If you have not yet finished binge watching season 3 of House of Cards on Netflix, do NOT keep reading ahead!
When Robin Wright‘s personal stylist, Kemal Harris (pictured, far right), stepped on the set of House of Cards to outfit her client’s alter ego, she decided this First Lady would be anything but traditional.
There wouldn’t be pieces of Jackie, Nancy, or even Michelle sprinkled in Claire Underwood‘s clothes. Instead, the costume designer turned to the golden age of Hollywood for a more modern-yet-feminine inspiration.
Below, Kemal further explains in her own words how she constructed the heroine’s sophisticated White House wardrobe. Hint: it involves using color and full skirts!
(EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t yet checked out Kemal’s Instagram account, you’re missing out. She’s slowly identifying every single piece Claire wore and including backstories for all of them. In other words: JACKPOT for a site like mine!)
Old Hollywood starlets like Lauren Bacall (pictured in real life) and Katherine Hepburn (pictured in the movie Adam’s Rib) were Kemal’s inspiration for Claire’s First Lady wardrobe
ON SCREEN STYLE: When you were brought on board for season 3 where do you start your process? What was your inspiration?
KEMAL HARRIS: I did a lot of research. I’d been a fan of the show since season one. I had a really good understanding of Claire, and have worked with Robin for a couple of years. I know her body and what works and what doesn’t. I had a lot a long conversation with the executive producers. We figured we needed to approached Claire’s First Lady wardrobe a little bit more modern. I really had to start something new and fresh. I couldn’t look at Nancy Reagan, I couldn’t look at Jackie Kennedy, I couldn’t look at any past former ladies. Those styles just didn’t feel right for Claire. So, I actually started researching old Hollywood starlets during their time off. There’s a great picture of Lauren Bacall at the airport looking super chic. There’s pictures of Katherine Hepburn reading scripts in beautiful blouses and trousers. All of that was a jumping point for me for inspiration. Right around the time we were discussing the wardrobe concepts, Robin was watching classic films. One of them was Maltese Falcon. She sent me a screen capture from one of the scenes and was like, this is a pretty blouse! And I’m like, oh this is the perfect inspiration. It was a great jumping off point. From there I also watched the film Adam’s Rib with Katherine Heburn, and some of her courtroom scene outfits were inspiration. I put together a mood board based on these ideas. Everybody was on board.
OSS: What is about Claire Underwood that reminds you of old Hollywood?
The simplicity. Back then, they were very feminine but their outfits weren’t crazy and over the top. There was a lot of clean lines, a lot of solid, beautiful fabrics. The other thing is, her character arc for season, she shows a much more vulnerable, emotional side. We see a lot of emotions expressed that we haven’t seen from her before. So, I felt like I wanted a more feminine energy around her. I wanted softer colors, possibly a fuller skirts. That era of old Hollywood seemed to fit really well.
Kemal intentionally avoided black for most of season 3 and instead opted to dress Claire is rich colors
OSS: There was a distinct color palette you chose for Claire (deep purples, silver grey, white), why those colors?
The over all color palette for the show has always been very neutral. There’s really been no primary colors shown. You’ll notice that applies to everything from interior design to extras in the background. You’ll never see a bright, bright yellow or a bright, bright red. I had to stay true to that vision. We were able to bring in deep burgundy. There’s an icy, lilac color in the presidential portrait dress. The way they shoot the show, it’s very dark and moody, so even if I had her in a bright blue, it would still read as a dark navy, or sometimes black! I decided to explore more with colors, and plus reading the scripts in advance, and knowing the state was in for each scene, the colors made sense. For example,the scene where they’re having a big confrontation on Air Force One and I put her in a custom-designed two-pieced suit. I wanted some kind of fiery color for that scene because it’s a real face off between the two of them, but I couldn’t use red, so that’s the closest I could get was that deep burgundy.
