States of Undress Takes Fashion Reporting Further
Within the past year, 27-year-old reporter Hailey Gates has traveled to France to dissect why there’s been a recent rise in Islamophobia within the country, and to Bolivia to examine the source of its identity politics and changing social currents. She’s been to Mexico City to understand why certain subcultures, or tribas urbanas, have formed, and to post-war Liberia to cover the existing disparities between race, class and gender. On paper, Hailey has the credentials of a hard-hitting investigative journalist—and rightfully so. She’s put herself in dangerous situations and broken bread with sexist, racist, xenophobic and otherwise discriminatory individuals for the sake of exceptional reporting. But she’s done it all while hosting a show that is about—or appears to be about—fashion.
Called States of Undress, the Viceland program is in its second season and proves that clothing and style have a place in discussions about politics, social movements, cultural revolutions, and more. Each episode, Hailey goes to a different city with the initial intention of covering something fashion-centric (oftentimes she will go to cover a fashion show or pageant; more rarely, she will go to cover a specific style of clothing or trend that has caused buzz) but winds up delving deeply into the location’s sociopolitical happenings. In short, she uses fashion as a point of access to important stories that are otherwise often off-limits to American media crews.
“We go to places with associations that are dominated by ideas of conflict and try to hopefully alter those perceptions through an angle that’s seemingly frivolous,” explains Hailey, who was never interested in appearing on a show that simply grazed the surface of the fashion industry. “It’s a way to get people interested in something they maybe wouldn’t be interested in through other means.”
Take, for example, this season’s episode that brings Hailey to Beirut, Lebanon, a city that is home to designers who are world famous for their couture gowns. Their luxe, expensive creations often show in Paris and are sold to wealthy consumers from the West and gulf Arab countries—and they’re often being made by Syrian tailors who fled their country because of theSyrian Civil War. “I spoke with a designer [with Syrian employees] who is a very strong supporter of Hezbollah and has been an anchor for many Hezbollah news stations,” says Hailey, who attended a conference of Syrian tailors and visited refugee camps while filming. (Hezbollah is Shi’a Islamist militant group and political party that supports Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.) “In doing this small piece about fashion and refugees, the conversation just kept getting more and more complicated, even within the small circle of [Lebanese] designers,” she continues. “Coming back home from filming it, we landed in New York the day the travel band was instated. We walked through the airport while a protest was occurring. It was so hard to come from spending time in these refugee camps where people were starving to get by and then coming back home to a place where we’re not even letting them in. That was pretty rough.”
Just as the peg behind the Lebanon episode was a seemingly petty exploration of couture gowns, the fashion hook of the France episode was the nation’s 2010 “burqua ban” and the smaller town-sanctioned burkini bans that were happening last year; the Bolivia episode hook was a fashion show featuring both traditional cholita style clothing and more Westernized designs; the episode in Mexico City was initially approached with the intention of exploring the definitive styles of prominent subcultures including punk and emo; the Liberia episode centered on a sartorial event: Fashion Week Liberia.
Clearly, Hailey and her crew have been able to visit a myriad of diverse places under the guise of fashion journalists—accessibility is something they have on their side. While many reporters and outlets have a difficult time being approved for visas to such countries or are even flat-out rejected, because of the supposedly superficial nature of Hailey’s reporting she and her team are often allowed in with little trouble. “We go to cover ‘fashion,’” she explains, drawing out the last word to imply it should be bookended with quotation marks. “There are definitely a lot of people from other outlets and shows who feel very frustrated because they’ve been waiting for visas from some of the same places that they don’t get.”
Although the fact that the show is produced by a largely female team does have frustrating drawbacks (“half the time we have a female director but in many moments we have to pretend one of our camera guys is the director so that the contributor or fixer will take us seriously), it can also be a major advantage. “Having a female team can be one of our best assets in terms of getting people comfortable on camera,” says Hailey. “It’s often hard to get people to feel like they can say the things they want. The world gives so much credence to male leaders and male politicians and the male leader of the family. I think it’s why we all work so hard on the show and care so much. It’s an opportunity for us to go and hear everyone’s voices.”
States of Undress has brilliantly allowed fashion to become a serious topic of conversation–a lens, if you will, through which major events, shifts and advancements can be viewed. Hailey’s exceptional interview and reporting skills give the program serious depth, while her silly sense of humor and on-point outfits keep it real, accessible and captivating. “I think the show is at its best when we’re not pointing out the differences between people but rather the sameness,” she says. “There’s such a boogieman culture today. There’s just so much xenophobia and so much fear of the other and I think if we’re able to show that the other is not so other I would feel the show is a success.”