“The Affair” is a rare case of a TV show that does not aim to please through a flashy, or even clever, concept but rather through impeccable execution. As the name would have you believe, it’s about an affair. Or, at least, it starts that way. What elevates the show from its elementary plot is the way in which the story is told: from multiple, varying perspectives. This there-are-two-sides-to-every-story narrative is nearly as ubiquitous as tales of affairs themselves. Yet, show-runner Sarah Treem executes the storyline in a way that makes the show novel and endlessly intriguing; among shared memories, differences arise. A scene will often be seen twice, from two or more perspectives and embedded within the different viewpoints are inconsistencies making the viewer wonder whose memory, if any, is true.
The show communicates the discrepancies in memory in a subtle manner. Every detail of each perspective is calculated; you see what the writers wish to show you.
This immense attention to detail manifests itself in the show’s costume design. The costume designers have a keen understanding that clothing is indicative of character. As such, they have made costume design an integral part of their storytelling technique. What a character wears vacillates from memory to memory, and this disparity between flashbacks provides profound characterization for both the wearer and observer.
No character is on the receiving end of this divergence more than Alison (Ruth Wilson, “Jane Eyre”), the waitress who piqued family man Noah’s (Dominic West, “The Wire”) obsession. The way the men in Alison’s life view her speaks volumes to the objectification of women in the show. Alison is not a sexual siren or some unrelenting flirt who tore Noah from the arms of his wife. What Alison is, is profoundly sad. After her lapse in judgement results in the death of her four-year-old son she is immensely depressed, understandably so. But patriarchal culture disgustingly romanticizes beautiful morose women, so her anguish is made to make her all the more alluring.
“The Affair” carefully conveys this male-induced objectification through costume changes. Within her memory Alison dresses simply — nice sweaters and jeans. Conversely, when seen from the perspective of men, she is almost always wearing sundresses, even in inappropriate weather. As her relationships change from season to season this sexualization persists. In a recent episode, Cole, the father of her late son, stops by at night where he finds her casually lounging in a silk slip. In her account of the visit she is wearing a plain cardigan. The show never clarifies which account of a memory is true; guess work is required on part of the viewer. However, it doesn’t seem too presumptive to say she likely wasn’t casually lounging around her house in lingerie. Cole is generally held in high regard in the show — he’s the good guy foil to Noah the unrelenting sleazebag — but even he cannot help but mentally undress Alison.
Fashion is potent for characterization. What you choose to wear dictates how you see yourself and how others view you. But despite fashion’s undeniable influence, it is left underappreciated and underutilized on most shows. However, “The Affair” uses style strategically — it is this revolutionary use of costume and attention to detail that makes the show worth watching.