I also used black very sparingly. She’s in a black dress when she’s told she has to dye her hair back to blonde. It’s sort of like a mourning. The black turtleneck at the end is very severe and protected. The final scene when she walks out on Francis, that outfit was sort of a nod back to season one and two. Much sharper, not as feminine, more protected, buttoned up, ready to get back into her fighting mode.
Claire’s neutral clothing palette in the final episodes illustrate her emotional state. “You can tell she’s start to unravel,” the costume designer said
OSS: It seemed like you reverted back to light and dark greys near the end of the season, was there a a reason for that?
Her arc for season 3 is very interesting. We start off, she’s the First Lady, she’s a little bit of arm candy. She’s very beautiful and doing her job and supporting Francis, But she’s like, we’re here, I’m in this situation with you, I want to leave my mark. That’s when she asks for the ambassadorship and joins the UN. She turns back into working Claire mode. The trip to Russia was a pivotal point. After that, Petrov demands her resignation, and she goes into a bit of a depression. That’s when you see more of the black colors. Then she just finally accepts, This is what it is. This is what I’m doing. She jumps on the campaign trail. For those scenes, the director was like, she’s been told she needs to be more approachable. She has to dye her hair back to blonde, so maybe the colors should be more neutral. It’s all tans, beiges, creams, but on camera it reads grey. When she’s sitting there reading the kids books, she’s playing the part, but you can tell she’s starting to unravel.
OSS: Did you change anything about her wardrobe when her hair changed to dark brown?
I think we had more of a hunter green dress that I made when she addresses the troops. You don’t really get a good view of the dress. It had a big, full skirt and a scarf neckline. So we did hunter green, the raspberry color. We brought in some stronger colors because she could pull it off with that hair.
After not finding a designer dress that matched her vision for the Underwood’s vow renewal ceremony, Kemal wound up sketching and creating the one Robin wore
OSS: You custom commissioned some looks from designers or created a lot of them yourself— why did you make that decision?
The wedding dress when they renewed their vows, I designed that and then had it made. Same with the presidential portrait dress [see image above]. I knew from the script, that she was going to have a reaction when he touched her shoulder, so I wanted something that would expose her shoulder, and that neckline is so flattering on her. The wedding dress— she looks so good in that soft, draped neck and the low v in the back. I just thought it was a classic statement. The script called for “a summer dress,” and I’m like, Claire wouldn’t wear a summer dress! So that was my Claire-version of a summer dress. I reached out to designers, but there wasn’t anything that was really feeling right. I just sketched it up, I have an amazing tailor here who has a bust form with all of Robin’s measurements. So we can create and sew all night long without her needing to be here for fittings.
The metallic gown Claire wears to the state dinner sums up her character in season 3. “Feminine and vulnerable,” Kemal said
OSS: Do you have a favorite look from season 3? One that symbolized season 3?
That Ralph Lauren gown was really epic. We never got to have a proper inauguration because Francis was sworn in during season 2. The state dinner was the closest we had to do that. That was such a fun moment for me because I love the Ralph Lauren people, and I’d had my eye on that gown for Robin for other things. We hadn’t used it for whatever reason. So, when I got the script and we read about the state dinner, I was like, this is it, we have to use this gown! It has the old Hollywood vibe, the color is beautiful, it fits amazing. She’s sexy, but totally covered up in front. There’s nothing crass. She can dance and play beer pong in it! It was a nice combination of what Claire is in season 3, which is still her strong, manipulative, smart, hard-working self, but feminine and vulnerable, and saying things she wouldn’t normally say.
OSS: What is Robin’s style like versus Claire’s style?
The only similarities that there are is that Robin, in real life, is very unfussy. She doesn’t want anything that’s too complicated. In real life Robin is really a tailored tomboy whereas Claire doesn’t only a pair of jeans.
OSS: Are you signed on for season 4?
There hasn’t been any contracts discussed for season 4. Me, personally not yet but fingers crossed!
***DON’T MISS MY FULL GUIDE TO WHAT CLAIRE WORE IN SEASON 3: ***
1. Chapter 27 & 28
2. Chapter 29 & 30
Plus, more coming soon!
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