fact, we challenge you to find a tween on TV who cares about his wardrobe more than Manny. The kid irons his own clothes, voluntarily — sometimes we don't even do that — and he even broke up with a girl because she didn't appreciate his dinner jacket, to which we say, "bravo." Any kid who understands the value of a dude in a nice dinner jacket is all right by us.
BEST: Maura Isles, Rizzoli and Isles
The chief conceit of Rizzoli and Isles is that Rizzoli is a rough-around-the-edges tomboy cop, while her bestie Isles is a super-uptight, brainy, clotheshorse medical examiner. Shenanigans ensue, etc. But while Rizzoli is obviously the cooler of the two — it helps to be played by perennial girl crush Angie Harmon — Isles reaps the benefits of a seemingly endless supply of sharp trench coats, $1,200 day dresses, and major designer heels. That would go a long way toward making us feel better about not being Angie Harmon. We're just saying.
BEST: Blair Waldorf, Gossip Girl
Leighton Meester probably is the most skilled actor on Gossip Girl, so it only seems fair that the universe has rewarded her hard work with the show's best wardrobe. She's more than just Mary Janes and colored tights: Blair's colorful, posh-preppy ensembles or romantic dresses (that red one, from the final Paris episode? Swoon) almost always look simply divine — and unmistakably her. You'd never see Little J mixing prints with such attractive abandon unless she was doing it in a meth lab.
WORST: Almost Everyone Other Than Blair, Gossip Girl
While we'd never argue against Chuck Bass and his purple suits — he is, after all, Chuck Bass — the non-Blair ladies of Gossip Girl must have done something terrible in their collective past lives to deserve their seemingly endless stream of ripped leggings (Little J), bad eyeliner (ditto), terrible extensions (Vanessa), hideous clogs (V, again), too-tight figure-skating costumes (Serena), and bizarre caftans (ibid). Could someone please stop burning Blair's old headbands long enough to help these girls?
WORST: Lynette Scavo, Desperate Housewives
We've been trying to put our finger on why Lynette is so hard to watch. Is it the whining? The selfishness? The constant state of self-pity? And then we realized: It's the clothes. Sure, Lynette's function on the show is Harried Mother of Zillions, but it's annoying how much Desperate Housewives plays into the stereotype that having multiple kids means cleaving only to shapeless blouses and cranky pants. Give Lynette a few hard-won bombshell moments — after all, Felicity Huffman is hot — and then maybe we'll care the next time she spits a sharp-tongued rejoinder at someone who means well. Hey, it works for Bree.
WORST: Brooke Davis, One Tree Hill
As a fashion designer, Brooke ostensibly is a best-dressed candidate, and the show certainly puts her in a lot of Diane von Furstenberg and BCBG. Unfortunately, the stylists regularly whiff the proportions just enough that Sophia Bush's considerable assets all become overemphasized — either by a too-high waist, a too-short pair of shorts, or, in the case of the first two episodes of the current season, a horrible clawlike corset that had her shapely groin in its embiggening talons. It's a bad sign when we're rooting for her character to go to jail for financial fraud simply because the prison jumpsuit would be a welcome improvement.
WORST: Aria Montgomery, Pretty Little Liars
Aria — the character who's having the affair with her English teacher, and whose parents are Chad Lowe and Piper from Charmed — is clearly supposed to be an artsy boho free spirit. Too bad her wardrobe all too often takes the first exit to Crazyville. Last season, for example, she suffered through at least two episodes in which she wore a giant feather hanging from one ear. In addition to being patently ridiculous, this is distracting. We can't focus on a (maybe) murder mystery when one of the show's protagonists looks like she's been moonlighting at an ostrich farm.
WORST: Ellen Beals, Make It or Break It
This character on ABC Family's surprisingly dishy gymnastics soap heads the national team's governing body (and now, the team itself), but does all her heavy business, downfall-plotting, anorexia-ignoring, and general evil-oozing from within the confines of the same tracksuit in different colors. Indeed, for a long time we called her simply, "Tracksuit." For one thing, Sue Sylvester would be infuriated — at least her tracksuit is her trademark and a badge of honor — and for another, did the collective works of Aaron Spelling teach us NOTHING about the power of a cunning plan deployed in a sharp (often literally) business suit?
WORST: Sookie Stackhouse, True Blood
Yeah, yeah, we know: No one on True Blood is really supposed to dress that well. It's not like they've got a J.Crew in Bon Temps, much less a Barneys. But when your lead actress spends most of her screen time looking like she's one stiff wind away from Louisiana's most awkward hot-pants wedgie, and has perhaps never worn long sleeves in her life, maybe it's time to glam up the place a hair.
WORST: Ashleigh Howard, Greek
Greek is a charming show, in part because it's not afraid to have its characters occasionally comment on how cracked-out Ashleigh looks — although no one speaks up as much as we would. The last season alone brought us a sweater dress covered with a giant lobster, a shirt in which one shoulder was a cloud and the other a rainbow, an epidemic of knee-high socks, and, in general, a variety of looks that seem pilfered from the unholy wardrobe union of Punky Brewster and Blossom. We get that college is for finding yourself, but Ashleigh might be well-advised to first find a mirror.
WORST: Erin "Silver" Silver, 90210
Silver's style is in a constant state of flux — none of it particularly good. First, she was forced into an endless stream of headbands and scarves and leggings. Then she gravitated toward generally cute dresses topped off with the occasional stupid hat, before randomly dabbling in a pink princess prom dress, and now trying to grunge up her frocks with chunky boots and an excess of accessories. They even made her wear a vest. We're getting whiplash from this car wreck.
WORST: Lux Cassidy, Life Unexpected
We get that Lux is supposed to be an indie darling, and Portland can be rainy and cold, but why does that translate into the character being forced to wear a woolen headpiece in every episode — sometimes, in every scene? This show feels like the before segment in a commercial for drug therapy treating a tragic new disease called Repetitive Snood Syndrome. Symptoms include a pathological fear of showing the crown of your head in public, and only bothering to style the front tendrils of your mane of hair.