In the gaps between seasons of the Real Housewives of New York, when television lacks any distinct flavor or personality, I find myself returning to one of life’s few joys: Ugly Betty.
On Ugly Betty, America Ferrera starred as the titular Betty, a Queens-born 20-something chasing her dreams in print journalism, all while navigating a somewhat questionable fashion sense and an increasingly topsy-turvy home life. During its run from 2006 to 2010, the show tackled issues like worker’s rights, media industry racism, and immigration and deportation, all while deftly weaving a genuinely compelling story about one woman’s coming of age in a world that seemed to have no place for her.
Ugly Betty premiered during a strange time for television, especially for ABC. Sandwiched between ratings juggernauts like Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Grey’s Anatomy, it was arguably one of the first shows on primetime to feature a Latina actress (playing a Latina!) as its sole lead, Eva Longoria’s ensemble credit in Desperate Housewives notwithstanding. An adaptation of the wildly popular Colombian telenovela Yo soy Betty, la Fea, the U.S. version was also executive-produced by Salma Hayek, to whom some of the credit is owed for its incredibly honest storytelling, despite its often zany plot lines and ridiculous fashion world backdrop and meddling network bigwigs.
The first season, which I rewatched for the 100th time last week, lives in a strange quantum loop of mid-aughts network television. Made directly before the 2007 financial crisis and ensuing Hollywood writers’ strike—which decimated lineups across the airwaves and cut Ugly Betty’s second season by nearly a third—there is an alchemy in the early production design and costume work that just doesn’t exist on television anymore. When Ugly Betty returned for a third season during the 2008-2009 ABC lineup, its set design and costume direction were significantly streamlined. Perhaps the budget for brightly saturated set pieces and luxe costume design had been decimated in the aftermath of the recession. Or, as the Golden Age of Television unfurled itself across Hollywood, appetites had changed.
During my rewatch, I chronicled some of the finer outfits from the ever-iconic first season. Ugly Betty was many things: ahead of its time, incredibly human, and often breathtaking. But most of all, it was fun. Everything is so serious now! We need fun.
During the show’s opening moments, Betty wears the best outfit she owns—a plaid, vibrant two-piece suit with a ruffled blouse and her signature bright red glasses. Immediately, she is contrasted by the beige walls of Meade publishing and its similarly beige and washed-out inhabitants.
In one of the show’s first big fashion scenes—and its most memorable—Betty is pressured into participating in a photoshoot during her first week at fashion magazine Mode. The moment is clearly played for laughs, but it also foreshadows Betty’s eventual arc in the show. (I won’t spoil it, though. Go watch for yourself!)
Vanessa Williams’s portrayal of diss-slinging editor-in-chief Wilhemina Slater is still the only good parody of Anna Wintour, and I’m including Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in this ranking of the canon! Her outfits are also tailor-made to complement the scene-chewing she does at least three times an episode, absolutely demolishing just about everyone else onscreen. This yellow moment, with bell sleeves and the leopard lining of the coat just barely peeking through, is divine.
Speaking of Wilhemina Slater, she frequently dons white whenever some villainy is afoot. It’s a brilliant choice on part of the costume designers, carrying with it a clear narrative significance. Clothes can tell stories too! And Ugly Betty, more than all, understood this. I’d also like to draw your attention to the last slide. I believe it’s Vera Wang, or some derivative label of the sort. I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say other than point out how fucking ridiculous it looks. Incredible!
Ugly Betty’s ensemble cast also shined, like Betty’s sister Hilda, portrayed by Ana Ortiz. Like Betty, her costumes are in distinct contrast to the monochromatic world Betty inhabits at Mode: loud, vibrant, and full of personality. Hilda’s commitment to metallic nail polish still wows me, as does the pink moto jacket from the first slide. Even Elle Woods herself would be envious!
Speaking of side characters, I still dream of a spin-off featuring Mode assistant Amanda Tannen (Becki Newton), Betty’s frenemy-turned-confidant. What do you think Amanda’s doing now? I’d like to imagine she’s somewhere in the Hamptons breaking into mansion of her ex-husband and stealing his new wife’s jewels.
In a clear reference to the male-dominated office culture she and Betty were navigating, and Amanda’s own fantasies of power, the show’s costume designers frequently blessed her with increasingly sexed-up vests and ties.
And while we’re thinking about blessings, I wonder if the powers that be will ever bless me with brocade suits as ridiculous as the ones Wilhemina donned when looking to impress prospective advertisers or corporate executives.
In a completely random aside, I’ve also been daydreaming about every outfit you see above, from Betty and Mode stylist Christina’s bonkers blouse and tunic respectively, and the clothing seen on the babydoll on the left. The little fur-trimmed dress is nice, but mostly I’d like to know where that moto jacket and leather pants combo are being kept. (I’m not currently considering robbery as a means to acquire them, but its also not out of the question either!)
The clothing in Ugly Betty also served an explicit function for the composition of any given scene. Take the above moment, where Christina desperately attempts to lace Wilhemina into teeny-tiny dress while being scolded by the editor’s assistant, Marc St. James (Michael Urie). This scene would be infinitely less dynamic were it not for the dramatic laces on the dress contrasted with Christina’s free-flowing smock. Marc’s tux, meanwhile, makes him look tall and imposing, even while leaning over. Beautiful!
Guest characters also shined, like Gina Gershon’s hilarious Donatella Versace homage. The cigarette! The glasses! The lipgloss! The chunky jewelry! The small dog!
Of course, none of this is to discount the real star of the show, Betty herself. Consistently debuting outrageous sweater and pussy blouse combos, it’s her ability to take risks, and possibly look terrible, that made her such an enduring fashion icon. Consider her “fancy clothes” in the first image above, or the ridiculous prom dress she wore to her very first dinner at a swanky restaurant she was tasked with reviewing.
Equal parts inventive and outrageous, Ugly Betty is a television masterpiece. Sadly, there will never be another show like it. Times and tastes have changed. Imagine trying to accomplish looks this vibrant nowadays, in the age when everything is monochromatic and we’re all forced to dress like survivors of the apocalypse! As such, I hope its clothes have been treated with the archival care they deserve. If I had it my way, there’d be an entire wing of a museum dedicated to them! And while Anna Wintour is surely not looking for my recommendation on Met Gala themes, I think “Ugly Betty” would be the best red carpet the event has seen in years. At the very least, it’d give us some creative new takes on the knit sweater-vest.