Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in Netflix’s “House of Cards.”(Nathaniel E. Bell / AP)
Robin Wright models a black skirt and gray top in Season 3 of “House of Cards.”(David Giesbrecht / Netflix)
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in “House of Cards.”(David Giesbrecht / Netflix)
Robin Wright wears a knee-length charcoal skirt with an ivory top in Season 3 of “House of Cards.”(David Giesbrecht / Netflix)
One of Claire Underwood’s fashionable gowns on “House of Cards.”(David Giesbrecht / Netflix)
Who wears the pants in the Underwood marriage? Why, Frank does. But not because his wife is a wallflower. From the debut of the Netflix hit “House of Cards,” Claire Underwood has eschewed the power pantssuit in favor of something infinitely more potent: razor-sharp pencil skirts and sheath dresses that celebrate rather than camouflage the female form.
“It was a very conscious decision not to have Claire in pants,” explains Tom Broecker, costume designer on Season 1 of the drama, which returned for a third season Feb. 27. “I wanted her to be the equivalent of her husband — but the female version; to dispel the misperception that women have to look, act and dress like a man to compete in a man’s world.”
For decades, women have been downplaying their sexuality at work, in fear of not being taken seriously. Claire, on the other hand, doesn’t skirt the issue. “Dressing more masculine to show power is a dated concept,” says Johanna Argan, costume designer on seasons two and three. “I wanted to show the strength in Claire’s femininity.”
What Claire — whose brilliant portrayal by Robin Wright earned her a Golden Globe last year — does masterfully is tread a line that straddles authoritative and alluring. “There’s nothing sexier and more powerful than a woman who has confidence,” says Broecker, who brought his New York City tailor to the show’s Baltimore set to ensure that Claire’s clothing fit like a second skin. The result, says Broecker, “is a silhouette so strong it becomes sort of impenetrable, like body armor.”
Claire proves not only that “you don’t have to make yourself asexual to be taken seriously,” says Argan, but also that “a woman can be sexy without showing too much skin.” Case in point: the Ralph Lauren gown she wears to her first state dinner as first lady. “It’s never been Claire’s character to show cleavage,” says Kemal Harris, Wright’s personal stylist, who dressed her character in Season 3. “Claire’s covered from the neck down, but the back is exposed. She looks smoking hot without revealing anything risqué.”
In fact, the only hem that’s risen over the course of the show’s three seasons is that of Claire’s sleeve. “As her role evolved into the wife of the VP, she had to lose the sharp edges to be more relatable in her public appearances,” explains Argan of Claire’s Season 2 transition from director of her nonprofit Clean Water Initiative to political plus-one. “We added details like three-quarter-length sleeves, kick pleats, defined waists and lighter colors.” In the Season 2 finale, when Frank manipulates his way to the White House, Claire’s inaugural swearing-in ensemble of fit-and-flare Christian Dior coat is a deliberate ode to the label’s 1947 “New Look.”
The epoch is an interesting but not entirely surprising choice, says Harris, who was inspired by films such as “Adam’s Rib,” starring Katharine Hepburn, when creating Claire’s first lady look. “The women of that era were very strong,” says Harris. “The war had just ended, women had [tasted] independence, and they were trying to play with the big boys.” It’s a fitting metaphor for Claire, who was enjoying a rare truce on the political battlefield at the outset of Season 3. “Frank and Claire are now officially at the top,” says Harris. “All of that fighting and clawing has stopped for a moment, because they’ve arrived.” In tandem, silk pussycat bow blouses; jackets with rounder “puff” sleeves; longer, fuller skirts; and a color palette of lilacs, burgundies and hunter greens offer a respite to the muted, monotone world Claire usually inhabits.
(If you haven’t finished watching Season 3, there are spoilers ahead.)
The truce, however, proves short-lived. Having persuaded Frank to appoint her U.N. ambassador — telling him, “I’ve been in the passenger seat for decades, it’s time for me to get behind the wheel,” only to be fired (at the behest of the Russian president) and relegated to the role of chief pom-pom waver — Claire once again finds herself going to war. Only this time, it’s with her husband.
“All these years, I thought we were in this together,” she tells Frank in the Season 3 finale, when he arrives home from Iowa, smarting after giving a solo victory speech, to find his wife occupying his seat in the Oval Office. “This is not what I thought it would be,” says Claire. “It’s your office. You make the decisions.” In the moment when Frank snaps and tells Claire, “Without me, you are nothing,” he seals his fate.
The next morning, rather than join her husband on the campaign trail, Claire tells him she’s leaving. Frank’s initials may form the suggestive F.U., but Claire’s form that of C.U. — in the rearview mirror, that is. As she leaves her speechless husband in the dust, she’s wearing a second-skin Burberry dress and cropped Max Mara coat worthy of Season 1 Claire.
“Claire’s got her armor back on,” Harris says. “She’s done playing arm candy to the president.”
It’ll be interesting to see who really wears the pants in Season 4.