Jazz Tangcay talks to costume designer Kemal Harris on creating the Presidential look of Claire Underwood in House of Cards.
In season six of Netflix’s House of Cards, Claire Underwood is now the President. I sat down with costume designer Kemal Harris to talk about how Underwood’s wardrobe evolved. Harris talks about her influences and the challenges of that final scene with a pregnant Underwood.
A new addition to the season was Diane Lane’s Annette, a character so different from Claire in style and demeanor. Harris describes working with the wardrobe department for her.
Claire is President this season. How did you approach her look now that she’s in total power?
She’s had such a fun character arc over the past seasons. I joined in season three and got to go through her being First Lady. In season four, she reconnects with her mom, and we got to see Horse Ranch Claire and we see murderous Claire in season five. All of that hard work and strategy has finally got her to her ultimate goal, and that is being President.
One thing that Claire has never strayed away from is her image and what she presents to the world and her extreme control over everything. From the minute she wakes up, to the minute she falls asleep, everything she does is controlled and contrived and has a reason. Her wardrobe is like that as well. That’s why earlier I was talking about Empress Masako because I was researching what leaders and past presidents – here have all been male, but Prime Ministers and female world leaders. I was trying to understand even more about what goes on in D.C.
The way female Presidents have been portrayed in film has always been – do they have to wear pantsuits to fit in with the boy’s club? Can they still be feminine? Can they still be taken seriously? Can they still hop on Air Force One? A lot of the scenes in the scripts we were receiving were about her being President and she doesn’t have time to run home and change.
What made sense to me was a female take on a suit. The outfit we use a lot in the advertising is the blue suit with a little Mao collar. It’s belted. It has long sleeves. It’s belted and has a skirt that matches. I was very much into that idea of a jacket over a skirt concept. Later in the season, when she gets pregnant, I was into the idea of a tunic over a pant. I got to play a lot with pants because Claire doesn’t wear a lot of pants. I think in season three when she was First Lady, we didn’t use one single pair of pants. That was exciting. I wanted to figure out something that was a little more utilitarian and something she’d wear every day.
One thing we’ve never done before was repeat outfits. It was a conscious effort. That’s something you do when you’re designing for a character, you have to treat them like they’re a real person. You think what they think. You see through their eyes. Claire has the money and taste to wear something different every day.
Her whole strategy being President was she wanted her colleagues to respect her and the public to like her. We consciously repeated outfits in the final season because she didn’t care. So, that was new.
The military details were starting to come in during season 5, but for season 6, the pictures that kept popping into my mood board were women in the military. Especially women in the Navy. They wore long skirts and they were polished. They still looked feminine but were still able to do the job. Those little military details came back.
I found her some cufflinks through the White House gift shop. The showrunners were wondering whether Claire was a flag pin woman? I wanted to find something unique to her because she’s such a jewelry minimalist. I felt it would interfere with the costume and that she was trying too hard.
We contacted the White House gift shop. We spoke about the Presidential seal cufflinks and the different variations of the cufflinks. The manager found a pair for me that were never produced and weren’t tied to one single Presidency. They had come into his possession around the Reagan era, but Reagan never wore them. They’re a little bit more demure and it worked so perfectly. It inspired me to French cuff almost all of her pieces. It was just that little nod to the boy’s club.
Annette Shepherd is the complete opposite. Not as put on.
Yes. I was only working with Claire, and we have amazing costume designers who work with the rest of the cast. When they announced Diane Lane would be joining the cast and because they’re so closely intertwined, the showrunner wanted to know if I wanted to take on her costumes.
She is the complete opposite of Claire. Claire comes from money and comes from a refined style and she’s not as flamboyant. Whereas, Annette is that WASP-Y, Kennedy era, but more fabulous than the Kennedy-era. It was really fun to play with her.
We used a lot of Gucci, Dolce and Victoria Beckham. We used anything that was a lot more feminine. For her, the neckline was always open and she was always showing a little bit more skin here. We’d layer on giant diamond baubles. She has a giant jewelry collection and she wears it all at once. She’s someone I imagine who gets old and shows up with a perfect face of makeup while drinking a cocktail. Her character was really fun to do.
How did you settle on the series finale and the blue outfit for her?
That was tricky because not only were we working with the prosthetic belly, we were working with blood. We were working with how many takes can we get and multiples. Robin is really strong and in great shape, but imagine having a constricting dress. You have this big, fake belly and you have to be able to get down on your knees and cradle poor Doug Stamper while blood is going all over you. It was definitely a collective team effort with all the departments. My choice was to have her in a Presidential blue but have her in a lighter tone so you can see the drama of all of that. That whole imagery is a little bit – Angel of death, mother, I don’t know what you want to call it, but it felt a little bit more motherly and angel-esque.
It was almost Michaelangelo-esque mother and child.
Yes. She’s so evil at the same time. We almost went white. I thought I’d regret it with the blood. She hadn’t worn too much white that season so it would just seem too literal. All of that tidied up nicely for me.
She’d been wearing greens and greys this season.
Yes. And a lot of blue.
Did you have a favorite outfit this season? I really loved the pinstripe.
That was a special one for me. When it all came together – almost all their pieces are custom made because everything in the stores and runways was too sportswear influenced and in neons. I had to create almost everything she wore. It just felt like what could be her equivalent to a Presidential suit that he gets to wear every day? I wanted something that stayed true to her femininity and sensuality. You still see the female form and she uses that to disarm her colleagues and opponents. This season though was really full sleeves, high collars and covered up.
Claire’s clothes are part of her strategy. She thinks consciously and makes those decisions. She doesn’t just dress for work and go home and change into sweats. You’d never not see her put together. She is always prepared for everything. She is the ultimate control freak.
She is not the jeans and sweats girl.
She is the best at projecting this image and it works for her. Everyone took her seriously. She was fighting for a lot that season and everyone turned against her. She had to put on that strong face and move forward.