This Amazing Series Offers a New, Timely Way to Talk About Fashion
Since 2016, viewers have followed Hailey Gates as she travels the world in search of deeply personal, not-always-glamorous stories about the way people get dressed on States of Undress. Over the course of the Viceland show’s first season, she attended Karachi Fashion Week in Pakistan, toured a mannequin factory in Venezuela, and sourced material for a dress in some unexpected places in China.
The model (for Miu Miu), actress (on Twin Peaks), and journalist (first as an editor at Paris Review, now on her own series) continues to broaden the scope of what we mean when we talk about fashion, the intersectional components of which feel more pressing in light of recent political events both in the U.S. and abroad. (In one episode, Gates follows the day-to-day of Muslim women who dress modestly in France, which ends in a beach trip where she and her burkini-wearing friends are gawked at—and confronted by—fellow loungers over their swim gear; in another, the host ventures to Independence, Ohio, to check out the town’s Concealed Carry Fashion Show.)
Glamour caught up with Gates to talk about season two of States of Undress and how a few of the episodes premiering this summer hit a little closer to home. Read on.
Prior to hosting States of Undress, you worked in fashion as a model for brands like Miu Miu, Kate Spade New York, and Target. Having actively participated in the “traditional” industry now traveling the world to report on how folks interact with a broader idea of style, what conversations do you think we need to have here that aren’t currently being talked about?
We’ve never really done an episode on this, but having been to the South China Port and seen the crates, a big issue that people are now talking about a little bit—not as much as I think we should—is this idea of fast fashion, that people are not wearing things that are made to last, and that we have a trend-oriented culture that’s becoming an incredible polluter. I buy vintage pretty aggressively, but people don’t necessarily think of that as an alternative to finding things that are maybe of-the-moment. But I will say, part of the ruse is that I have to still participate in fashion culture to get access, or people won’t think I’m legitimate, so it’s been interesting to maintain my presence in that space.
How do you reconcile those relationships you maintain in the industry with the perspective you’ve gotten from this type of reporting?
When the show came out, I thought, in some ways, the fashion industry would turn away from me because it was too political. But I found the opposite, which I think is a good sign: People want to have more complicated conversations about it. For me, I always feel like I’m on the outside—even at the Met Ball this year, I sort of felt undercover, like, Who let me in here? It’s also really important to still understand what the climate is like here so I have some perspective when I go abroad.
How did you approach the second season of States of Undress differently than you did the first?
I think what we found last season was that the kind of smaller, more niche events gave us an opportunity to delve a little bit more into personal stories. I was actually planning for the France episode to be a special before the second season was green-lit. I had been working on it over the summer; I had found that there was a very interesting dynamic at work, in the sense that these women from Gulf Arab countries were keeping the couture market afloat, yet there were very different feelings about French-Muslim residents and citizens and their choice of clothing. In the midst of that, the burkini debate sort of erupted—so, it was a really complicated time to go, but I think it was the right time to talk about it.
Did working on that episode change your perception of recent attempts by European brands, like Dolce & Gabbana and Mango, to tap into the Muslim market?
A lot of the women I’ve spoken to who wear hijabs are excited that designers like Dolce & Gabbana are taking those things on—however, they’ve found it [to be] kind of unfashionable, that it was more along the lines of what the older women in their families would wear. I don’t want to speak for them, but the sentiment that I understood from them was that they wanted to be in a space where there are designers who wear hijabs, making hijab collections for hijabi women. Part of the reason why I was so interested in going to France, which is a place that we wouldn’t necessarily go on this show, was [because of] moments like the minister for women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, going on TV and denouncing these Western brands that have decided to partake in this industry, saying that they’re contributing to the imprisonment of women. [Ed. note: Gates is referring to a series of controversial comments made by the French politician during a 2016 appearance on BFM, France24 reported.]
But none of the big French fashion houses have taken to designing any sort of modesty collection—but so many of these women, whether they’re from Saudi Arabia or Qatar, come to Paris on these pilgrimages to buy $20,000-to-$60,000 gowns, so there was a real disconnect in terms of France’s relationship to these different groups of women: those who wear hijabs, those who are citizens, and those who are tourists and contributing to their economic growth.
You filmed this segment during the summer of 2016, before the presidential elections both in the U.S. and in France. Looking back on it now and given the anti-Muslim rhetoric often used during the campaign cycle, what is it like to revisit this experience?
I was slightly frustrated after having made it, knowing it would [air] so much later. Initially, I had wanted the episode to premiere before the French election, in hopes that people would see it—however, with everything that’s happened and with the president of the United States saying that he wants to ban all Muslims, it was very clear that rather than this being a way to connect to French viewers, it became almost an episode of warning, an exploration of how bad it can get in terms of limits on personal freedom. The night before it premiered, you have a circumstance with Nabra Hassanen, the young woman who was beaten [and killed]—and we’re calling that “road rage”? It’s clear that these are problems that our country is also going to have to deal with.
But there’s a huge difference between America and France, particularly in terms of the far right, because these kids go to Sciences Po, which is kind of the Harvard of France—it’s also where Emmanuel Macron went—and they’re part of the first Front National student association at that school. It was really interesting speaking to them because I think the far right [in the U.S.] has been so closely associated with religion, [but in France] they’re, in a sense, sort of militant about atheism: They were looking at me kind of like: “We don’t get it—you’re white and you don’t believe in God, so don’t you understand?”
