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Why you should never judge a Survivor for their clothes

Why you should never judge a Survivor for their clothes
Ryan Ulrich, Devon Pinto, and Patrick Bolton in their color-coordinated, production-approved underwear during the second episode of Survivor 35. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

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.

What clothes can you wear on Survivor? Only what production allows you to wear—or in some cases, chooses for you.

The Survivor dress code is whatever the show’s producers think will illustrate who you are as a character.

One of many Survivor behind-the-scenes facts is that the clothing selection process happens in two stages:

  1. general requirements (i.e. certain colors, no logos, nothing that doesn’t photograph well)
  2. specific requests for each contestant, based on their character

Let’s break down how that works.

What Survivor allows—and prohibits—players to wear

Survivor 41's final eight players: Danny McCray, Shantel Smith, Xander Hastings, Liana Wallace, Deshawn Radden, Ricard Foye, Heather Aldret, and Erika Casupanan
Survivor 41’s final eight players: Danny McCray, Shantel Smith, Xander Hastings, Liana Wallace, Deshawn Radden, Ricard Foye, Heather Aldret, and Erika Casupanan (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

The fact that Survivor’s production controls contestants’ clothing is obvious on screen—tribe members typically wear similar shades of their tribe’s color, for example.

It was once even a story point, like in the premiere of Survivor: Pearl Islands, when the players were told they were having photos taken, and instead were stranded wearing their formal clothes.

The Survivor rule book specifically says that only “pre-approved” clothing is permitted.

Some types of clothes are prohibited. That includes the usual TV no-nos, like certain patterns or clothes with logos, either from brands or corporations.

Obvious brand names are prohibited for the same reason that logos are often blurred on reality TV shows. Of course, some logos do get approved, like Ethan Zohn’s Grassroot Soccer t-shirt.

Survivor players cannot wear quick-dry or waterproof clothes, nor can they add waterproofing to existing clothes.

Whether that’s “quick dry things, or waterproof things, or a windbreaker, they won’t allow it,” Survivor: Island of the Idols player Lauren Ashley Beck said in a TikTok video. “They want us to suffer.”

Lauren also said that someone tried to do that on her season. Producers:

…will check your clothing for waterproofing. … There’s like a waterproof spray that you can put on your clothes. This actually happened to somebody on my season; they got in huge trouble. I’m not gonna name names because I know how you girls like to tussle, but they got in trouble. They also tried to put a lining on the inside of their suit jacket.

Jeff got very upset and had a few choice words for said person; Jeff’s favorite word is the f-word.

Sometimes, producers allow players to bring clothes, such as bathing suits and athletic shoes, but holds on to them, and makes the decision about if and when the cast is allowed to actually wear those things.

How a Survivor player’s clothes are chosen

Survivor Cambodia Second Chance tribe swap
The clothes Survivor contestants wear is approved—and often chosen—by producers. (Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS)

The contract’s line about “pre-approved” clothing means that some Survivor players are essentially wearing costumes, even if they have to buy those themselves:

Max Dawson, a contestant on Survivor Worlds Apartexplained 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.”

In a different TikTok video, Lauren Ashley Beck pointed out how production’s wardrobe choices affect women differently:

“Wearing panties for 38 days straight? Yes, you do that.

Luckily, or unluckily, I got a UTI on, like, day 32, along with a couple of other women and they did have new underwear for us—but to throw in a little razzle-dazzle, they stepped on them in the dirt and then made us wear them, so.”

The Survivor players have doubles who wear the same clothes

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.

This story was updated in March 2022 with additional insight from former players.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how itโ€™s made and what it means.

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