'House of Cards' costumer talks Frank and Claire’s presidential makeover
(Warning: Major season two spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk.)
The Underwoods got major promotions in the second season finale of House of Cards. When we last saw them, President Walker (Michael Gill) had resigned—the result of some hard-core Underwood scheming, naturally—allowing Frank (Kevin Spacey) to assume the oval office, with Claire (Robin Wright) as his first lady. Though Frank and Claire spent much of season two in the White House—as vice president and second lady, respectively—their new positions come with new expectations, and that extends to appearances. Frank and Claire can’t just act the part. They have to look it.
Enter Johanna Argan, the show’s costume designer. Argan assumed her role last season, beginning with Chapter 20. (Note: Tom Broecker designed costumes for season one, and Gersha Phillips designed them for the first half of season two.) Argan, who is nominated for a Costume Designer Guild Award for Outstanding Contemporary Television Series, is the sole designer on season three, which debuts (officially) Feb. 27.
EW spoke with Argan about the Underwoods’ presidential promotion. Some things will stay the same, and some things will change—but either way, costumes will always reflect Frank and Claire’s political positions.
“They’ve achieved [their goals], but now they have to keep it,” Argan says. “They have to hold onto the power.” Which means Claire and Frank can’t let loose if they want to keep a grip on their positions. The name of the game, then, is maintenance—which is why you can expect much of the same for their season three costumes. Think dark, structured pieces for Frank and Claire as well as their political counterparts, outfits that stay in line with the strict House that Broecker built with director David Fincher in season one. In other words: Don’t expect to see sweatpants in the Oval Office anytime soon. (Although it’s funny to imagine, isn’t it?).
Frank and Claire will be damned if they’re caught in ill-fitted clothes. “Tailoring, tailoring, tailoring is key,” says Argan. “I think that’s what people are noticing.” It’s an extra, and necessary, step that makes Frank and Claire look truly professional. What’s more, Argan explained that the world of the politicians is cooler and harsher than that of journalists. “These are people who are doing things behind the scenes that are not the most savory,” Argan said. “I approach [costume design] like it’s their armor, their uniform.” Tailoring gives these characters a sharp edge, making them look professional, precise, and—when necessary—severe.
Burberry, Ralph Lauren, and Michael Kors are among the designers whose work will appear on the show this season, but there will also be much more custom design. “In the retail world, there is what there is,” Argan said. “I might be thinking ‘Oh, I need a black suit that has a little bit of a sheen, or a little bit of a heavier weight,’ or whatever, and it not be out. I just decided at this point, you know, he is the president. He would probably have 12 of these shirts custom done for him.” Argan took the same approach with Claire, who, as an example, had some vintage pieces replicated for her. Argan pointed to Michelle Obama’s inaugural gowns, which were both custom designed by Jason Wu, as real-life examples of custom design in the White House: “I tried to approach it like how this really happened.”
One of the most notable costume changes in season three doesn’t directly concern Frank and Claire. In fact, it’s the bodies—and costumes—of those around them that elevate their status. “The whole show, the whole scale of the show, has changed now that we’ve moved into the White House,” Argan said. She noted that Frank and Claire will each have their respective teams, and both will have secret service members appointed for security. Their presence and costumes combined help Frank and Claire fit into their new surroundings.
This new scale, of course, factors into the story. “Working with the story elements is where, in contemporary [costuming], you get to play with the clothing,” Argan said. “That’s how the clothing for House of Cards becomes part of the story, and helps tell the story.” Looking to season three, Argan couldn’t say much, but she did give a few vague hints: “We’ll be in the White House, we’ll be out of the White House…You’ll see her as the first lady. Him as the president. We’ll be doing a lot of things: a state dinner, introducing other countries, things like that.” Unless you were one of the handful to get a glimpse at season three when it leaked last week, you’ll have to wait and see what stories, exactly, the costumes will tell.
The 17th Costume Designer Guild Awards are being held tonight. For a full list of nominees, click here. Season three of House of Cards debuts on Netflix in full on February 27.
House of Cards (movie)