Around the age of 10, my best friend, my sister, and I would spend hours creating editions of MODE magazine, the star title at the fictional Meade Publications and the heart of ABC’s Ugly Betty, the kitschy comedy-drama that hit screens in 2006, adapted from the wildly-popular Colombian telenovela Yo soy Betty, la fea.
We would mimic the covers, put together collages within the pages, outline a table of contents, write columns about the latest episode, and show our patient parents later. This was all to replicate the magic of MODE, inspired by an early love and fandom for Ugly Betty: a show about perseverance, class, dreams, family – and fashion. I still hold copies of these magazines (in the loosest sense of the word) at home, tucked away as a reminder of childhood antics and early interests. Ugly Betty fostered my appreciation for design, art, and aesthetics, as a consequence of its own dedication to each of these disciplines.
Fashion, in particular, defines Ugly Betty, which is still the most binge-worthy fashion-centric piece of pop culture out there. There is so much that can be said about the show: its representation of Latina women, its underlying messages of positivity and resilience, and its now cult-classic status. But for the sake of my argument, I turn to fashion, which the show uses both to convey its story and continuously pays meaningful tribute to, more so than its modern counterparts.
Take, for example, Emily in Paris and The Bold Type – both more recent depictions of fashion-centric media. The Bold Type features Scarlet, for instance, a magazine based upon Cosmopolitan, and one that hosts glamorous galas and puts together “woke” fashion shoots for its monthly editions. Emily in Paris, while focused on a fashion marketing agency, rather than a magazine, features scenes and vignettes that you would associate with the setting of a fashion magazine. The attention to design, in both these shows, indicates interest in dressing and fashion on behalf of the characters.
But somehow, these don’t match up to Ugly Betty in this regard.
Betty’s fashion was often questioned (to say the least) by colleagues.
Credit: ABC / Disney
The show’s titular character, Betty Suarez, a 22-year-old Mexican American woman from Queens, New York, enters the glamorous, cutting world of fashion, harboring dreams of becoming a magazine editor. America Ferrera won the coveted trifecta of a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, and an Emmy for her exceptional performance as our beloved heroine.
Betty joins MODE as assistant to the editor-in-chief, Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius), who is at first more interested in partying than taking over his father’s legacy. But this is just the tip of the iceberg; Betty is about to encounter four seasons of high-stakes drama and scheming, mostly at the hands of her fellow colleagues, who are far more fashion-forward than our protagonist.
From the moment she enters the fluorescent, orange offices of the publication, Betty is singled out for her seemingly outlandish clothing style and, as the title suggests, not fitting the mold of the white-centric, sizeist environment at MODE. Frequent to remind her of this are villain and diva-in-chief Wilhelmina Slater (the fantastic Vanessa Williams), her assistant Marc St. James (Michael Urie), and receptionist Amanda Tanen (Becki Newton).
“A ‘yes’ from me determines style.” – Wilhelmina Slater.
Wilhelmina and Marc were an unstoppable duo.
Credit: ABC / Disney.
From the moment the camera zooms into Wilhelmina’s creative direction meetings in Season 1, the series spells out its adherence to fashion. From the vivacious sets to the drool-worthy ensembles of every character, aesthetics are given the utmost priority — and in a fun, unpretentious way, throughout. Even while using Fashion Week as the backdrop for larger storylines to play out, fashion never really takes a backseat. Clothes are brought front-and-center, as fashion TV host Suzuki St. Pierre (Alec Mapa) narrates bitingly. Fashion icons like Naomi Campbell, Victoria Beckham, and Vera Wang made guest appearances in episodes as themselves — a literal integration of the fashion industry’s most-known names at the time.
There’s constant knowledge and passion underscoring dialogue between characters in Ugly Betty: name-dropping trends, for instance, and splashing out quips like “a ‘yes’ from me determines style” from Wilhelmina (Season 3, episode 15). It’s in this episode, entitled “There’s No Place like MODE” that a fashion-phobic Betty (whose print-infested wardrobe is getting the retrospective admiration it always deserved today) is put in charge of producing a show for an eccentric fashion designer. After wielding her inherent empathy to help her complete the task, Betty pulls together a breathtaking show. She says during the catwalk, “I think I finally get it. Fashion is art. It’s just another way of taking what’s on the inside and putting it out there for everyone else to experience it”.
Another editor-assistant duo, Daniel and Betty, with an unparalled bond.
This sort of joy and understanding of fashion is what makes Ugly Betty unique. So many viewers, including myself, have walked away from binge-watching the show with a deeper recognition of what art can be. Fashion is used to speak to something bigger.
Ugly Betty also does this by relaying the individuality and passions of each character. Beyond the office, this is seen within Betty’s family, where her father Ignacio (Tony Plana) demonstrates a love for cooking; her sister Hilda (Ana Ortiz) dedicates her life to the beauty industry, independently operating a salon and embodying beauty on the daily; and her nephew Justin (Mark Indelicato) presents an unwavering love for theatre. They each devote themselves to their art of choice – and at MODE, employees do the same with fashion and design.
Nearly every character in the show has a dream and dedication, and with this, Ugly Betty transforms even those that are seen as typically “frivolous”. The show provides meaning to art and industry, whether seen in Wilhelmina’s dedication to acquiring MODE or Amanda’s budding career as a stylist. There is a warmth infused to the setting of this fictional and ridiculous fashion magazine, even in its coldest moments (and there were plenty of those). That’s probably why the series is still seen as so influential: while there is obvious commendation for its satirical storyline and overall entertainment value, Ugly Betty also drew out the ideals of flair, fashion and having your own style.
As Wilhelmina tells Betty about fashion in Season 4’s “Smokin’ Hot” episode, “Taste is having the courage of your own convictions.” Ugly Betty holds true to her words, displaying taste, strength, and individuality – akin to that of its heroine.