Tuesday 23 January 2018

The stylist behind House of Cards' Claire Underwood's new power wardrobe reveals her secrets

Claire Underwood, the First Lady in 'House of Cards', has become a style icon for working women. Alice Newbold chats to the stylist behind the look

First Lady: Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in Netflix series House of Cards.
First Lady: Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in Netflix series House of Cards.
Robin Wright in House of Cards
House of Cards
Niamh O'Neill coat
Arnotts dress
Louise Kennedy coat
Alex heels

There are a host of reasons Claire Underwood in House of Cards has become so iconic: her resoundingly anti-feminine commitment to Washington's dirty politics, her cut-throat comments (think: "I am willing to let your child wither and die inside you, if that's what it takes") and, undeniably, the fact her immaculate wardrobe generates palpable envy.

Featuring slick tailoring and a palette that rarely veers from grey, navy or black, the fictional First Lady's wardrobe has become a sounding board for working women starved of sartorial inspiration for their 9am-to-9pm routine.

And fans are in luck, because Claire, played by actress Robin Wright, is crucial to the new season which hit Netflix last week.

"There was a lot of drama at the end of season three because Claire essentially walks out on Frank," says Kemal Harris, the costume director responsible for creating Claire's look. "Everybody was left wondering what would happen next. Is she still the First Lady? Is she still in the White House? Claire is really front-and-centre in season four."

And that means a newly stocked wardrobe. Wright invited Harris, her personal stylist, to design her on-screen character's costumes last season. Together, they've taken care to reflect Claire's new status in what she wears.

Out of the White House and taking an independent turn, Claire's character goes back to her roots. With her marriage hanging by a thread, the First Lady leaves Washington for her wealthy family home in Dallas. As she strips down to get at what Harris dubs "the raw, real Claire", her outfits riff off a muted colour scheme of nude, beige and cream.

The contrasting piping on many of her blazer lapels might seem like a linear flourish, but is, in fact, Harris's design interpretation of Claire drawing a line and defining her boundaries to Francis.

Obsessing over this minutiae is what sets Claire's costumes apart from the other working women onscreen.

"I really nerd out over it," says Harris, who bases her initial costume choices on gut reaction. "I take a quiet moment to read the script, and feed off the emotion I get from Claire's character." If an image presents itself, Harris will sketch a piece to get the exact cut and colour.

Wright, too, is hands-on. Her role as director of certain episodes means she knows exactly how the light or angle will accentuate her character's tailoring.

For Harris, she can only wish for "more shots of Claire walking down the hallway", to show off the hours of painstaking pinning and tucking.

Of Claire's wardrobe, a third is custom-made, a third comes courtesy of designers and the remainder is bought from high-end department stores, such as Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman. Absolutely everything is tailored to Wright's frame on a mannequin built to her exact proportions.

While Harris has no trouble securing high-end brands for the show, she can also be credited for introducing smaller labels to the House of Cards audience. In the series, New York designers favoured by Michelle Obama such as Derek Lam and Joseph Altuzarra sit alongside Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Armani and Ralph Lauren, who created one of Claire's most talked-about dresses from last season: the silver gown she wore when hosting the state dinner for the Russian president.

A standout piece from the new series is an archive ivory Ralph Lauren dress with pleat detail around the neckline and full skirt. In episode two, when Claire has to decide between that and a black version, her mother offers some parental advice: "Don't wear ivory, even with your figure - it will accentuate all the wrong places." Of course, Claire wears the ivory.

Harris credits the ease with which Wright looks so alluringly immaculate as the reason behind the pin-up status of her character's power wardrobe.

"For the average working woman, it is really hard to feel put-together at all times of the day. Everyone is pulled in so many directions, but Claire makes this look so easy," explains Harris.

"What works for Claire is that she knows what makes her feel powerful: a pencil skirt, heels, blazer and a blouse."

So what lessons can women take from Claire Underwood's style?

"Find out what makes you feel strong and adapt it to your environment," says Harris. "This might be a pair of well-cut trousers and a polo neck, but you can buy the best cashmere polo neck you can afford. By accepting that what you feel strong in is your brand, you won't be another cookie-cutter person in a suit at work."

Would Claire ever dress to please Frank?

"I don't think anyone can tell Claire to do or change anything," says Harris. There was, however, a moment in the previous series when Claire changed her hair back to blonde, from dyed chocolate brown, after a poll suggested that voters preferred her with honey-coloured locks.

In the end, her ruthless dedication to winning will always triumph. So perhaps, the ultimate lesson from Claire's power-wardrobe is that old adage: dress for the job you want - not the job you've got. And wear Ralph Lauren to get it.

Get the Claire  Underwood look:

FLOTUS Underwood is a big fan of the body-skimming dress. Turn back the clocks five decades, and it was a statement look for former first lady and style icon, Jacqueline Kennedy. The tab details on this powder blue dress deliver a lovely vintage feel and a busy operator like Claire would appreciate the non-crease qualities of the textured crepe fabric used by the Goat brand. No surprise that this label was Victoria Beckham's favourite before she started designing her own clothes.

Arnotts dress

Shift dress, €590, Arnotts

Louise Kennedy coat

The 'Charlotte' coat from the Louise Kennedy SS16 collection, above, is pure Claire Underwood - sharp tailoring with a double-breasted silhouette which she loves, as evidenced from her show outfit. Claire loves her neutrals and this 'Blossom' fabric in gold brocade would showcase her trophy hairdo and blonde highlights.  

Niamh O'Neill coat

Brocade double-breasted coat, €1,495, Louise Kennedy

This ultra glam 'Karen' coat would photograph like a dream on our FLOTUS and the Claire Underwood character would appreciate the subtle message of the strong, statement belt.

Belted swing coat, €595, Niamh O'Neill

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Style Newsletter

Stay on top of the latest fashion, beauty and celeb gossip in our Style newsletter.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in this section