Personal Style Lessons from Orange is the New Black

Credits: Photo - anonymous, Styling - Sarah G. Schmidt, Location - Sarah G. Schmidt's home

This past weekend, in less than 24 hours, I watched the entire second season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. The show’s title is a play on an often over used fashion phrase where a new “hot” item replaces the former “hot” item. In the case of these incarcerated women I see it as prison (orange) replaces their former free existence (black). Just like season one, I dove right in and took breaks only for sleeping and eating. 

This show consumes me for many reasons. The first is the diversity of the characters. There are many shapes, shades, sizes, sexualities, gender identities and of course, the crimes that got them locked up in the first place. Each episode sheds light on a feature character’s past and the situations that led them to their eventual incarceration.

The second draw is the stereotype-shattering and moral-gut-checking subject matter. The show tackles issues that many other shows are afraid to touch: ego, racism, sexuality, gender identity, mental health, flaws in the judicial system and violence. The show peels back the many layers of each character; showing the painfully human aspects of people. Whether it is vengeance, jealousy or, occasionally, kindness, I get a sense of authenticity from the show that I crave. There are some brutal scenes and things that make me cry. And then, just when I need it, the show sprinkles in a laugh-out-loud situation. In these moments, I can't contain my cheering.

The thing that most stands out, for me, are the way each of the characters keep or fight their individuality through how they wear and style their clothes. Their personal style both in prison and the clothes worn in the flashbacks help tell each person’s story. It’s fascinating. I am surprised that orange, tan, white and heather grey prison uniforms can appear so different. 

Sharing another example, one character wears a hooded grey sweatshirt everyday, zipped way up and often hooded. This look creates mass and presence to her petite frame. Another character will roll up her sleeves and pants for a cuffed, somehow relaxed, look. Some characters will choose to adorn the heavy black work boots while others only wear their slip-on sandals (with or without the standard white socks). It may be subtle but, as I watch episode after episode, I came to notice each look is unique and personalized.

Other characters express themselves more through their hairstyle. Some are styled and coifed with better dedication and individuality (and results, I must say) than many free women. Who knew that toilet paper and feminine products could be used in so many ways? Similar to the outside world, many characters share their tips or barter goods for a helping hand. Other characters don’t do anything at all. Each character chooses how far they can take it – and get away with it – without getting disciplined.

Finally, I need to talk about the makeup and jewelry. Statement brows; winged eyes; rosy rouge; and boldly stained lips. One woman’s refusal to authority and herself to stop wearing the banned lipstick is side by side another’s choice not to wear any. There are hoop earrings; and necklaces with pendants too. In all of these, the scale ranges from tasteful to garish, but not caricature. Some characters purchase through the limited commissary while others purchase through contraband imports from their fellow inmates. Some are craftier, concocting styles with their own spices, petroleum jelly or other materials they can scrounge up. 

I must give my kudos to the show’s costume department and stylists for giving the viewer just enough reasoning on how one could create these looks while in prison. Each look is as individual as the woman wearing it. It helps tell the story. This show is proof to me: no matter your wardrobe or life situation, one can take clothes, accessories, makeup and hair styling and whip it all into a personal style that is your own. 

Challenge accepted. You?