This year, I once again devoured House of Cards as if my life depended on it, and once again, I found myself being slowly hypnotized by the beauty, strength, and perfection of Claire, played by Robin Wright.
I don’t know if you’ve gotten into the series, but in a few words, Claire and her husband Frank Underwood are a couple with all-consuming presidential ambitions (says the girl who’s trying not to give too much away). In Season 3, Claire is a First Lady who’s suffering, and she’s absolutely fascinating.
The style in the show is just as good as the acting. Perfect on every level. Super sexy and powerful, completely suited to Claire’s beauty. It must be crazy to have a job where your appearance matters that much. I don’t think I’d be capable of having such high standards every single day. It makes me realize how relaxed we actually are in the fashion world, after all :)
I watched the series like I was watching a sublime fashion shoot, and I thought it would be great to select some of my favorite outfits – and to do an interview with Johanna Argan, the costume designer for House of Cards…
Tell me a little about your background in styling and costume design. How did you come to work on House of Cards?
I sort of fell into it, styling and costume designing. I was working as an assistant in fashion on the buying side for a popular NYC retail store and I met a ton of stylists who would come in and pull clothes for their clients. I, of course, got to know some of them and was intrigued by what they did. I had been wanting to leave my job for something creative and it so happened one of the stylists who came in was looking for an assistant. Cut to, I actually quit my job, and started working for the stylist and never looked back. And that’s how it all began, eventually transitioning to costume design.
As for how I came to become the costume designer for House of Cards, it’s actually luck met by opportunity. I had been on maternity leave, staying home with my infant daughter Estella when my agent called me saying HOC was looking for a new costume designer and she wanted to put me up for it. At first I had the mommy guilties and didn’t know if I was ready to go back to work and spend time away from my daughter. But then I was a fan girl of the show. It didn’t hurt that I already had a long working relationship with Kevin Spacey and I reached out to him and went through the interview process, eventually getting the job.
You are the force behind House of Cards’ incredible outfits! Describe the show’s style in 3 words.
Tailored, Minimal and Timeless.
What was the process in building Claire’s personal style? What was the inspiration?
First, it must be said that Tom Broecker did a wonderful job establishing the initial razor sharp lines of Claire Underwood’s season 1 look that has been maintained across the seasons. I would say the inspiration behind Claire’s style from its inception is very Lady MacBeth. She’s very controlled, revealing what she wants you to see. Her wardrobe reflects this.
How much does the script inform your styling choices? Do actors ever make suggestions for character’s wardrobe?
The script is the guide I use to bring the characters to life on screen, collaborating closely with the actors, directors and show runner to make it all come together.
When you’re given a script, how do you first approach outfits for that episode?
I start out each season trying to build a closet for all my characters. I usually get an outline for all the characters’ story lines, the overall plot and arc of the show, and we fine tune the wardrobe choices along the way based on the script details. Sometimes the actors have an idea in mind and we work together to help translate what they are trying to express through their wardrobe.
The small details, the accessories and personal items, how much thought and procedure goes into those? What are the items that Claire wears all the time?
Jewelry, in general, is very minimal. I like things to be timeless and not distracting. Frank and Claire have never worn a lot of accessories. It’s just a part of their overall aesthetic.
Do you think Claire and Frank naturally dress as they believe the President and his First Lady should, or are they constantly struggling to project the perfect image?
Everything and anything the Underwoods do is carefully calculated. Especially now that they are in the White House fighting to maintain control of their power.
Are Claire’s outfits, as First Lady, intended to be shown as those of her own choosing or is she dressed by a stylist?
In season 3 we do touch on the importance of Claire’s appearance to the public in the polls. We brought on Robin’s stylist, Kemal Harris, this season to do the First Lady’s looks. It just makes sense since our real-life FLOTUS Michelle Obama uses one herself.
The show’s tailoring is incredible, everything fits perfectly. How does this reflect Frank and Claire’s personality?
Tailoring, since the first season, has always been a very important part of the look of our show. The Underwoods, from the inception of the show, have always been plotting and calculating. They go to battle every day to get what they want. Their wardrobe is their armor, so to speak — tailored and fitted to protect their secrets.
How have audiences seen Claire’s style evolve over the seasons?
Claire’s style evolves from her season 1 private sector world of structured shirts, skirts and shift dresses into more suiting and appearance-appropriate dresses as she becomes a public figure, the wife of the Vice President in season 2. We added some subtle feminine details like kick pleats to the back of her skirts and raising her sleeves to show a hint of her wrists, a subtle ode to vintage Dior. The strongest representation of this is during the swearing in of Francis as President and her wearing an Akris A-line dress with raised sleeves and belt to accentuate the waist, with a Dior coat and leather gloves. It’s all about presentation with the Underwoods.
Claire seems to have a select range of colors in the wardrobe, is that intentional? And does she live by other fashion codes?
The color selection of the entire show was deliberate by our show’s originating director and producer David Fincher. He created a dark color palette to go with the show’s dark, moody tone. You see a lot of black, grey, navy, neutral earth tone and the darkest side of the jewel tones. Red and primary colors in general are a big no-no.
Are there any little flaws in Claire’s style that you intentionally leave in there?
No, as I mentioned, the Underwoods are very calculated in everything they do. They show you what they want you to see. It’s all very controlled.
Who are Claire’s favorite designers to wear?
We have used Ralph Lauren, Dior, Akris, Dolce and Gucci. If she existed beyond the show, I think Ralph Lauren would be a staple. Classic, strong and feminine all in one.
Claire’s haircut is such a big part of her character, how do you work on the beauty side?
Claire’s hair has definitely evolved from season to season. It really is the work of Robin and our Emmy award winning hair department head, Sean Flannigan. The sleek, minimal hair works well with her sharp, sophisticated wardrobe.
Do Frank and Claire dress to look good together?
There is definitely some thought put into what is being worn when Francis and Claire make public appearances together. Because the color palette is so specific, whatever I and Robin’s stylist choose generally works great together. If there are any specific choices one of us is making, we consult with each other, our show runner and directors to make sure it works for them as a couple and go from there. It really depends on the scene.
Of all the looks this season, which was your favorite?
I would have to say I loved how the Underwoods looked for Episode 3’s state dinner look. Sophisticated and regal.
How has your time working on House of Cards changed you as a costume designer and stylist? Has it pushed you in ways you hadn’t been pushed before?
Working on a show like House of Cards is really an opportunity of a lifetime. The Underwoods have really become a pop culture phenomena and Claire a fashion icon for the power woman. Since our show is contemporary it’s always challenging to evolve wardrobe and make things look fresh. I have definitely pushed myself to take risks and do more custom clothing for my characters to help distinguish and develop signature looks. To date, it really is the best job I’ve ever had.
Can you expand a little upon the custom clothing for the season?
I did a lot of suiting and shirting for the Frank Underwood character. Kevin and I discussed where we should go with Frank’s Presidential looks this season and we paid a subtle tribute to Bobby Kennedy’s shirt collars. Kevin’s shirt collars were a made a little longer and lapels on his suiting a hair wider than his season 2 Vice President look. It gave a nice balance to Kevin’s jawline and shoulders.
Our version of the power suit for the leader of the Free World. Fabrics chosen had subtle details, like a birds eye. It was a nice change from flat navy and grey suits that are traditional politician. But, as the show’s audience knows, there is nothing traditional about Frank Underwood… As for Claire, Robin’s stylist, Kemal, designed some beautiful custom pieces that worked so beautifully with Kevin’s suiting. Great examples of this are the episodes where they renew their vows and take their White House portrait.