There have been many bizarre sights on Project Runway over the years. Like that time Blayne Walsh made an outfit out of beige granny panties, loose-fitting bondage straps and rainbow tulle in inopportune places. Or the Season 8 finale when fan favorite Mondo Guerra was beaten out by Gretchen Jones and her brown basics. Later still, there were the omnipotent eyebrows of both Josh McKinley and Alexander Pope, which demand to be seen and studied if you haven't already.
Watch: That Time 'Project Runway' Tried to Redesign the USPS Uniform
What is less frequently recalled, however, is that time in Season 1 when the final five contestants were tasked with redesigning the uniform of the United States Postal Service. To be clear, Kara, Jay, Robert, Wendy and Austin were not using the USPS uniform as mere inspiration for more fashionable designs—as would become standard in later seasons. They were literally supposed to design new, usable uniforms, after spending a day working as mail carriers.
As the 2004 episode still demonstrates, nothing inspires young designers like having to get up at 5:30am to deal with the stresses, strains and general rigmarole of getting people’s mail to them correctly. All while wearing “uncomfortable” polyester pants. (“They don’t breathe!” Kara exclaims.)
In an on-screen interview conducted after his USPS outing, an exasperated Jay declares of the delivery process: “There’s, like, keys and bags and doors and dogs. And reading is involved. And there’s mathematics. It’s more than you think it is.” (Earlier that day, on their mail run, Jay told Kara, “I know what I’m going to design—robots.”)
Aside from their brief foray into USPS work, the designers are guided by mail carrier Becky Negich from “Frank Sinatra’s post office” in Hoboken, New Jersey. “What we emphasize, or are looking for," Becky tells them, “is comfort and something easy to move around in. We are representing the Postal Service, so we do want to look nice, but definitely have great comfort.”
As the episode goes on to prove, “great comfort” can mean a great many things to a great many designers. For Wendy—already under fire for producing “matronly” designs—it means black orthopedic orderly shoes that send normally mild-mannered Tim Gunn into a near-meltdown. “It was being presented with this inconceivable shoe that was bringing it down to the most dowdy place it could possibly be,” Gunn despairs. “Please don’t defend the shoe to me!”
It’s all to little avail. The look Wendy ultimately sends down the runway is later described by Michael Kors—rather accurately, one must admit—as “farty.”
At the opposite end of the scale is Austin and his adorable 1950s ensemble consisting of fitted knee-length shorts, a cute sleeveless shirt and a powder blue rain cape and matching hat. “It’s kind of like Doris Day playing a postal worker,” Kors declares disdainfully at the runway. “It’s very costumey to me ...” (It’s a side note, but there’s a high probability that if this were any other season, Austin’s look would have won.)
Then comes Robert who—having unironically declared of his design day, “I would say the intensity is in the red zone”—emerges with an outfit best described as 1998 Raver Gets The Mail. With a flimsy collared T-shirt that looks thrifted, and wide pants that zip off at the knee, Robert’s take on modern mail carrier draws expressions of thinly veiled horror from all of the judges, including Hoboken Becky. “I think you didn’t put enough effort into it,” Nina Garcia deadpans.
At the top of the unfortunate uniform pile are Jay and Kara’s designs, both of which utilize multiple layers, turtlenecks, sleeveless vests and fetching hats. Jay gets points for his “metalicized” slacks and knee-high boots, but Kara wins with her drawstring pants, tool belt and ushanka hat, that the judges find "functional but very sexy.”
Looking back now at this, the eighth ever episode of Project Runway, is both a joy (FARTY!) and a weird time capsule. (At one point, Kors says, “Every woman I know, when you put pockets in their pants, they cut them out because they feel fat.” Could that possibly be true?!) But the entire episode was based in a reverence for the USPS that remains heartwarming and—especially given the 2020 hellscape we’re all currently trapped in—absolutely worth revisiting.
The USPS episode of Project Runway is currently streaming in full, over on Daily Motion.