Everybody's a Critic

In Defense of TV Gardening Clothes

Amy in fg

photo:  Fine Gardening magazine, June 2010

I enjoy a good rant about how gardens and gardeners are depicted in the media as much as anybody.  As you know, we are all about real, grubby, dirty and disheveled. But the talk about P. Allen Smith's clothes in last week's guest rant made me feel sorry for Mr. P. Allen, who is dealing with the same difficult issue I often have to grapple with–finding convincing gardening clothes that are media-friendly.

When I first realized that TV appearances were going to be a part of my professional life, I hired a media trainer.  I really did need help: I don't own makeup, period.  I had no idea what kind of clothes would work on TV, although I did realize that there were rules about such things. My hair is usually an unruly mess and it turns out that certain hairstyles are more camera-friendly than others.  These kinds of concerns may sound vain, but hey–TV is a visual medium.  I wanted to at least learn the rules of the road, even if I chose not to follow them.

The rules about make-up were the first ones I broke.  I allowed a media trainer to convince me that I would require a tremendous amount of make-up to look like my normal, un-made-up self on camera.  So I submitted to the cosmetic experts at MAC, walked away looking like a drag queen, and found out that the television camera doesn't lie:  I still looked like a drag queen on TV. (and by the way, I am pro-drag queen.  It's just not my look.) Now I follow the make-up rules for men: use powder to combat shine, use blush to combat the effects of bright lights on pale skin,but otherwise go as yourself.

Clothes are another thing.  Want to hear the TV rules for clothes?

No black.  No white.  No patterns or stripes or logos. Nothing shiny or glittery. No distracting ribbons or other strange detailing, especially if it sticks out in some way. Certain bright reds can vibrate weirdly on camera. For women, those v-neck sweaters that don't look clingy or revealing in real life actually look horribly clingy and way too revealing on camera.  Every lump and roll shows up.  So all but the most anorexic women are advised to wear structured layers:  jackets, shirts with collars, that sort of thing. (Oh, and men, don't read this next part, but: Women are also advised to avoid shirts with a button right over the nipple.  Sorry, there's no other way to say it.  You wouldn't think this would look weird on TV, but it does.)

Now take that advice out into the garden, where garden writers are often photographed.  Guess what else you can't wear?  Earth tones.  Browns, greys, and greens disappear into the background, and you, as the star of the show, need to pop out against that background. And since you might be bending and stooping, you need clothes that never, ever, ever ride up or slide down to reveal that once-adorable midriff that now only your husband loves.

So guess what that leaves me with?  Orange and blue. Maybe a sherbet color like pale green, pink, lilac or yellow, but those mostly look terrible on me and can turn glaring and washed-out in sunlight.  So my life is a never-ending quest for orange and blue jackets or shirts that look reasonably convincing as garden attire and that can hopefully also do double-duty in a TV studio and in front of an audience.  Oh, and it helps if it's easy to wash out in a hotel room and looks OK if it hasn't been ironed.

It also helps if I can put on the outfit, look in the mirror, and somehow recognize myself in there.  If I see a soccer mom staring back at me, I run screaming back to the suitcase for my ripped Sex Pistols t-shirt that shows off my tattoo.  (Sorry, soccer moms. My hangup, not yours.) I went through several rounds of Ann Taylor button-up shirts and khakis before I found my way to the Eddie Bauer cargo pants/mildly hip jacket look.  And the search continues.

And I haven't even mentioned shoes.  Shoes that look like something you'd garden in, but are clean and decent enough to want to put in your suitcase or wear the rest of the trip?  It can be done, but it takes some thought.

So while I would love to make a statement by refusing to wear anything but my actual dirt-stained ancient, baggy, dreadful khakis, along with one of an assortment of ripped plaid flannel shirts or green polarfleece pullovers covered in paint stains from some long-ago home improvement project, topped off by horrid, just-got-out-of-bed hair, the fact is that media appearances are about more than making a statement about what real gardeners look like.  They're also about getting booked for another media appearance–and producers like to know that you understand the rules of the road.  They're also about getting a call from a garden club or a botanical garden who would like to invite you to come speak–and as much as those program chairs also love "real gardeners," they don't want to invite someone who looks like they could just as easily be pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk on trash day, picking the recyclables out of everybody's garbage–which is how I look most days.

I'm just saying it's not easy.  Men do have it easier: the P. Allen Smiths of the world just have to put on a pair of jeans or khakis and a solid-colored shirt with a collar. But for women,it is surprisingly difficult to put together a media-friendly garden wardrobe.

Here I am, above, getting my picture taken for Fine Gardening magazine. Those are actually what I consider to be my "good" jeans, so normally I wouldn't wear those to garden.  The shirt is one of those ExOfficio mosquito-repellent shirts that I bought for a trip to Ecuador; it's still far too stain-free to wear for actual gardening, but the color is right for this green and brown background.  I don't know why I had my reading glasses on–I probably just forgot to take them off. I made some attempt to tame my hair. 

But–since they photographed me at home–the shoes are real.  12 year-old Birkenstock gardening clogs.  Yellow with dirt encrustation. That's as real as it gets.

