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One Good Thing: How Fashion Became A Part Of The Nanny’s Legacy

Fran Fine has remained a style icon for a generation of kids born during (and after) the years that the series aired.

The often-used meme, “I watched it for the plot,” is an irony-laden acknowledgment that we, as viewers, often gravitate toward eye candy. Most people prefer to watch flashy productions and beautiful celebrities over “highbrow” content; they have a knack for avoiding convoluted plot lines that force the viewer to think. This is not an incrimination but a very real aspect of our media consumption. Even Netflix’s official social media accounts have leaned into the joke to promote shows like Squid Game. “The plot,” then, becomes a teasing reference to its attractive cast instead of to the show’s unsubtle statement on social class in South Korea.

Similarly, my interest in The Nanny, a CBS sitcom that aired from 1993 to 1999, stemmed from its superficial, plotless elements — or so I thought. I began streaming the show not for its comedic charm but the extravagant and colorful designer costumes worn by its main character, Fran Fine, the titular nanny (played by Fran Drescher).

That isn’t to say The Nanny is all style with no substance. Instead, Fran’s fashion-forward flair was the gateway to my greater appreciation of the series and its tendency for excess through its comedy and aesthetics. The Nanny, both the show and the character, excelled at endearingly doing the most: Yiddish references pepper Fran’s vocabulary; she manages to be brash and self-deprecatingly honest, sweet but not cloying; and her clothes are ridiculously ostentatious for nanny-ing around the house.

Fran’s costumes, engineered by stylist Brenda Cooper (who won an Emmy for her work), were the stylistic vehicle to distinguish her vivacious character from the rest of the well-rounded cast. The Nanny’s catchy, show-tune-like theme song even sets the audience up for this distinction. Fran is described as “the lady in red while everybody else is wearing tan.”

To recap, The Nanny follows Fran Fine, a Jewish lady from Flushing, Queens, who, after losing her job at a bridal shop, accidentally lands a job as the nanny for the high-society, WASP-y Sheffield family. Her over-the-top persona (and nasally intonation) was initially bewildering to Maxwell, the widowed single dad of the family, but became endearing as he realized how smoothly his three children had taken to Fran’s antics. She moves in with the Sheffields and their snarky live-in butler Niles, and she playfully contends with Maxwell’s clingy and haughty business partner, C.C. Babcock.

From the start of the show’s run to its sixth season finale, Fran remains its centrifugal force; her bubbly charm blew fresh air into the stuffy lives of the Sheffields, who viewers grow to individually adore. But Drescher, the series’ creator, and Cooper weren’t so sure The Nanny would’ve established such a beloved and lasting legacy if not for Fran’s clothes. “Could you imagine if I dressed that show and dressed Fran like an average, everyday nanny?” Cooper told the HuffPost in 2018. “We wouldn’t be having a conversation right now.”

Cooper, until her departure after season four, was famously given free rein by Drescher to dress Fran Fine however she wished. She crafted Fran’s costumes to be an extension of her personality while also serving as memorable timestamps for the show’s progression and class commentary. Fran famously carried a red Moschino heart-shaped purse on a (failed) date with a mobster in season one and wore a Moschino piano dress in a season four episode that featured an aspiring concert pianist who later lost any desire to play the instrument.

Still, her character is a “shopaholic striver with a mountain of credit card debt,” observed Rachel Syme in the New Yorker, “a profligate clotheshorse who, the viewer assumes, cares more about materialist trends than timeless art.” Even after Fran’s induction into the Sheffield clan, her style remains singular, unswayed by the social expectations of the Upper East Side.

In a 2020 interview with Vogue, Drescher described Fran’s style as “sexy, but definitely not trashy” and shared some of Cooper’s costuming decisions. The character wore a lot of Moschino, since the clothes had pizzazz and humor, according to Drescher. And in the scenes Fran shared with C.C., the goal was to depict the two women as “contrasting in every way, as people and in the way they dressed.” By today’s ’90s-obsessed standards, Fran’s looks are distinctly modern and timeless.

On the set of The Nanny, Fran Drescher (as Fran Fine) sits on the couch and reads a magazine, while Lauren Lane (as C.C. Babcock) stands and holds a newspaper.
In the scenes Fran shared with C.C., Maxwell’s clingy and haughty business partner, the goal was to depict the two women as “contrasting in every way, as people and in the way they dressed.”

Yet, The Nanny never achieved the level of widespread popularity and cultural cachet afforded to other ’90s shows, like Friends or Sex and the City. Female leads like Rachel Green and Carrie Bradshaw have remained style flashpoints for a generation of ’90s and 2000s kids born during the years their shows aired. The Nanny, on the other hand, became lauded and referenced by a much smaller audience (including Cardi B) in the decades after it went off the air. Various women’s and fashion publications have dedicated coverage to Fran’s unique fashion sensibilities in recent years, nearly two decades after the show ended (and before The Nanny was revived via streaming service). This interest was, in part, driven by the @whatfranwore Instagram account, which identifies Fran’s iconic wardrobe to over 350,000 followers. The series’s arrival on HBO Max in April 2021, however, has likely introduced the show to more viewers.

It is also a step toward memorializing its cultural status as a ’90s sitcom. To viewers in 2021, the show’s set-up — its punchlines and the way it was filmed — might feel a bit dated. Not so much that the humor was corny, but that it was simply of a different time.

Some seasons of The Nanny were taped before a live audience, which has become “a class signifier of comedy itself,” according to NPR’s Linda Holmes on Pop Culture Happy Hour, “that somehow [a live audience laughing is] a less sophisticated or old-fashioned or more broad kind of comedy.” Still, the show boasted a list of enviable celebrity cameos during its run, featuring Elton John, Celine Dion, Elizabeth Taylor, Patti LaBelle, and of course, Donald Trump.

The Nanny “finds jokes everywhere, sometimes three or four to a line, and links them across episodes and plotlines,” wrote Hilarie Ashton for the New York Times. Its self-aware, slapstick humor is refreshing and explicit for a decades-old show, and it generally holds up as a breezy ’90s sitcom to stream. The Nanny’s embrace of excess, however, had the potential to be wholly liberating and ahead of its time, but the show’s writers (and likely Drescher herself) drew the line at fatness. Instead, oversized bodies are to be feared or laughed at, and at one point in the series, Drescher dons a fat suit. In spite of this, Drescher’s charisma and comedic talent cement Fran Fine’s place in the television canon, as a lead who manages to subvert and reinforce stereotypes — about women, Jewishness, and class. The Nanny is a worthwhile watch for the cast’s physical humor, charm, and laugh-out-loud antics. But if you don’t find yourself convinced by these plot asides, do consider watching it solely for the clothes.

The Nanny is streaming on HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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