In 'House of Cards,' clothes make the Underwoods

Johanna Argan of 'House of Cards' creates costumes that are veritable suits of armor

(Handout photo )
September 15, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The conniving politician at the center of the Netflix drama "House of Cards" is named Frank, but he's anything but honest, forthright and direct. His wife was christened Claire — an ironic choice for a woman who always has an ulterior motive.

Even the couple's surname, "Underwood," hints at their hypocrisy by echoing "underhanded."

It's costume designer Johanna Argan's job to subliminally convey that duplicity to the audience through the clothes the characters wear.

"The other characters think they're getting one thing from Frank and Claire," Argan said in a phone interview. "But all the time, the Underwoods have a hidden agenda. It's very two different sides that the audience sees."

So far, the first two seasons of the drama have been a kind of modern update of "Macbeth," set in Washington, D.C., instead of 11th-century Scotland. By the end of season two, the power couple has conspired to knock off the king (in this case, the fictitious U.S. President Garrett Walker) and are about to ascend the throne.

There are times when the plot adheres with remarkable fidelity to Shakespeare's play. There's even a reference to the famous and horrifying speech in which Lady Macbeth declares that she would dash out her baby's brains to further her political ambitions. Instead, Claire threatens to let a former employee's unborn child "wither away inside you" by withholding life-saving medicine unless the mother-to-be drops a wrongful-termination lawsuit.

"House of Cards'" creator Beau Willimon and director David Fincher specified a design scheme in keeping with the drama's chilled-to-the-bone emotional atmosphere.

"We adhere to a very strict color palette," Argan said.

"Claire wears only black, gray, blue and navy. You'll never see anyone wearing red. Mr. Fincher has a very distinct style. He shoots dark against light, and that's kind of the opposite of what most people do."

These are characters who see the world perpetually in a monotone of beige and gray. The plot is filled with highly charged events, but none provide an emotional jolt to the couple. They never express either great sadness or joy.

The design tells viewers that not only are Frank and Claire morally compromised, but they're probably also depressed.

"They keep everything between the two of them," Argan said, "and even then, they have secrets from each other."

It's also no surprise then, that Argan, who joined the cable drama in the second season, plays with the notion in the back of her mind of chain mail and breastplates when she's designing clothes for the actress Robin Wright, who portrays Claire, and actor Kevin Spacey, who stars as Frank.

"Everything the Underwoods do is very Shakespearean," Argan said. "Everything they do, say and wear is very controlled and thought out."

For Claire Underwood, Argan opted for an ultra-refined look, from simple sheath dresses to crisp blouses to pencil skirts with a knee-length hem. Because Claire is supremely conscious of the message she's sending to Washington insiders and the public, she combines designer attire with off-the-rack items: a short and structured Dior jacket with a skirt from Theory or Anthropologie.

"The lines of her clothing are very structured and very tailored," Argan said. "The best way I can describe it is that Claire's look is very finished, down to the last detail. Nothing is left to chance."

Claire plays everything close to the vest, so Argan cuts the actress' clothes close to her body.

"You have a hint of Robin's neck, and you can see a little bit of her collarbone, but we don't show a lot of skin," Argan said. "For the most part, Claire is buttoned up. There's the whole feeling that her clothes are her armor."

Argan strives to maintain the integrity of the look originated by Tom Broecker, who designed the costumes for the first season.

But even the subtle details that Argan has added on her own, such as shortening Claire's sleeves from full-length to three-quarters, or adding a kick pleat to her pencil skirts, convey a message of power and determination. As the race begins in earnest, Claire rolls up her sleeves and kicks off from the starting block.

Argan's clothing choices for Spacey communicate a similar focus. She said that in the first season, Frank wore boxy English suits in homage to the British series that inspired the American version of "House of Cards."

In the second season, the suits became more tailored. Frank's lapels became narrower, and his collars and ties are slightly slimmer. Mirroring the rise of Frank's political fortunes, his suits graduated from Ralph Lauren to the even more upscale Burberry.

But political observers may notice subtle signs in Frank's wardrobe that the former majority whip turned vice president turned commander in chief is playing by his own rules.

"If you do your research, you'll hardly ever see Mr. Obama or any of the past presidents wear anything other than a white shirt or a baby blue shirt when they're addressing the nation," Argan said. "Their ties are always blue or burgundy or red and blue.

"But Frank is a maverick, so we didn't go that route. He has a gray tie that he wears. I'll put him in a striped shirt."

The most telling detail about Frank's attire might be the one that isn't there. President Walker follows the law and the U.S. Constitution, so that detail is a fixture in his wardrobe, as it is for many members of Congress.

"We talked about whether Frank should wear a flag pin," Argan said. "The producers and Kevin decided against it.

"Frank Underwood goes his own way."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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