It all started with Sky Tops. When Real Housewives of Orange County premiered in 2006, the biggest fashion statement on the show were these often ruched, often satiny, often sleeveless blouses with embellishment and jewels around the (often surgically enhanced) décolletage.
These days, if you tune into one of the eight Real Housewives programs on Bravo (or the two more on the Peacock streaming service), it’s quite a different story: Gucci prints, high-end logos on everything from sunglasses to scarves, and a pair of earrings reading CHA on one lobe and NEL on the other that are so ubiquitous you’d think Andy Cohen gave them out as part of an initiation ritual.
“It has totally changed,” says the journalist and Housewives diehard Amy Odell. “Now part of the reason people watch is to see what the ladies are wearing.” It’s not just fans who have noticed a shift. Ur-Housewife Bethenny Frankel acidly commented on her podcast that behind the scenes is an army of “glam squads and costumes and hair pieces and a whole fashion show.” And yet the fashion show onscreen may be more real than what walks the red carpet, where celebrities more often than not are playing dress-up for the step-and-repeat.
The Housewives don’t borrow clothes—luxury brands won’t lend to them—and they don’t rent the runway. To keep up appearances, they’re buying their Alexis Carrington Colby finery at their own expense. To quote Dolly Parton, it costs a lot of money to look that cheap. “It’s all from my closet,” says Sutton Stracke, of Beverly Hills. “When people write, ‘Sutton needs to fire her stylist,’ I just want to write back, ‘I am my stylist!’”
And here’s something else: The Housewives move merchandise. A lot. Even though they’re not pulling viewers the way they used to (around 1 million an episode at their peak), they still command Instagram followings that range from 4 million (Beverly Hills’s Kyle Richards) to 10 million (Atlanta’s Kandi Burruss).
All the franchise’s stars, especially in New York, have always attended fashion shows, of a sort. Ramona Singer walked one runway—as part of Brooklyn Fashion Weekend. For the most part these appearances were photo-ops aimed at impressing the tabloids. Then Erika Jayne broke out on Beverly Hills in 2015, weaponizing her outrageous closet to turn herself and her team into meme machines. Before her recent legal troubles, Jayne was signed up by Rihanna as an ambassador for her lingerie line, Savage X Fenty, and attended shows by Marc Jacobs and Vera Wang.
Seven years later nearly every member of the Beverly Hills cast hires stylists, and so do many of the women in other cities, even Potomac’s Gizelle Bryant, whose colorful ensembles are regularly mocked by fans.
“This is going to sound so weird, but what to wear is the hardest part for me on the show,” says Crystal Kung Minkoff, who is in her second season of Beverly Hills. “I am not into fashion. It’s not my thing. But fashion is its own character on the show.”
So she spent tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, an investment that cut into her $60,000 take-home as a first-year cast member. Minkoff, an entrepreneur who is married to filmmaker Rob Minkoff, initially asked two friends, the stylists Andrea Lublin and Dana Asher Levine, to help her out as a favor. With a demand for 100 outfits a season, she eventually had to start paying them. Now Lublin handles everyday filming and Levine the confessional shoots and reunion episodes.
“It’s lunches, dinner, vacations. It’s a lot of content to fill,” says Andrew Gelwicks, a New York stylist who worked with actress Lisa Rinna (of Beverly Hills), Carole Radziwill (formerly of New York), and Chrishell Stause, of Netflix’s Selling Sunset, a reality upstart that is trying to take the crown for fashion with a capital F. The vacations are particularly daunting, since the cast can wear three or more outfits a day, and god forbid one of the ladies turns up in the same sunglasses twice.
To make things difficult, most stylists can’t call in samples from the major fashion houses. One issue is logistics. Housewives shoots on such last-minute production schedules that the cast is often not sure whether they’re going to a black tie event or to Turks and Caicos.
Then there’s a more delicate problem. “I tried to pull from designers, and they didn’t want their names attached to the show,” says Leslie Christen, an Orange County–based stylist who worked with the former sitcom actress Heather Dubrow on her first season in 2012. Therein lies the ultimate irony of dressing for the show: The Housewives play celebrities on TV, but they’re not offered the same freebies—not the ones they want, anyway. Even Jovani, the cheesy eveningwear line made famous by Countess Luann de Lesseps, makes the women of Bravo hand over a credit card to wear their prom gowns.
The network’s casting directors look for cast members who can independently dress the part because they don’t extend much in the way of a stipend: less than $2,000, and that’s just for the high-stakes reunions.
It was Stracke’s “couture lifestyle” that got her on the show in the first place, she tells me, all but doing air quotes over the phone. Not only is the ex-wife of PIMCO executive Christian Stracke a luxury shopper herself, she sells a legitimate couturier, Alexis Mabille, at her namesake shop in West Hollywood. (She reportedly gets $300,000 a month in spousal support.) Other cast members pony up retail prices for their socialite uniforms and, more important, to keep their slots on the series.
Inevitably, expensive bad clothes can make for good TV, and they also—shhh—drive sales. When Minkoff wore what Stracke called “ugly leather pants,” the item in question, by Andrea Lieberman’s ALC label, immediately sold out on Net-a-Porter. Stracke is herself accommodating fans by offering items at her store for all budgets, including Mabille’s tees and day dresses.
Luxury’s heavy hitters are paying attention. For proof that the establishment is softening its stance, just Google “Kardashians at the Met Ball.” Reality TV’s first family pioneered the practice of buying clothes until they got invited to the party. Cut to this summer, and Selling Sunset’s Christine Quinn was front row at Balenciaga’s show at the New York Stock Exchange.
The label may project an aloof public image, but no one in fashion is above making coin, and Quinn’s 3 million Instagram followers speak to the spending power of her platform. The realtor wasn’t just there in her capacity as the new queen of Netflix pyrotechnics but as a founder herself. In the waning episodes of her series’s fifth season, Quinn had announced she was leaving the real estate brokerage Oppenheim Group to hang her own shingle, RealOpen. Naturally, it’s aimed at the crypto crowd.
Brian Moylan is a journalist, a Real Housewives anthropologist and the author of the recent New York Times bestseller The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives.