Dressing the part: How ‘House of Cards’ tackles presidential style

Susannah Butter

Susannah Butter talks to the Netflix show's costume designer about Claire Underwood's evolving wardrobe

12 November 2018 11:48

The sixth series of House of Cards, which landed on Netflix at the beginning of the month, opens with Claire Underwood at her desk in the White House. She looks the part of President, in a suffragette purple silk shirt, fastened at the neck with a military-style gold button.

Claire is a master schemer, so it makes sense that everything about this outfit was calculated. From the cut of her shirt, down to her choice of shoes, she is dressed to reflect that she has entered a new stage in her life.

‘Claire has had quite a rollercoaster,’ says Kemal Harris, the costume designer who has dressed Claire since season three. ‘This is quite a transition – she’s finally arrived – and that is reflected in her style.’

Harris came to House of Cards through Robin Wright – they met when Harris styled Wright for the red carpet. This season, Harris also dressed Diane Lane’s character, Claire’s conniving school friend Annette Shepherd, while Jessica Wenger designs costumes for the rest of the cast.

As Claire’s character has evolved, Harris has made sure that it’s reflected in her appearance. She explains: ‘In Season two, she worked for a non-profit, so she wore preppy work wear, from Brooks Brothers, which is better than Banana Republic, but pretty standard. Then she became First Lady, so we got to take it up a notch.’

Claire wasn’t a First Lady in the mould of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. She’s icier. When Harris heard about her character, she thought of Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn, and styled Claire accordingly, giving her what she calls a ‘golden screen heroine look’.

In season four, she goes to the family ranch, ‘which meant a route of tweeds and riding boots, with a Ralph Lauren neutral colour palette.’ When there were hints that she could become president in season five, Harris conveyed that in her wardrobe. ‘There was a taste of possibilities to come, so I made her some custom pieces with Presidential touches – first came the gold buttons, which nod to the military.’

For this series, there were no female US Presidents from reality to look to. Harris is paving the way. Instead, she looked at what female CEOs wear, as well as other female leaders around the world.

‘I kept coming back to women in the military,’ she says. ‘That crispness of their uniforms, the belted silhouettes, and colours. Claire is finally in her dream job. Whether she realised it or not, she has been moving towards this goal for a long time, but now she’s there she has to battle to keep her position.’

As she faces death threats and political plotting, she dresses to protect herself. ‘That means high necklines, more utilitarian. It is not a time to be frivolous. When she was First Lady she could afford to experiment with colour. Now she is in daily battle.’ Crucially she never carries a handbag – it’s not what Presidents do.

Real-life Presidents have style trademarks, so Claire needed one too. Trump has his red ties, says Harris, adding that she ‘doesn’t want to give him any credit at all, fashion or otherwise’.

‘Lots of Presidents have signature cufflinks and you can buy replicas from White House gift shop. I called them, and they gave me a pair which were prototypes that no one had worn, so I gave them to Claire. I made her a lot of outfits with a French cuff added so she can wear the cufflinks. Even on Air Force One – which is usually when the President is at their most casual – George Bush wore his bomber jacket. She wears the cufflinks, with a crisp Michael Kors shirt and trousers.’

Claire presides over an all-female White House. Harris discussed whether that meant they should all be ‘mini versions of Claire’. ‘In the end, they did decide to tonally and stylistically match them in the general direction of Claire. Those characters respect Claire and want to fit in with her, so it would make sense for them to dress like her.’

There are more quotidian political concerns. Now she is President, in the public eye, Claire’s wardrobe is scrutinised, and wearing a different outfit every day is frowned upon. ‘She repeats more outfits now, which is new,’ says Harris. ‘It’s part of her trying to win the trust of the public and the respect of her peers, not looking like she always has new clothes. It’s a catch-22: politicians are in the public eye, where we are used to celebrity style, but if they look too flashy or well-dressed, you don’t trust them and wonder where they got their money.’

Did dressing Claire highlight any difficulties that ordinary women have in dressing for work?

‘You need that balance between being taken seriously in her role as a leader, but not just wearing a suit and tie to blend in with boys,’ says Harris. ‘Claire still looks feminine, there’s no doubt that it’s her and her aesthetic, but it’s bit stripped away and less of a fashion moment. There’s lots of presidential blue, bit of military green, blend of pencil skirts and trousers.’

It was difficult to find clothes that were both business-like and reflected who Claire is, so Harris ended up designing a lot of items herself. ‘She still has her personality, she is still Claire. That means always wearing perfectly tailored clothes.’

‘I like it when politicians express themselves. Hillary Clinton played with fashion in a fun way; the first thing I ever heard about Theresa May was that she wore leopard print heels. Go ahead have fun. Obama wore a tan khaki coloured suit, and everyone thought it was crazy.’

Where possible, Harris used crepe, which stretched to prevent wrinkling over 10-hour shoots, but still looked fitted. Robin Wright doesn’t like wearing anything constricting. Her favourite item was a black satin Céline trench coat. ‘It’s what she puts on at night when she’s up to no good, going around doing her deals,’ says Harris. ‘Robin said she needed that coat in her life.’

The shortest amount of time she had an outfit on was four days, and having two weeks was a luxury. Season three was a record – she designed more than 67 costumes for Claire. This time, anything she didn’t use for Claire was worn by Annette.

Harris’s favourite outfit is from season three. ‘It’s a silver Ralph Lauren gown from their runway collection. Claire wears it to a Russian state dinner. As a sheer fashion moment that was a favourite. But the pieces in this season are the epitome of the ultimate Claire: Claire the leader.’

The best of Claire, then, is yet to come. In this final series she has to prove herself as the first female President in the face of political plotting, fierce frenemies and Russian cyber criminals. If her previous form is a guide, she looks set to go out in style.