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The prom-dress fashion on “The Bachelor”

The January premiere of the newest season of The Bachelor—the twenty-first for the ABC ratings hit—got off to a more awkward start than usual.

When the 30 women contestants arrived to greet the smiling young bachelor, Nick Viall, the mostly floor-skimming evening dresses they wore showed an alarming preponderance of red. Mostly it was a bright rose red, but there were also a few in a deeper cherry or crimson. While hardly a cause for panic in most situations, on The Bachelor it stirred anxiety and became a talking point on the episode.

But the similarity among the contestants’ dresses wasn’t really so surprising. Particularly during the big rose ceremonies, the elimination events in which the show’s lead hands out roses to the women he will keep another round, the gowns the women wear—and they are pretty much always gowns—might vary in their color and details, but they are all figuratively cut from the same cloth.

Body-hugging, usually one solid color, and conventional in design, they suggest an adult version of prom, and help play out a limited, conservative view of femininity that casts women as part sex object, part princess in The Bachelor’s addictive and regressive fantasy-reality welter.

At this point, 21 seasons in, The Bachelor style is pretty much codified, even though the contestants mostly dress themselves. Producers only approve dresses on the first night, according to a former cast member who spoke with Fashionista, or occasionally tell women if something looks bad on camera. (Solid colors are a safe bet, which is why they’re so common.)

The women are costuming themselves for a quite specific role on the romance-themed television show, says Linda Grindstaff, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis and an expert on gender roles in media and popular culture. “They’re all being informed by a similar cultural sensibility of what it means to perform a sexy yet respectable young woman,” she says. And that role, Grindstaff points out, is “a particularly narrow vision of femininity.”

It is remarkable how uniform the women can look in a scenario where cast members, who vary at least slightly in age, race or ethnicity, and background, will otherwise resort to all sorts of displays to stand out. The cast members are always thin, usually with long hair done in a similar style, and plenty of makeup.

The show has also drawn criticism for being overwhelmingly white, though it just announced it’s first black lead on The Bachelorette, in which a woman selects from a group of male suiters. Fashion gimmicks, including a shark suit recently (in the back row of the image at the top of this post), do pop up, but you’re more likely to see a woman in trousers on a Hollywood red carpet.

“I think people have watched the show before,” says Emma Gray, executive women’s editor at The Huffington Post and host of a podcast about The Bachelor and its spin-offs. “So you tend to have people evening dresses uk similarly, in a similar vibe to what they’ve seen before.”

Caila Quinn, who made it to the top three on season 20, told Fashionista that she shopped with clear intentions for her stint on the show. “I looked for things that showed skin on some part of the body, whether it’s the legs or the cleavage,” she explained. “It’s a flirty moment, and it’s just that kind of show.”

Gray calls the style “prom-dress chic,” and adds that “there’s an element of traditional fairytale and fantasy, but it’s also a little bit reality-TV gaudy.” Cast members spend a large portion of their time in bikinis. (The men’s equivalent plays out on The Bachelorette, where the men are often in similar-looking suits or in swim trunks and a tank top or no shirt.)

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