House of Cards’ Costume Designer on Dressing President and First Lady Underwood

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Casual Frank. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

House of Cards’ costume designer Johanna Argan’s sophisticated styling makes a case that only someone who has sold his soul to the devil can have such a flawlessly tailored wardrobe. In season three, Argan artfully outfits the most powerful man in the (fictional) free world and his cunning presidential cabinet. And she continues to make the show's dark palate of muted blues, grays, and blacks come to life in human form. Argan talked with Vulture about First Lady Claire Underwood’s style evolution and Kevin Spacey’s timeless Hollywood look.  

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) always looks flawless. Can you tell us about how her style has evolved?
In season one, Tom Broecker was the establishing costume designer. He did such an amazing job of showing Claire as this career philanthropist who had these elegant silhouettes — specifically, people were in love with her fitted shirts, her skirts, and her shift-dresses — those were the things that stood out. As we went into season two and I took over, [she] and Frank were making their plans for the White House and she was the vice-president’s wife, and I felt like we needed to do a little bit of a transition. Now she was making more public appearances on behalf of the White House, and she needed to evolve in the sense that there was a little bit more suiting — and she definitely wore dresses. We did a lot of Dior suits, a lot of Gucci and Burberry, and we kept elements of her skirting from season one, which is a very specific Gucci skirt that people still write about and ask me about and tweet me about. As their profile grew as vice-president and the vice-president’s wife and scandal happened, I wanted to show a little bit more vulnerability — we did some softer blousing. And by the end of the season, they become the president and First Lady, and when that happened it actually made great sense for Robin to bring on her own stylist, which is what she did, because a First Lady would have someone dressing [her], and being very strategic in what [she is] wearing.

How is Claire’s style different in season three now that she is the First Lady?
I think that season three shows the element [of Robin’s personal stylist] very strongly. Kemal Harris, who came on to design those costumes, worked very closed with us, and I thought she did a fantastic, beautiful job. I thought it was a perfect transition in elegance, and what you want your First Lady to look like.

So much of political style can be defined by what “polls well.” There’s even a scene in this season’s House of Cards that references this. How did you research the costumes for these powerful political figures?
I pulled in all these pictures of women in corporate America who [were] photographed around the world with other political figures. For me, the Princess of Jordan is so elegant and so refined, and she has this beautiful and tasteful style that’s very much about what I wanted to have my ladies to emit for the whole show: classic, timeless and tasteful — but powerful. And I tried to approach that with Jackie Sharp and Heather Dunbar because I thought it was a really strong season for the women. I applaud Beau [Willimon] for that — making the women just as powerful as our men, which was a nice thing to be able to do with the clothing.

How are you dressing Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) now that he is the president?
In the second season we introduced some casual, at-home looks for him, and then as we go into the third season he’s on Air Force One a lot, and he’s in his personal residence in the White House a lot, so there’s a more personal, relaxed element that I added to Frank Underwood — to seeing him being a little more human and vulnerable at home and at the White House.

What specific “personal elements” did you choose?
I chose to add a lot more cashmere sweaters, khaki pants, dress pants. He’s always traveling to events, to fund-raisers and rallies, in this season. So we implemented that sort of more personable look for people to relate to him because he’s on the campaign trail — more of an everyman’s look.

You’re also Kevin Spacey’s personal stylist, and you’ve worked with him on several films. Tell me about that.
I’ve had a great working relationship with Kevin. I’ve known him for 17 years. We met through a mutual friend and we started off being friends, then I started styling him. And then I moved out here to Los Angeles and I came on as a costumer, for just him specifically, and he started requesting me just for styling him on- and off-camera, and eventually I got to design movies and film and commercials and stuff. He really helped me get my foot in the TV and movie business.

As far as Kevin Spacey’s personal style goes, how would you describe it?
I consider Kevin one of the last odes to the classic movie star, where he is just such a gentleman. And he loves to dress up in suits and ties for all his events. It’s very rare — unless it’s a very informal event, like he’s going to see tennis or he’s going to do a workshop for his personal charity — that he doesn’t dress in a suit. Like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, when they would go out in public, you would always see them dressed to the nines from head to toe. Kevin has got the old movie-star appeal, so we kind of keep it that way. It works for him, people love to see him that way, and he feels great and confident in that look.