Costume Design in House of Cards: Colour is Power


Over 13 episodes of House of Cards a lot happens to U.S. Representative Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and those caught in his web. Some are friends, some foes, but pretty much all, via Banana Republic or Armani, look flawless. Washington politics is a place defined by the energy of those working within it. These people are never just random, everything they say has meaning and everything they wear gives off a signal: powerful or weak, it is as simple as black or white.

Series costume designer Tom Broecker (30 Rock, Saturday Night Live) ensures the central characters follow a specific style of dress and colour palette. Talk is king on The Hill, but in House of Cards even more can be said without uttering a word. Frank’s wife and director of non-profit organisation CWI (Clean Water Initiative), Claire (Robin Wright) has the most telling wardrobe in this respect. A beautiful, athletic, angular woman, her body shape is flattered by a collection of suffocating sheath dresses, pencil skirts and club-collar shirts. Her colour scheme is practically always black, dark blue or grey. There are variations, no doubt to keep her character from seeming overly symbolic, but black in particular is Claire’s power colour. This is what she wears to get things done.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, Robin Wright as Claire Underwood and Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper. As a politician’s wife and businesswoman in her own right, Claire wears lots of simple but expensive dresses: Prada, Armani, Calvin Klein, but also Banana Republic for separates. Read more about her clothes HERE.

Black is so essential to Claire’s impenetrable exterior that Frank even suggests she wear it to entice her former lover, Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels). Frank chooses this colour over grey knowing it will read as more sensual and commanding. Later Claire wears a black slash-neck dress when she chooses to defy Frank and approach his adversary, lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) for capital. Claire even wears layered black and grey when out jogging. For Claire black is empowering. Stripping down to her two-piece underwear in front of Adam it is, of course, all black, as are her slips. Claire’s clothes fit like armour; constricting and arguably a size too small, they protect against attack. When ambitious journalist and Frank’s on-off lover Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) rifles through Claire’s wardrobe, she comments that her grey dress worn earlier to the CWI fundraiser is “like steel”. This is the figurative truth. Just consider how many times Claire actually loses her cool; she is almost impregnable.

As a literal contrast to Claire, Zoe’s power colour is white. In fact it functions beyond power to be lucky and comforting too. Zoe has little money and few clothes. She has one decent cocktail dress wheeled out on two occasions in which Frank, ever mindful of his surroundings, does not fail to notice. This skin tight sheath becomes part of the plot when Frank’s eyes catch Zoe’s posterior and he is papped by an eager photographer. Zoe uses the offending image to make contact with Frank but then fumbles their first meeting by wearing an obvious padded bra. Frank sees right through the rouse, as does Claire. “Do you think that ever works?” she comments “The push up bra and v-neck tee”. Nonetheless this white dress for better or worse puts Zoe in Frank’s life. Unlike a little black dress, however, its shelf life is limited. When Zoe has no choice but to wear it again at a fundraiser she is marked out as a spectator among players. She feels awkward and looks it.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes. Zoe’s army jacket is a specific reference to heiress turned terrorist Patty Hearst.

White is more triumphant for Zoe when she is offered the job as White House Correspondent at The Washington Herald while wearing a white blazer (something she seldom does). Although Zoe turns the job down, subsequent events project her career into the stratosphere. Later when coming to terms with what she has compromised to further this career, Zoe slips in a white t-shirt and climbs into bed with her former boss Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus). She displays vulnerability in this brief moment but it is difficult not to read Zoe’s every move as calculated, just like Frank and Claire. Zoe’s overall look feels natural and believable for someone on her wage. During the day she generally wears a green army jacket over layered shirts and t-shirts. This jacket was apparently chosen by two-episode director Joel Schumacher because he saw Zoe as “Patty Hearst…a fighter”. For television appearances Zoe chooses a smart, lightweight tweed jacket. Zoe understands clothes, even if she does not have the money to exploit them as effectively as Claire.

