How Theresa May inspired Claire Underwood's presidential style in the final series of House of Cards
The ascent of House of Cards' Claire Underwood - from environmental nonprofit manager, to First Lady, to ambassador, to Vice President - has been swift, even by television drama standards.
But for costume designer Kemal Harris, the quickly developing character has also demanded one of the most calculated, quickly-changing power wardrobes on Netflix; for every new role Underwood [played by actress Robin Wright] takes on, she needs the clothes to match.
In the sixth and final series of the award-winning show, which is released on 2nd November, Underwood has reached the top. She’s the first female President of the United States, a role that, for the first time, Harris had no real life point of reference for. “Instead I looked at all of our past Presidents, as well as other female world leaders and Prime Ministers,” she explains.
Britain’s Theresa May, made it onto her mood board. “I did love Theresa’s signature leopard print heels,” she laughs. “Something that I noticed on a few leaders is that they have a signature - for Claire it’s her Christian Louboutin red sole heels. Theresa, Angela Merkel, even Donald Trump, they put their job first and they mix and match their basic interchangeable suiting. The challenge for me was to get that right in a Claire aesthetic - in past seasons her style was sharp and glossy.”
Harris says that 80% of Claire’s final season wardrobe was designed by her and custom made, as opposed to sourced from designers and the high street.
“In the past I was able to get looks from the runway and I worked with designers like Armani and Dolce and Gabbana to borrow pieces from their archives,” she says. “But for this final season it wouldn’t have translated with the story. When you are a world leader you can’t be too flamboyant or too fashion-y, you need a utilitarian look that commands the respect of your peers but also gains the trust of the public. If Claire showed up in a fabulous Ralph Lauren gown, people would think she was too flashy and not trust what she was doing with their money.”
The overall aesthetic she says, is utilitarian and militaristic. “She’s gradually gotten more and more buttoned up as her jobs have got bigger - the collars are higher and the sleeves are always long. There are a lot of military button details and colours and a new detail we’ve added was Presidential cufflinks. Almost all of her jackets and dresses have a French cuff detail so that she can wear the cufflinks in every scene. They’re a replica - I got them from the actual White House gift shop.”
The icing on the cake of her new leadership look was a haircut. “When I was putting together my inspiration board I looked at pictures of women working in the Navy in World War II - these belted jackets and crisp uniforms, but also I noticed that their hair was in very slick sharp bobs. I showed it to Robin and we thought maybe it made sense for Claire’s look.”
After so many years shaping the image of a character who is an ultimate power dresser, what has Harris learnt about style? “The term power dressing is still weird to me,” she laughs. “My power thing is wearing the most comfortable shoes I can find so that I can get my day done. Ultimately I think it’s knowing your true self and knowing how to support your point via your image.”
What’s next after Claire Underwood? Something completely different, she thinks, a softer character, perhaps. Well she would struggle to find someone much tougher, wouldn’t she?