Rachel Brosnahan is a rising star known for her Emmy-nominated role as call girl Rachel Posner in Netflix's "House of Cards" and as Abby Isaacs, the polished wife of a scientist developing the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M., in the 1940s in WGN America's "Manhattan." She also happens to be the niece of fashion designer Kate Spade.
But don't assume that means she's into fashion. Brosnahan swears that she wasn't even aware of Spade's business until much later in life. A self-described tomboy, the 25-year-old gravitates to jeans and T-shirts, and spent her free time during childhood snowboarding and wrestling on the high school team.
"But I do know that one of Aunt Katie's influences was my fabulous grandmother, June, who always had a closet full of amazing shoes and scarves and handbags," she says. "Abby is actually a loose take on my grandmother. They share a similar style, a pulled-together presentation, and also a great resilience."'
The former wrestler doesn't seem so fashion-averse these days, clad in torn-up Citizens of Humanity skinny jeans with a gray T-shirt from Aritzia, Rag & Bone sneakers, a black Marc Jacobs handbag and Ray-Bans converted into "glasses glasses" with prescription lenses. Brosnahan was spotted in a Saint Laurent dress and suiting at the Cannes Film Festival and in a gown by Korean designer Lie Sang Bong, whom she met via her stylist Joshua Liebman, at the Emmys.
"I love Saint Laurent's menswear styles, how simple and classic they are, with an edge," she says. "I really love a good suit. And there are so many interesting ones out there right now, like the [Bouchra Jarrar couture suit] that Tatiana Maslany wore to the Emmys. On the opposite end, I love Marchesa. I'm obsessed with lace."
One thing Brosnahan says we will never see her wearing are 5-inch heels; on the flip side, her character Abby would never be caught donning trousers.
"I don't think Abby's ever worn a pair of trousers," she says. "Not once. But we'll see. Maybe we can get her into some in Season 3." (Which tells you right away not to expect trousers in Season 2, which begins Tuesday.)
Fashion plays a key role in mirroring how Abby's character evolves in "Manhattan."
"Abby's desire for her previous life is reflected in her clothes," Brosnahan says. "She loves fashion, and Los Alamos is not a place for that, but she feels the most herself when she's done-up like she was prior to getting there. In Season 2, she's becoming more comfortable with not being completely done-up all the time. There are a couple scenes where she doesn't have any makeup on and she hasn't really done her hair because she's tired and that's OK.... Clothes are starting to miss buttons and to show wear and tear."
"We really used color in the beginning and then we started fading the color away," adds "Manhattan" costume designer Alonzo Wilson, who was responsible for more than 400 costumes per episode (which he designed or sourced from costume houses and vintage shops in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M. "If you look at Abby's first house dresses, they are very floral-y and colorful and then the flowers become grayer and muted. And her journey goes that way.... Season 2 is called 'The Fallout' and there is a part of Abby that shifts to a more functional way of moving through that world in her clothes. She becomes way less interested in dressing."
"Abby's the first character I've ever played who really has an interest in fashion and who thinks about what she puts on in the morning," Brosnahan says. "One of my favorite Abby outfits is the one she wears on the train scene in Season 1, the blue dress with two buttons up by the collarbone and this fantastic blue hat that makes me feel like Princess Kate. I love it. And they made the whole thing from scratch in about 48 hours."
Unlike Abby's full-on makeup look, which includes period-appropriate matchy-matchy lipstick and nail lacquer, Brosnahan's down-to-earth beauty regimen off camera focuses on Caudalie skin care products and ChapStick.
"I don't wear makeup in my real life," she says. "I don't know how to do my own makeup, so I don't use it. I don't really own any. And I don't wear fragrance. It gives me a headache. Au naturel."
If there were a hypothetical Rachel Brosnahan fragrance, she says it would smell like soap.
"I love the smell of clean laundry," she adds. "If I could smell like that all the time, I'd go with it."