What do Carrie Bradshaw, Blair Waldorf and Joan Holloway have in common? Lynchpin roles in hit television shows? Edge-of-your-seat storylines? Biting one-liners? All true enough, but what really unites these characters is less what they do, and more what they wear. In recent years, TV drama has become a visual fashion feast and, it would seem, we're desperate to get in on the action. Ask your average fashion devotee to list her all-time style icons and you can bet at least one fictitious character will make the top five.
Of course, what we watch has inspired our wardrobes for as long as we've been able to queue at the local cinema. The likes of Chanel, Vionnet and Schiaparelli were quick to recognise in the 1920s and 1930s that Hollywood's silver-screen was instrumental in providing the world with their latest looks. Nowadays, it's the relationship between fashion and the small screen that is setting our wardrobe agenda. And we don't even have to leave the house. In recent months, stylish couch potatoes have been treated to an array of goods inspired by hit TV shows, not the catwalks. There's the official Mad Men suit from Brooks Brothers and True Blood jewellery, resplendent with ruby "blood" drops. Meanwhile Anna Sui has provided shoppers at the US store Target with a Gossip Girl collection, outfits suitably preppy for each of its privileged teen characters. Even Sex and the City, long departed from our screens, retains its fashion clout. HBO has just launched new SATC ballet pumps - exactly, we're told, what Carrie and company would wear after a night on the tiles.
And it is not just licensed lines direct from the shows. If a fashion brand has one of its creations featured in a TV hit, the impact on its bank balance can be phenomenal. Sex and the City provided a seminal moment in the relationship between fashion and television, with savvy product placement making everything from Manolo Blahnik shoes to Krispy Kreme doughnuts internationally recognisable brand names.
Alice Leeburn, the media and style editor at the online trend forecaster WGSN, points to a Valentino Shining Flower Tux 360 Tote recently featured in the storyline of Gossip Girl: "The blogs went crazy for this, and no doubt Valentino were hoping for a slice of the younger market with this product placement, being quite a traditional, luxury brand beloved of a more mature market." But while the rise of the television catwalk seems unstoppable, the traditional catwalk is having a tough time. Recent seasons have seen the Big Four fashion weeks criticised for being too out of touch and elitist. After all, in these days of fast-fashion, waiting six months for clothes to make their way from catwalk to store feels a little backward - as does the notion that catwalk shows should happen behind closed doors. Burberry and Louis Vuitton's live-streamed spring/summer 2010 shows remain the exception, not the rule.
The Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant is in no doubt that access to a wider audience is the key: "I think it's simply because there is a broader base of people that watch TV than look at what's going on in the catwalk. TV is more relevant." Udi Behr, the designer behind True Blood's jewellery line, agrees that a hit television show is now incomparable in terms of its style penetration: "Seeing these entertainment/fashion icons every week in your living room makes us part of a culture that has the same interest. Millions of viewers naturally want to participate in that look and style."
The shows also exert unprecedented influence, says the film critic Jeffrey Lyons, because we're in the midst of a golden era for television drama. The likes of Mad Men succeed because they achieve a perfect marriage of beautiful design and gripping characters. "The demographic is expanded from those who watch it primarily for its fine writing and acting to those who also marvel at the 1960s corporate look," he says.
Television might have once been cast aside as film's popular but dim cousin, but it is now a perfectly acceptable point of cultural reference. Design heavyweights such as Miuccia Prada and Michael Kors have nodded to the Mad Men aesthetic in their recent catwalk forays. These shows create not just trends but style icons. Relatively unknown actors and actresses go on to wield huge influence as style icons thanks to the chic wardrobes of their fictional characters. For many, Sarah Jessica Parker is Carrie Bradshaw; Blake Lively and Leighton Meester are Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf.