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‘House of Cards’ costume designer says Claire Underwood is over pencil skirts

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Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in “House of Cards” Season 5.
(David Giesbrecht / WWD)

Claire Underwood has a new attitude — and therefore, wardrobe — on season 5 of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” The character, played by Robin Wright, has become known for her wide collection of pencil skirts and skirt suits, but according to costume designer Kemal Harris, she’s officially ditching her signature look in favor of a more “militaristic” one. (Note: spoilers may follow.)

“In season 5, Claire has finally gone through all these emotional roller coasters,” explains Harris. “She’s been the first lady, she’s stepped into this role at the end of season 4 as vice president. She’s always been a supporting role and it’s gotten her to where she is, but season 5 feels like she is ready for action.”

Harris joined the “House of Cards” cast in season 3 and exclusively handles designs for Robin Wright’s character. She has been Wright’s personal stylist since 2013, when the show first aired.

“Normally Claire is not a pants person at all,” Harris continues. “Season 3 she didn’t wear a single pair. Season 4 she wore pants symbolically the next morning after her mother’s passing — her mother was a traditional Southern Belle from a horse ranch family. Season 5, we were playing with tons of trousers, which was really fun because to be honest, there’s only so many pencil skirts that you can wear before you’re like, ‘Give me something new.’”

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Sketches of Claire Underwood’s costumes in “House of Cards” season 5.
Sketches of Claire Underwood’s costumes in “House of Cards” season 5.
(Kemal Harris / WWD)

Harris channeled Underwood’s new “militaristic energy” by incorporating necklines that are closer to the throat and adding details like gold buttons. “There’s a custom dress I did, the blue two-tone with a bunch of gold buttons that go from the top all the way to the bottom,” she says. “It felt protective in a way. I keep using the word ‘dictator’ even though that’s just Claire in her own mind when she looks in the mirror. She’s that whether everyone else quite fully understands it yet.”

Harris designs about one-third of the costumes herself and borrows another third from designer brands like Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and Armani. She buys the rest of the outfits from department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York, but makes sure she adds her own touches. “Everything is ‘Frankenstein’-ed in our own Claire way,” she says.

Though Underwood is channeling a more combative energy this season, it was important to Harris that she maintained her sex appeal. “One thing that Claire’s always done — and it says a lot about her character — is she’s always been very sexy, but completely covered up,” Harris says. “She uses her figure in a way to disarm and stun and surprise her enemies. Bringing in the pants, even though they’re pants, it’s not a dowdy pantsuit. These are still a tailored, long-leg pant. She wears them with a beautiful blouse or even with a turtleneck. These are new ways of her using her image to disarm or confuse her enemies because everything’s tailored within an inch of its life.”

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Season 5 of “House of Cards” is out now on Netflix.

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