Frank is a more traditional dresser. He is not fussy, not quite so assigned to codes, but no less aware of dressing appropriately for his audience. When Frank travels to his old voting district to resolve a local matter he swaps dark blue and grey suits with cornflower blue and burgundy ties for tattersall shirts and brown brogues. He knows that a suit would alienate him back home, i.e. if you want to connect with the people you must dress like the people. This notion actually backfires when Frank meets with billionaire businessman Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) choosing to retain his blue suit and tie believing he is “representing the White House”. Being forced to trudge around a forest in a business suit bird-watching with Tusk it becomes evident Frank has misjudged his host and the situation as a whole. Another misstep for Frank is the blue pinstripe suit he intends to wear for his inauguration as Secretary of State. He is passed over, effectively kick-starting the show’s entire plot, but then chooses the same suit for a TV debate which turns out nearly as badly. Frank occasionally gets too cocky and too self aware for his own good.

Frank Underwood is a traditionalist, though not someone who grew up wearing expensive suits. Most of his tailoring is British in reference to the original BBC House of Cards television series.

Frank’s true self is most relaxed in shirt sleeves. This is when he does most of his rapid thinking. In fact he and Claire mirror each other one night at home sharing a cigarette; they are almost identically attired in near matching shirts and even sport a similar side-swept parting. Frank probably hates wearing a suit but he knows it is how the game is played in Washington. During some rare downtime while attending a function at his old military academy, Frank drinks heavily and sings songs with old friends. As their behaviour becomes rowdy, his clothing becomes dishevelled. At the end of the night Frank is completely relaxed in an un-tucked shirt, no jacket and no tie; so relaxed that he reminisces over a homosexual relationship with a close friend. Frank’s guard is only down temporarily as the following evening he is back in his suit ready to do battle. He may be willing to acknowledge his past but the future is all Frank really cares about.

Another character whose state of mind can be read by his dishevelled appearance is Pennsylvania Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). A tragic alcoholic manipulated and eventually betrayed by Frank, he hits rock bottom looking as if he landed there face first. When Peter sobers up and campaigns for governor in his home town he arrives in a modern, slim-fitting suit and promptly fails to relate to anyone. It is only by literally fighting his former friend and thus shattering the Washington exterior that Peter is able to reconnect with his old self. Then, comfortable in rolled-up shirt sleeves, with grit and resolve he persuades his old neighbourhood to support him again. Unfortunately Peter’s sobriety does not last and he falls off the wagon spectacularly. But really, how many people hit rock bottom looking their best? Disintegration of clothing is part of this process; we break inside and out.

Corey Stoll as Peter Russo. Peter is a wildcard full of misguided energy. Clothes reflect his position as the younger man in Washington, e.g. suit coats fitted across the midriff, shirts tight across the chest, trousers low rise and slim leg.

Like Russo, all secondary characters in House of Cards have their costume moment. This effect is subtler than the leads’, though still readable. Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt), the headhunted leader of grass-roots collective World Well is often seen wearing natural linens and cottons in earth colours. She dresses for who she is not her environment. Adam on the other hand is an affected photographer living in New York and almost only in black-on-black; he dresses for his environment. Adam is supposedly a ‘free spirit’, although in truth his appearance is just as controlled as those in Washington. Unlike Claire, black affords Adam no influence at all. Despite his handsomeness and successful career, he is unable to remove her hold over him. Black has different meanings depending on the context and the wearer. It may always be cool but it is not always powerful.

There are no arbitrary clothing choices in House of Cards. Colour, fit and fabric are principally chosen to illicit a response in others. Zoe’s white dress is an ironic assertion of her purity and works at getting her noticed. Claire’s steel grey sheath dress keeps her visible but protected. While Frank would never travel back home without first removing his tie. It is all about knowing your audience. In House of Cards you must dress with the mind of a politician even if you are not one.

House of Cards is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 10th June.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.