When you think back on everything that you’ve watched on television in 2018, are there any emerging themes that comes to mind? So often, we see our real-life interests reflected back at us on screen (all those royal references in entertainment right now.) Other times, they’ll offer us a glimpse of an alternate reality, one not too far off from what we know—like how, in 2018, more shows envisioned what a female U.S. president might look like.
After a landmark year for women not only running for political office in the U.S., but also winning elections, this subject was more prescient than ever. The memory of Hillary Clinton’s loss was still fresh—and though she was certainly not the first to run for the highest political office in the land (Shirley Chisholm did so in 1972, as did Victoria Woodhull a full century before her), she broke new ground as the first female candidate nominated by a major party and as winner of the popular vote. Globally, there are and have been plenty examples of women leading countries, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to British Prime Minister Theresa May. And what we’ve seen for them and female political leaders stateside is that, unlike their male counterparts (save for the time Barack Obama donned a khaki suit on Easter), their wardrobes play a significant role in the public’s perception of them and their performance. We may not have had a female POTUS yet, but we can imagine what kind of scrutiny she would face for her fashion choices.
In 2018, we’ve seen various interpretations of how this would play out—and how she would dress—on television. On the sixth and final season of Netflix’s House of Cards, Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright) has settled into the role of POTUS, after her husband, Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), was killed off—a result of the actor’s firing following allegations of sexual abuse. The role is a significant change for the Underwood matriarch: She was Vice President in season five, but this new position bestows her with more power and as much force and fire as ever. It also gives viewers a sense of what politics might look like in the U.S. if a woman was in charge. Yes, that means a lot of suits.
“We knew Claire was going to be president at the end of season five, so I immediately started researching past and present world leaders, both men and women,” says Kemal Harris, who has dressed the character since the show’s third season and also styles actress Wright in real life. She looked at what White House employees would wear day in, day out, to inform what President Claire Underwood’s “everyday suit” would look like: “It was still form-fitting, with easy pieces like a suit jacket and skirt or pants and dresses, but with militaristic details, like gold buttons.”
“Whereas in the past we’d go for three-quarter sleeves, I went for a higher neckline and longer sleeves,” Harris continues. “This season, she’s ready for battle.”
President Underwood takes the classic suiting look, but wears it in her own way: tailored to uplift and showcase the female form, accented with those military-esque elements that reflect the battle for power that she would have to wage, and very high-fashion for a highly-visible leader (though never in a way that detracts from her purpose.) These aren’t simply pantsuits—they’re sartorial weapons, used to convey power, but also to persuade.
“For Claire, it’s always been about power, control, trust, trying to win everyone over to her side,” Harris adds. “She wants to be streamlined and unfussy and her wardrobe really reflects that.”
This is but the latest as-seen-on-TV female POTUS wardrobe: Underwood joins Homeland’s President Elizabeth Keane and Scandal’s President Mellie Grant, which have paved the fictional landscape before her. And viewers will recognize a lot of the same sartorial references on House of Cards as they saw on Homeland and on Scandal.
To outfit President Keane, costume designer Katina Le Kerr says that, like Harris, she looked at the clothing of current politicians, as well as that of female leaders from different industries— “community leaders across the country, Washington D.C. pros, international leaders, and Fortune 500 CEOs”—throughout history. “I studied which women wore pant suits, which wore skirt suits,” she recalls.
Lyn Paolo, who was responsible for all things fashion on Scandal, focused on transitioning Mellie from First Lady to President Grant, much like Underwood and Harris are doing now: “We went from a lot of dresses with shrug cardigans to more of a suited look with a jacket and a dress combination,” she explains. “After her election win—and once she stood on the Seal of the US, in her Oval Office—we made a transition to a pantsuit.”
When it comes to mimicking a presidential wardrobe, it’s about the small but consequential details that ensure the costumes read as authentic. “One thing I noticed about all of the past presidents and leaders is that they never carry a briefcase and you never see them with their roller bag,” Harris says. “Women in positions of political leadership don’t carry handbags, so I made a conscious decision to go without handbags for Claire in season six. She’s the president—she’s got people to carry her ID and her lipstick for her now.”
Then, there were the cufflinks: “In the past, the White House has made special cufflinks for each President, and you can buy replicas at the White House gift shop. So I reached out to figure out what was up with these cufflinks, because they were so intriguing—I didn’t even know they existed.” The White House Gift Shop sent her a prototype of a cufflink that had the presidential seal, but hadn’t been customized for any past president, so they became Claire’s. “She’s wearing them in almost every scene for every outfit,” Harris adds.
But of all the items in their fictional closets, it’s the pantsuits that feel the most on the nose. For women in Washington, they’ve become a symbol of authority (thanks, in part, to Clinton and her penchant for suits of all kinds.) But the classic blazer-pant combo has gone from Capitol Hill to the red carpet in recent years, and is increasingly marketed by contemporary brands as a “power look” for shoppers who want to feel more in control. The language surrounding it can be complicated for some costume designers, though—as Le Kerr notes: “That word ‘power’ surfaces strangely, only when there’s a discussion about women wearing suits. When a man wears a suit, we don’t think of him wearing a ‘power’ suit—he’s just wearing a suit. The power is implied. With women having not had political power for so long…Well, someday we won’t be having these discussions.”
Still, Le Kerr believes that the pantsuit will continue to be the agreed-upon look of politicians, both male and female, both real and fictional. “Even if a woman has a certain style proclivity, the political arena isn’t the place to fully express it,” she says. “It’s an extension of the business world, where expressing personality takes the back seat to conveying intelligence, qualities of character, and leadership skills.”
Across all three characters, there’s a deliberate shunning of traditional “feminine” clothing, of the stuffy pencil skirts and pearl necklaces. That doesn’t mean femininity doesn’t play a role in imagining these women—in fact, it’s central to the way some of them communicate and assert their power. It’s just done in a much more subtle way.
“She has this kind of quiet sensuality about her, without ever being in your face—you’ll never see [her in] a plunging v-neck or a mini skirt,” Harris says of Underwood. “We’re showing this disarming strength through her wardrobe without ever having to flash it in your face… That’s one of the ways Claire manipulates people around her.”
President Keane, on the other hand, was “a woman in a dark suit with very little time to stand in front of her closet wondering what she was going to wear,” according to Le Kerr. “Her wardrobe didn’t evolve—that was my intent. We dropped into a slice of this woman’s life and focused on her words and actions.” Harris also made an effort to make President Underwood an outfit repeater “because she’s a world leader now and it would look conspicuous if she showed up in a brand-new fancy suit everywhere she goes.”
This strategy is more reflective of how we imagine past (male) presidents’ approach to their wardrobe. It’s a double standard that Michelle Obama has talked about. “[Keane’s] costumes weren’t flashy, but that was the goal,”Le Kerr adds; her wardrobe was to be “believable and powerful.”
The conversation about how women in politics use their wardrobe is top of mind as a new class of Congresspeople are sworn in this January. For so many of them, how they dress speaks to their identity—like Ilhan Omar, who wears a hijab and was one of two Muslim women elected to the House of Representatives in November. It’ll also continue to play out on the small screen: The reigns of Presidents Grant, Keane, and Underwood are now over (for now—you can’t rule out a reboot), but a new female leader will be coming to Netflix, as Jennifer Aniston and Tig Notaro have signed on to play POTUS and FLOTUS , respectively, in the forthcoming movie First Ladies.
Though we know women lead and lead well whether they’re in a suit or a pair of sweats, the more we speak our power into existence, the more it will come to fruition. Here’s to more women leaders everywhere—no matter what they’re wearing.