Survivor cast members have to navigate a social game, physical challenges, and the elements. And they have to do it in clothes that they do not choose, and clothing that is judged by both their fellow contestants and viewers.
That Survivor’s production controls contestants’ clothing is obvious on screen—tribe members typically wear similar shades of their tribe’s color—and has been well-documented:
- The Survivor rule book specifically says that only “pre-approved” clothing is permitted.
- “Pre-approved” can also mean chosen for them: John Cochran never wore sweater vests until he was told to
- Similarly, a player who returned for Heroes vs. Villains, Candice Woodcock, told me, “they’re forcing me to have a sports bra. I’m wearing all pink; I don’t know why.”
While contestants pay for their own clothing, their clothes are so carefully controlled that they’re sometimes even chosen by production. In the case of bathing suits and athletic shoes, the production also holds some clothing and decides when the cast is allowed to actually wear it.
A Survivor discusses clothing rules and wardrobe
The Survivor clothing selection process happens in two stages:
- general requirements (i.e. certain colors, no logos, nothing that doesn’t photograph well)
- specific requests for each contestant
Although they are essentially told what to wear, contestants pay for their own clothing.
Max Dawson, a contestant on Survivor Worlds Apart, just explained how this worked in a Reddit comment:
“They can be very specific, to the point of sending you to a specific store with photos of the items they want you to bring. In general, we are provided with color guidelines (for white collar it was yellow, beige, khaki, grey); prohibited items (quick dry athletic wear, zip-off pants/shorts combos, busy patterns, logos, white shirts, etc.); and the basic instructions to wear clothes that represent our walks of life. Beyond that, our individual casting associates give us more precise requirements corresponding to the role we’ve been cast to play – eg, conservative business attire, funky alt-girl, All-American hero, etc. Some people go back and forth with casting for weeks trying to dial in wardrobe. Others send in one outfit and are done with it. Still others arrive on location and are given clothes they’ve never seen before, and that they never would have picked out themselves.
The takeaway: don’t judge castaways for their wardrobe choices, as they often are not their wardrobe choices.”
Despite that, clothes can be used as a story point, Max pointed out:
“Think about it for a sec. They specify you have to wear tight revealing underwear. They don’t give you your bathing suit. Then they ask your tribemates leading questions about the underwear they made you wear. Then they make it seem like you got voted out for walking around with your junk on display. Seems like a shitty deal to me.”
Responding to a comment about Vytas’ patterned boxer briefs, he said:
“I know for a fact that was a specific demand by production. Both Vytas and I had more sedate boxer briefs rejected during wardrobe for 31 and were told to send in something with a fun pattern. Considering how this worked out for Vytas I look back on this as having been something of a setup.”
Dream Team doubles dress like the Survivor contestants
Clothing also comes into play in another way: Each contestant, and Jeff Probst, have doubles.
They’re members of the Dream Team who dress like them and reenact challenges to allow for helicopter shots. That’s why you see aerial shots of the contestants but never hear a helicopter. It’s also why Jeff Probst sometimes changes body shape and size when you see him from above.
The Survivor call sheets published years ago show the times allotted for “2nd unit” and “Cineflex,” a brand name for a stabilized camera that hangs off the helicopter. (“2nd unit” is for b-roll footage, usually just the challenge demonstration, and “Cineflex” is aerial shots of the Dream Team stand-ins.)
When I was on location during an earlier season and during the first few days, I recall seeing call sheets directing the Dream Team to wardrobe for their contestant outfits. I’ve also learned that at least one contestant in recent years was asked to purchase two outfits, one for themselves and one for their Dream Team double, and production covered the cost of the second outfit.
All of this attention to detail, from color coordination to aerial shots of doubles during challenges, makes Survivor a better-looking, higher-quality show.
But with clothing selected to create characters, it’s not a reflection of reality or that person, nor their decision. Think about that before critiquing what a contestant is wearing.