Claire Underwood, played by the incomparable Robin Wright, has long held my attention on House of Cards but it’s safe to say that as the White House’s newly-minted First Lady in season three, she is in a whole new stratosphere.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have become quite infatuated with the fashion worn by strong female characters on television lately. Whether it’s Australian shows like Offspring and Party Tricks, sartorial wonderlands like The Nanny (something I’ve only truly come to appreciate later in life), or those legal lionesses on Suits, there is some amazing storytelling being done in the world of contemporary tv costume design.
If I’m being completely honest, there is also some amazing online shopping being done in my house. Most nights I can be found stalking fashion credits after each episode, or even at the end of films (embarrassingly sometimes even just a trailer will set me off) hoping to glean insight as to how my favourite boss lady Jessica Pearson gets those sculptural shapes, or how mysterious time-traveller Adaline Bowman manages to get her hands on period-inspired designer garb in the new millenium.
Claire Underwood, played by the incomparable Robin Wright, has long held my attention on House of Cards but it’s safe to say that as the White House’s newly-minted First Lady in season three, she is in a whole new stratosphere. And now that Netflix has launched in Australia (finally!) the binge-watching (and fashion gorging) is set to begin.
Claire’s exciting change in fashion direction excitedly begins with a modern spin on the 1940s silhouette.
Those masculinely tailored blue and white Theory button-downs from previous seasons have been relegated to the back of Claire’s closet. In their place are silk Equipment shirts, sophisticated Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana pencil skirts, tailored Altuzarra blazers, Marc Jacobs pussy-cat blouses and sleek crepe dresses from the likes of Roland Mouret and Jason Wu.
Naturally, as America’s First Lady, Claire gravitates towards American designers like Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Jason Wu, The Row, Proenza Schouler and Derek Lam for her 60 wardrobe changes this season*. Other designers like Armani, Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Burberry also get a guernsey in her fabulously stocked closet.
“Gone is the power suit of seasons past,” says Kemal Harris, who joined the Netflix original series as Robin Wright’s costume designer for season three. “I wanted to show a little bit of her character’s vulnerability through her wardrobe, which I think we accomplished with softer colours, lighter materials, and fuller skirts.”
On the plot front, Claire, the closest on-screen fashion counterpart we have to Michelle Obama, may no longer be scheming her and Frank’s way to the top but that doesn’t mean she is content with merely being the new FLOTUS. Heck no. Faced with the prospect of her husband only being in office for another 18 months, she (spoiler alert!) lands a gig as US ambassador to the United Nations.
It means that in addition to dressing for charity luncheons and state political dinners (her silver silk Ralph Lauren gown is a definite standout), Claire must also dress for the new job, taking on Russian diplomats and engaging in classified military talks.
Harris estimates about one-third of Claire’s ensembles were custom-designed this season, including the lilac-blue dress Claire wears for the Presidential portrait. As Harris told US Instyle, the reason she chose to design it with a “boat-neck style” was so that some of Claire’s shoulder would be exposed; a shoulder that the President would rest his hand on in the portrait, and that Harris, with insight gleaned from early access to scripts, imagined Claire flinching away from. (“A literal cold shoulder.”)
What’s clear is that Claire’s wardrobe, built in a monochrome palette of greys, black, white, creams, navy and now a touch of burgundy too, is definitely used as its own kind of sexy body armour. Actress Robin Wright is the first to admit the clothing dictates the way she plays the character and stepping into that tight tailoring starts with one thing: lots and lots of shapewear.
“What’s tiring is being in the Spanx and the tight dresses – and I’m not kidding,” Wright told Irish Examiner. “You can’t breathe, and the dresses are so tight. I should get a corset, I just thought of that, that would be better.”
Spanx difficulties aside, Claire’s pin-sharp tailoring doesn’t just look good, it dictates her precise poise. It amplifies those icy daggers she shoots at those who threaten her. It shields the cool, calculating brain we see ticking away whenever Frank does something Claire doesn’t agree with… and we see it a lot this season. Her super-styling also adds considerable oomph to Frank’s ho hum image, with the President frequently acknowledging his wife is far more popular than he is.