This idea of laïcité has been weaponized, in a way, to discriminate against people, and this idea of who gets to be French is really complicated and interesting. And as I admit in the episode, I was sort of a Francophile growing up, and I’m completely guilty of indulging in this [concept] of French identity—but what I didn’t realize as a younger person is that part of impressing this idea upon people was also excluding others in the country.
I tried very, very desperately to interview Brigitte Bardot [for this]—she’s now kind of a recluse in the south of France, but it’s been such a frustrating thing in the process to see all of these girls online worshipping this carefree, French look of hers when she’s been fined for using Muslim slurs, and is a polarizing subject and very much a supporter of the Front National. It’s even complicated within maintaining those French identities, to keep breaking them down and showing people where the problem lies.
In one segment of this episode, you went to the beach with someone wearing a burkini—and you yourself dressed modestly for the occasion—and you were confronted by someone who was trying to get you to leave the beach, because of your clothing. Throughout the series, you go through the process of getting dressed with your subjects—what has that taught you about the communities and culture that you’re reporting on?
What’s important isn’t what I felt, but what I think the women in the episode feel. It’s really just my Hammurabi code of journalism ethics, that I don’t want to ask someone to do something that I won’t do myself. Yes, it allows me to feel the discomfort of that, but, of course, I get to walk away—and I’m a white girl who lives in America and doesn’t wear hijab, so I don’t have the same understanding of what that’s like on a daily basis. However, I hope that it did make Natalie [the woman wearing the burkini in the episode] feel like we weren’t doing this to gawk at her or to shock or to provoke, but rather as an exploration of how she professes her identity, allowing people to understand just how difficult it is for her to go about her day.
Throughout the season, you can recognize certain parallels between the topics you explore on States of Undress and the political climate at home—whether it be in regard to wealth and access to fashion, or to the discomfort some folks feel when living out their identity through clothing. What are threads that you’ve been able to draw about what style means to people across these cultures and narratives?
I think, in a lot of ways, we underestimate how much clothing plays a part in achieving our identities and in how we want the world to deal with us. If you take the fashion out of it, clothing has a lot of information—about how we feel about ourselves, how we’d like to feel about ourselves, and what we’d like to be: If you show up to an interview in sweatpants and a T-shirt, I’m going to deal with you in a really different way. In the case of Muslim clothing in France, that’s when it gets kind of difficult, because these women have made the decision to express their faith in this way, and yet it’s being interpreted to mean something else. It’s when those moments of friction happen that it gets very interesting to explore.
When we’re talking about fashion or style, it’s hard to get past the initial pretense that this is a frivolous topic. Why do you think it’s so hard to bridge that and talk about clothing as identity?
I have also been guilty of explaining this show as: “We go in to these different countries, explore something seemingly frivolous, and use it as an entry point to talk about politics and the economy and women’s rights and those things.” I think the “frivolity” of fashion and that sort of arena is kind of male language; because so many women participate in this, calling it frivolous is a way to keep women out of important conversations. I hope things like this show help change the conversation—there are a slew of websites and magazines saying “the 10 things you can’t live without,” which obviously I’m not a fan of, but I do think there’s a deeper conversation to be had, and it’s more about helping everyone understand that they’re participating in it, whether they believe they are “fashionable” or not.
Whatever they’re choosing to wear in the morning is representative of something they want to be associated with, or is a choice in navigating their day—maybe it’s a way to protect yourself, maybe it’s a way to make you more vulnerable. There are so many moments when I wake up in the morning and I [put on] certain things because I don’t want to deal with being catcalled on the street, or because I want someone to take me seriously. It’s a really transformative medium that people don’t think they participate in, but they really do.
I want to go back to this idea of how intersectional conversations about fashion can be. Rewatching the season now as it airs, are there any topics you feel are more urgent to address in States of Undress, given the current political situation in the U.S.?
Well, we did our first American episode this year. After spending so much time abroad, it was really important to me to turn our sights on ourselves, and what’s going on here in particular. So, we attended the conceal-and-carry fashion show in Independence, Ohio, and explored women’s relationships to guns, as well as the fashion industry surrounding female gun ownership. It was incredibly complicated. Going into it, I had no intention of solving the gun debate or coming at these women as an activist.
There was so many of these liberal think pieces after the election where someone went out into the Rust Belt and tried to understand who these people are—and I think, for me, it was just really important to figure out: What are these women afraid of? Why are they choosing, in my mind, a kind of drastic means? What I came away understanding is that our fears are really similar, but our application of how to deal with them is really different: Mine is to have an intellectual response, and theirs is a very practical response—who’s to say which one is better? But it’s really different when you’re talking about women and guns versus men and guns, because there are so many circumstances in which these women have real fears that are worth protecting themselves for—and a lot of them are protecting themselves from men.
After that experience, do you think you’re interested in exploring more of these U.S.-based stories?
I mean, there’s so much here. It would be really interesting to go further with it, because the U.S. is so enormous—sometimes we don’t think about how particular parts of this country are.
States of Undress airs on Viceland on Tuesdays at 10:00 P.M.
This interview has been edited and condensed.