UPDATE:  Someone sent me an email to ask what these alleged hair rules are.  Here goes: If you have unruly hair like mine, use about twice as much product as you normally would, as long as it isn't so much that it looks wet.  Your hair will feel greasy to you but will look smooth on camera.  And avoid products that advertise "shine."  You don't want sunlight or bright TV studio lights bouncing off that shiny hair and creating a glare. And of course, no hats–they cast weird shadows across your face. There–you now know everything I know about hair.


Posted by on March 31, 2010 at 11:14 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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31 responses to “In Defense of TV Gardening Clothes”

  1. Paige Worthy says:

    Awesome, Amy. Thanks for this! I’m going to pass it on to our staff — we’re always working on making Hort TV look better and more convincing.

  2. I too go for the sherbert colors – pinks, peaches, light greens, etc. I hate the “no hat” rules- what I try to do is start a segment in the hat and take it off – that way people read “ah, a gardener!” and get the message that is what I really wear.

  3. Excellent! I’ve had a burning passion to make a clothing line for gardeners and did one but did not like the supplier. So if my Bloom Mix-takes off and makes me enough extra money—I promise to put you on the screen in true garden fashion. I promise.

  4. Amy, this was great information. Now, I can see everyone at the Garden Writers symposium in blue or orange shirts. You know I made you laugh.~~Dee

  5. Eliza says:

    Ooh… I feel thoroughly discouraged from ever pursuing a career in TV horticulture. (In case you feel bad about this I didn’t have much ambition to do it in the first place). That sounds like so much time spent shopping instead of gardening! Thanks for dissecting it for us. 🙂

  6. Steve says:

    One comment on P. Allens cloths. They are alwaya the same. I ‘ve seen many of his shows and the clothing combo is identical. Most likely so wee will not know what year the segmant was shot.

  7. Like Steve, I’ve noticed that P. Allen always wears the same thing. It makes editing easier for his show I’m sure. Remember “Trading Spaces” with Paige? She bought two of what ever she was wearing in case there was a major painting spill on her clothes. And, all the homeowners were told to wear the same thing both days–love those smocks!

  8. Susan says:

    He’s not really a gardener, but Richard Attenburough always wears the same things in his nature programs- blue shirt, chinos. For as long as he has been making documentaries, same outfit.

  9. And for those of us who no longer have the shade of hair we grew up with, when you take off your hat and bend over, remember, your part is showing.When was the last time you re-touched?

  10. Judybusy says:

    Very interesting, and now we know why the TV gardeners always look so nice. I did love the Victory Garden show on PBS back in the day when the host wore bib overalls and plaid shirts, along with an enormous beard! (Or at least that’s what I remember…)

    By the by, my neighbor always looks absolutely adorable when gardening–in tank tops and yoga pants–and never gets dirt on her clothes. If I mentioned it before, sorry, but it’s a bit of a sore spot. Me, I look grubby and gotta strip and get in the shower immediately!

  11. angelchrome says:

    When I think of gardening on TV clothing I think of Charlie Dimmock. She apparently just weas what the hell ever is in the closet that day, and I’m totally cool with that. The British may be more forgiving than Americans when ti comes to TV production. This is very interesting reading though.

  12. Good god, how do you have time to actually garden anymore?

  13. Eileen says:

    All I know Amy, I lived in a house years ago where my neighbor cut his grass wearing a suit! Since then, I have seen many dressed in white shirts, dress pants and a tie mowing the lawn. Do I care what P.Allen Smith wears planting a tree. No, I have seen it all – to each his own!


  14. A tip for those who might be making their gardening tv debut, bring a mirror.
    Yeah it sounds vane but I did a segment with HGTV when it was hot as hell outside . Combine the temperature with my natural Irish complexion and I looked like a Geisha girl at the end of the day.
    I now have an unnatural aversion to powder puffs.

  15. Jane says:

    I used to watch A Gardener’s Diary with Erica Glasener and thought her clothes were great: simple, classic lines but comfortable/practical. As some one mentioned above, she often wore a hat but would take it off now and then. Jane

  16. Very enlightening and entertaining. I hate the way I look on video, so it’s not something I have to worry about, although I can’t imagine what I would do with my oh, so shiny hair.

  17. Thanks for the guidelines Amy. I know I was being catty about Smith’s outfit in my guest rant, last week, but it was more that the whole article and photo was just publicity for the soil amendment. His method of planting that tree did not follow the recommended practices based on science, which is misleading for beginning gardeners who think he’s an expert.

    Then I had my own photo shoot for USA Today on a chilly morning that ranged from drizzling to raining. I needed a hat; otherwise I would have looked like a drowned rat. I do wear hats or visors in the garden because of my fair skin and to keep my hair away from my face. I hate when a strand of hair tickles my nose just when my hands–gloved or not–are the muddiest.

  18. Pam/Digging says:

    Interesting to know in case that camera crew ever comes knocking. You look great in your pics and videos, Amy, so you must be doing something right.

