A first lady who knows how to play her ‘Cards’

Claire Un­der­wood cuts a smart, sexy, strong fig­ure

Los Angeles Times - - IMAGE - By Claire Cogh­lan im­age@la­times.com

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 pantsuit 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 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 a non­profit 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 not an 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 from the muted, mono­tone world Claire usu­ally in­hab­its.

(If you haven’t fin­ished watch­ing Sea­son 3, there are spoil­ers ahead.)

The truce proves short-lived. Hav­ing per­suaded Frank to ap­point her U.N. am­bas­sador 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 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.”

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.

David Giesbrecht Net­flix

CLAIRE UN­DER­WOOD (Robin Wright) ex­udes author­ity and al­lure on “House of Cards” with the help of an en­sem­ble of dresses and skirts in a strong sil­hou­ette.

David Giesbrecht Net­flix

David Giesbrecht Net­flix

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