Alexandra Neill has a lot of thoughts about television. Too many thoughts about television, in fact. In this column, Broadcast City, she will be sharing these thoughts with you whether you want her to or not.
A few years ago I bought a pair of orange pants. I got them at an op shop for something like $4. I pulled them off the rack as a joke, but rapidly the colour went from being funny to being the best thing I had seen in months. They were a strange old-fashioned cut and weren’t particularly flattering, but I loved them anyway.
I was eighteen at the time. I’d spent such a long time feeling confined by other people’s definitions of me and for the first time in my life I had the chance to define myself. I didn’t want to be the shy, strange, smart person I’d been all through high school. I wanted to be brave and confident and memorable. Memorable was the word that played over and over in my head.
Those orange pants came to represent everything I wanted to be – I wanted to be the kind of person who wore orange pants.
I thought about those pants a lot this month while I was watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Made by Netflix and with Tina Fey at the helm, the show is about Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), who has moved to New York after being freed from an apocalypse cult. Kimmy moves in with Titus (Tituss Burgess), a struggling actor, and gets a job as a nanny for the wealthy Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski). In the same way that Parks and Rec was never cynical, Kimmy Schmidt is just relentlessly optimistic. It’s also very, very funny. Once or twice we actually had to pause it because we were laughing so hard.
Another thing that is great about the show is the costume design (getting back to pants). There are all these subtle things going on that cleverly play into notions of identity and belonging. Kimmy has spent most of her life wearing pastels and being locked in a bunker by an insane preacher. The show dramatically contrasts that past (brown, grey, beige) to her life in New York (yellow! pink! purple!). Once she’s free, her wardrobe is all absurd colours and light up shoes. Her favourite colour is the yellow of hard hats. It’s easy to see her clothes as an expression of naivety – the last time she dressed herself, she was fifteen. She wears clothes that she likes; things that make her feel comfortable and happy. Her clothes say so much about the person that she is and the person that she’s striving to be.
Kimmy is relentlessly cheerful, even in the face of everything she’s suffered. Her clothes (like her smile) are a shield and a coping mechanism. They’re a declaration to the world that she is has survived – she’s ok and she’s going to keep fighting. As she says in the first episode – “Life beats you up…You can either curl up in a ball and die… or you can stand up and say, “We’re different. We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us.”’
Kimmy is an orange pants kind of person. She’s still working out who she is, now that she’s finally free to be anyone. She’s alive, dammit. Kimmy is herself so aggressively, and that’s most obvious in her clothes.
These days, most of the things I wear are an outrageous colour. Right now I’m wearing a dress that’s this fabulous lime green. I actually own enough things that I could dress head to toe in this colour because it was briefly in fashion last year.
Once at a tram stop, a stranger looked at the bag I was carrying (which is the colour of high vis) and said rather matter-of-factly, “You must like that colour.”Sometimes, people will look me up and down and say things like, “Oh, I wish I was brave enough to wear something like that.” I tend to get pretty angry at those people because:
- a) don’t ever look anyone up and down like that omg and
- b) comments like that undermine how important that bravery is to me.
I don’t like that those comments get to me. I feel weird thinking so much about what I wear. Some days I can’t help stressing about what people will think of my outfit – am I wearing too many colours? Do the colours go together? Should I tone it down? Dressing brightly is apparently an invitation for people to comment on your clothes. The comments fall roughly into two categories – bemused and disdainful. There are very few straight out compliments. The reason it takes bravery to dress like this is that you’ll inevitably be judged for it.
Orange pants (or in Kimmy’s case, bright pink ones) are about confidence. It takes a weird kind of courage to wear bright colours in a sea of black and beige (seriously people, why do you all wear so much black, it’s weird). It’s less about vanity and more about identity. It’s about having the confidence in yourself to stand up, even when it’s much easier to sit down.
More than anything else, that’s what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about – being yourself even when that’s really, really hard.
Now can someone buy me a canary yellow cardigan please? I will never take it off.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available on Australian Netflix which launched this week and which you should immediately subscribe to so you can spend the whole weekend watching Kimmy Schmidt.
Alexandra Neill is a writer and blogger. She’s also a co-director at the National Young Writers Festival and coordinator of the Signal Express. She spends her spare time tweeting (@paper_bag_girl) and playing Dungeons and Dragons.