  19. Chris M. says:

    It’s good to know how to ‘pros’ do it…who would guess all the do’s and don’ts?
    But I have to agree that the Brits seem to be way more comfortable with ‘natural’ looking gardeners. And the people are filmed really doing the work and getting their hands dirty..at least in the videos on the BBC.
    But I understand our attitude: when making a presentation as a Master Gardener I always dressed neatly and looked well-groomed; it seems to make a good first impression, then when you deliver the goods they accept what you say. You have to appear to be confident from the beginning.

  20. Katie says:

    THANK YOU for this post. A little jolt of reality, here. If you want to get booked for media, and media helps you make money, so you can keep gardening, or writing, or whatever you like to do, well, you gotta do what you gotta do.

    I get *tired* of the purists who think that if you are not covered head to toe in mud, you’re not a real gardener.

    The last time I saw someone covered head to toe in mud, it was on the finale of The Bachelor. Ok, there, I said it, I watch The Bachelor when it is on, because it is like cotton candy fluff, and a nice backdrop for writing about plant pests. During the last Bachelor finale, they went spelunking (unfortunate word choice) in some muddy creek and proclaimed it *SHRIEK* Fun! Awwww. Barf.

  21. commonweeder says:

    Excellent and helpful post. I have done some work on our local access TV station and your advice about shirts is right on. I always wear a jacket of some sort. As I think about making some videos for my blog I’ve thought about what to wear. I did a tongue in cheek post about garden fashion. If I make a video I do want to look plausible – but not really real.

  22. Lisa, Ontario says:

    I do my serious gardening in my old painting sweat pants, my poor neighbours get a good look at my not so attractive mid section on those days because it is paired with a shrunken stained t-shirt. In the mornings when I take the dog out to pee in the front yard, I can be seen still in my PJ’s looking through the garden, pulling stray grass. At lunch I am in work attire (usually jeans and a nice shirt, but sometimes dresses) and I am again traipsing through the garden pulling weeds, and checking in with who ever may be poking through the soil. Gardening attire is whatever I have on at that moment. When I had iris I did learn an important lesson, change out of anything you like, because they will stain the heck out of everything.

  23. sara says:

    I have some really ugly gardening clothes. And just recently (finally) got some good rain boots so that I am prepared for the days when there is more mud than dirt to walk across in the yard.

    Quite frankly, I have to be doing really heavy duty work outside to warrant the ugly perpetually dirty pants and old workshirts.

    More often than not, if I’m just going out to make sure the chickens have enough water, or I go out to harvest some chard, I don’t change into ‘garden gear’. I am just careful to not get too dirty. Because I invariably find a dandelion needs pulling up (which gets tossed to the chickens like mardi gras beads), or that one of the neighborhood cats has crapped in a raised bed, or something related.

    I guess the good news is my grungy garden gear is tv-friendly (what a surprise) because it is a muted blue color.

  24. All the comments about television personalities always wearing the same thing made me think of a TOTALLY off topic comment: One my uncles (no, he’s not on TV) ALWAYS wears khakis and an off-white button up shirt. As in, every day for over 20 years. Maybe P. Allen Smith is just like him.

  25. Tibs says:

    Sara, I am so envious of you: “I am just careful to not get too dirty.” I try. I try very hard not to get too dirty. It doesn’t work in anything I do, from the time I popped out of the womb. My mother could not understand how all the neighborhood kids would be playing the same activity in the same place and I was filthy and had torn clothes and no one else did. When I cook I have to wear a Mother Hubbard type apron. And when I garden… Pull out a weed? Guaranteed a volcano of dirt will erupt with the weed and rain down on my head. A trip to the compost pile? A fall on the backside or a step in something squishy. So when I sneer at nicely dressed gardeners it is pure envy on my part.

  26. TC says:

    I’m not lookin at what the person is wearin if they’re in the garden so it don’t matter to me what they have on. It’s supposed to be about the garden ain’t it?

  27. I do a lot of garden television and talk shows where I do garden demonstrations, makeovers and get very active.

    My uniform? A pair of dark jeans and a bright and colorful v-neck or round neck t-shirt. Any color that looks good on me except for white, prints, logos.

    I try to keep makeup to a minimum when I have to sweat. When I do the talk shows, I let the makeup department have fun with me, but not too much!

    To see my television wardrobe in action, check out my YouTube page,


    Great post Amy.
    Shirley Bovshow

  28. Reminds me of the time I heard Ariana Huffington talk to women editorial writers about clothes and make-up for TV interviews. Her rule: always do your own make-up; don’t let the TV folks touch you!

  29. PeonInChief says:

    I can’t imagine why anyone would expect that a gardener being photographed or filmed would wear their ordinary gardening clothes. I look at little like Pig Pen, but would change if anyone were to photograph me for public consumption. And that coral top really works!

  30. LKK says:

    Thanks so much for the tips!

    I hate to go shopping, but it looks like I’m gonna have to before the MSS films here next week.

  31. Blue against the face is a most people-friendly color because it brings out the flesh tones of the skin. White is avoided because it glares back at the viewer and is distracting.