Forget about those drab, boxy business suits, the powerful female characters on today’s D.C.-set TV shows are wearing figure-flattering dresses, experimenting with bold colors and patterns, and even (gasp!) going sleeveless. And they all have Michelle Obama to thank.
The first lady hasn’t just changed the fashion landscape in our nation’s capital, she’s changed the way fictional Washingtonians look on the small screen.
“[Mrs. Obama] has made D.C. a little more feminine and much more modern,” explains Veep wardrobe designer Kathleen Felix Hager, who dresses Vice President Selina Meyers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) on the HBO series. “She took risks.”
“She did inspire us. There’s no doubt about that,” says Scandal designer Lyn Paolo, who pitched her vision of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) to ABC execs with an “anti-inspiration” vision board featuring practically every real-life D.C. power woman except Obama. “No disrespect, but I don’t think there are that many women in politics today that dress like Olivia Pope. They all wear red, white, and blue—all the time. Thank God Mrs. Obama is changing that.”
After taking over the wardrobe department on the Netflix series House of Cards, Johanna Argan also realized that when it comes to everyday dressing in Washington, unless you’re talking about FLOTUS, real-life inspirations are hard to come by. “I looked [at] women in power positions — in corporate America and in D.C., [but] there weren’t any specific women that stood out,” says Argan, who is responsible for Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) closet. “I used Mrs. Obama [as a reference] because she’s the most fashion-forward example of what we see right now.”
Read on for more on how Michelle Obama has influenced the costume design on Veep, House of Cards, and Scandal.
Up in Arms
Costume designer Lyn Paolo says Olivia Pope is her own person with her own unique sense of style, but acknowledges that the first lady played a big part in the development of the character’s aesthetic. “I was disgruntled by the whole reaction to Mrs. Obama showing her bare arms in her first official portrait, so that’s been one of my favorite things to do on the show — to show Olivia’s arms,” Paolo explains. The major style difference between the two women; “Mrs. Obama is a lot more casual than Olivia, except when she’s going to a beautiful gala or some kind of ball.” The Jean Fares Couture gown worn by the Scandal character in season 2 is reminiscent of the strapless metallic Naeem Khan number Mrs. Obama wore to a state dinner in 2009.
Brighter Days Ahead
Kathleen Felix Hager took over the wardrobe department on Veep for season 3, just in time to give Selina Meyers an updated look that’s more appropriate for the Oval Office. “Mrs. Obama use of color was an inspiration for us,” she says of Michelle Obama’s bright ensembles, which influenced the decision to put the character in pieces like the color-blocked tweed Victoria Beckham dress seen above. “We started looking for things that were powerful yet feminine, but still had a sleek, modern edge to them. We wanted to make her the modern Washington woman.”
“Michelle added elegance, style, and tastefulness [to Washington]. In a conservative, male-dominated world, you want to keep your femininity. That’s what I try to do with Claire,” says House of Cards costume designer Johanna Argan. In season 2, audiences can expect to see Claire’s signature Banana Republic, Theory, and Burberry separates, but Argan hints she has made one change to the character’s look. “This season the power suit is ubiquitous and you’ll see why as the story evolves. It’s about the struggle for power and what people will do to get it.”
See more of the inspirations behind the looks of TV’s most powerful Washingtonians and more stylish movies and TV shows in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now.