Even Claire’s signature black jogging suits (Nike or Under Armour) are another tool at her disposal; skintight leggings and zip-ups that completely cover her up during midnight runs or on the running machine at home. The woman just makes you want to rethink everything you own and upgrade it for something with better tailoring, no matter how basic the garment is. (I know I wasn’t the only one rethinking my flanno pjs after seeing Claire’s gorgeous silk pyjamas from La Perla… one pair in white, one in black, of course.) And last but not least… that hair! That signature razor-sharp crop, which went from piecey to downright directional this season. Robin Wright’s hairstylist Paul Norton recently revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that her sophisticated “badass do” is actually an undercut. (Seriously, if that doesn’t seal her deal as trendiest FLOTUS EVER, I’m not sure what does.)
One of the most interesting and unusual parts of the costume design on this show has been the multitude of people behind it. The wardrobe department has been a rotating roster of creative brains, starting with the show’s director turned producer David Fincher, who set the mandate early on for a monochrome tone. Cast and crew say he simply doesn’t allow for busy distractions like prints or reds – not on set or in wardrobe – unless there is a very specific reason for doing so. This mantra was followed up by Emmy award-winning costume designer Tom Broecker on season one, who originated all of the cast’s looks, and won a Costume Designer’s Guild Award while doing so.
The idea was for Claire to look different from everybody else on the show, while having an “armoured, tailored, tight, nothing out of place feel”, Broecker told Elle last year. “On some level, too, we wanted her to be the female equivalent of Francis. To have as much power as Francis did.”
When Broecker left the show for season two, Kevin Spacey’s longtime stylist and frequent movie costumer Johanna Argan stepped up to the plate to make her television debut. (Argan still oversees the rest of the cast, including President Underwood.) Now in season three, Robin Wright has also brought in her own personal stylist – and costume design newbie – Kemal Harris to help create Claire Underwood’s vision as First Lady. Suffice to say, Harris has been nailing it.
As much as I love Kevin Spacey, who pretty much defined my ’90s film education with The Usual Suspects and LA Confidential, this show would be nothing without Robin Wright. And whether you love spotting all of her amazing designer labels on screen or not, you have to admit her character’s fashion is a powerful part of the story. (Even the First Lady’s hair colour gets studied in the show’s political polls.)
“There seems to be a template design that I find very matronly with the women of politics, in all countries,” Wright told Irish Examiner. “There’s a look that’s just not sexy. And I wanted to keep her classic, and sexy. We’re already getting old, why do you want to look like Grandma?”
Our favourite ice-queen is about to get a whole lot more womanly this season. And we will love her for it.
Want more from the Claire Underwood style files on House of Cards?
Follow costume designer Kemal Harris’ instagram account for the full lowdown!**
Here are some highlights straight from the horse’s mouth! I’ve love to hear some of your favourite Claire Underwood moments, let me know in the comments below!
“#claireunderwood sneaks a cigarette with Frank in the Oval Office. I styled her in a @marcjacobs blouse and a grey pinstripe skirt from Claire’s Season 2 closet.”
“#claireunderwood makes deals in the UN Delegates Lounge. I styled her in a @therow tweed jacket, a @dolcegabbana skirt and @prada heels. I shortened the sleeves on the jacket and added cuffs, removed buttons and stitched open the collar to create lapels and tailored the waist to be fitted and less square.”
“#robinwright directing on the set of #houseofcards season 3 wearing a @dereklamnyc turtleneck.” (Yes you read that correctly – Robin Wright actually directs two episodes in this season of House of Cards!)
“#claireunderwood catches up with Francis. I styled her in black silk @laperlalingerie pjs. Her glasses are by @moscotme”
* I’m not entirely sure how accurate the number 60 is… I read it online somewhere and am running with it. Suffice to say, Claire has many, many gorgeous ensembles in season three! UPDATED: costume designer Kemal Harris found me on Instagram to confirm that yes, there are 60 costume changes. Thanks Kemal!
** Shoutout to the On Screen Style blog for bringing this to my attention.
ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF NETFLIX.