The Americans and Their Many Disguises

An array of wigs on display inside the hair and makeup trailer on the set of The Americans. Photo: Amy Lombard for Vulture

After six seasons of The Americans, the team that create the disguises for superspies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings has gotten pretty good at what it does. Here’s how good: During a recent set visit, this writer and two FX employees walked right by Matthew Rhys, who plays Philip, without recognizing him. Sitting in a chair and scrolling through his phone while outfitted in a blond wig, mustache, and beard, the Emmy Award–nominated actor was able to go completely incognito.

That’s a compliment to the people responsible for camouflaging Philip and Elizabeth for six seasons, a process that requires collaboration between costume designer Katie Irish, makeup department head Lori Hicks, and hair department head and wig designer Cory McCutcheon, as well as many others. With the series entering its final season — one that could serve as a fireworks grand finale of wigs, ’80s ensembles, and carefully chosen lip gloss — they talked to Vulture about the thought process behind some of their most memorable secret identities. Along with Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, and showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, they also highlighted some of their favorite alter egos from The Americans’ six-season run. (Spoiler alert that will break your heart: Matthew Rhys hates Clark.)

Philip Jennings as “Fernando”

Photo: FX Networks.

Appears in: Season one, episode one
Main Thing He Does: Beats the hell out of a creepy guy who hit on Paige at the mall.

Rhys: He’s a kind of long-haired, Latin-looking man. He has a small goatee and long hair. He’s my favorite. But he’s slowly been phased out.

Hicks: I liked a lot of them that were not necessarily the most attractive. There were some I like even though they may not have been as authentic, because I think the ones that are most authentic, that [Fields and Weisberg] liked the best, aren’t necessarily the most fun ones. But they’re the most successful ones as far as the spy craft.

Elizabeth Jennings as Patty

Photo: FX Networks. All rights reserved.

Appears in: Recurring in season four
Main Thing She Does: Becomes friends with Young-Hee Seong (Ruthie Ann Miles) in order to eventually seduce her husband and get access to a much-needed security code.

Irish: Patty was one of my favorites. She was the Mary Kay saleswoman. It was the first time we had ever seen Elizabeth Jennings in anything that was approaching what I would call the cultural Zeitgeist of that moment. She was in jewel tones, she wore jumpsuits, she had gaucho pants. She had this great coral lipstick. But that’s so not Elizabeth Jennings, who has a very classic style. It was great fun to do that departure.

Fields: Patty became such an avatar for Elizabeth in a very rare way. So that was very beautiful to watch.

McCutcheon: A big factor that comes into play when designing these disguises is ’80s hairstyles. In that period the hairstyles are quite out there and very sort of garish and stuff. But they need to blend in. With going undercover and being spies in disguise, they don’t want to draw attention to themselves or stand out. That’s always a very fine line. We want to be true to the period. But also they need to just sort of blend in for the most part, and sort of be unnoticeable.

Philip Jennings as Clark

Photo: FX Networks.

Appears in: Recurring in seasons one through four
Main Thing He Does: Marries Martha (poor Martha!) so he can continue to gather intel from inside FBI HQ.

Weisberg: Clark was with us for a very long time and also his story line was so intense and serious that we got very attached to Clark. Part of what’s special about Clark was that he had a whole life and a whole marriage so you got to know him and got to connect to him as his own person. But he was also Phil. Yeah, he was a favorite. He was a favorite but he felt like another character on the show in a way.

Irish: Clark was established in the pilot episode. I didn’t do that — I wasn’t the designer for the first three seasons — but he had such a style of his own. And again, it’s very different from Philip. Any time you’re doing kind of a polar opposite, it’s a lot of fun.

Rhys: Clark? I hated Clark. I hated the wig. I hated his glasses. I hated his wardrobe. I hated everything about Clark. I was so happy to say good-bye to Clark.

Hicks: This season we had enough scripts ahead of time that we could see how long these characters are going to play for and choose accordingly. In the past sometimes — like Clark in the beginning, we did that during the pilot and we didn’t know he was going to be romping so much with Martha in bed with his glasses. We were stuck with that a little bit.

We did weird things with the age, and sometimes I would make his lips a little thinner. I think even towards the end I stopped doing that because it got too complicated. In the beginning that was a big character thing — thinning the lips. That stuff, it’s subtle, but it’s weird enough that it works.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as Punk Kidnappers

Photo: FX Networks.

Appear in: “Walter Taffet,” episode seven of season three
Main Thing They Do: Abduct a South African intelligence officer in broad daylight, to the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”

Emmerich: I’m not really involved in their disguises, obviously. But I was when I directed, and for my first episode that I directed we came up with these disguises for them that I just love. I think they look amazing. I don’t know if you remember, but in season three, the South African story line — there’s one where Philip and Elizabeth have to abduct the South African killer who’s come. There’s this diner scene where it’s kind of punk rocky. Philip has this black hair and Elizabeth looks — it’s a Sid and Nancy look. I love that disguise.

Elizabeth Jennings as Brenda

Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX./FX Networks.

Appears in: Recurring in season five
Main Thing She Does: While pretending to be a fashion buyer, Brenda develops a romantic relationship with Ben Stobert, a scientist who has information on a pest-resistant strain of wheat that’s being developed in the U.S.

Irish: We’ve never really used very graphic black and white and gray on any character and it was very period appropriate. So that was our way into fashion with her. She needed to look fashionable, but not so much so that it became distracting from the scene or became about what she was wearing. It wasn’t about being a Sex and the City moment, where you’re like, Oh my god, look at her outfit. But she still needed to dress this part. She speaks to [Ben] about her cover story, what she does, so she needed to believably look that way, but not be too much in any one direction so that the audience was caring too much about [her clothes] or jolted out of a scene by something.

Elizabeth Jennings as Stephanie

Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX/FX Networks.

Appears in: Recurring in season six
Main Thing She Does: Works as a home health-care worker for an ailing artist (Miriam Shor) who happens to be married to a nuclear-arms negotiator upon whom Elizabeth is keeping tabs.

Russell: I really love Stephanie from this year because she’s so unattractive. And her clothes — basically, every time I play that character I send a picture of myself to my girlfriends and they die laughing. I wear these very elastic waists, very big nurse pants. And my girlfriend texted back one day: “I don’t even understand those pants.” And they wanted me to wear that out to meet them at a bar. I said: Done.

McCutcheon: That character is who Elizabeth basically plays throughout the whole season. Often one of the [other] disguises we’ll be doing or even multiple disguises will be like the anti-Stephanie. That’s one of the big things in deciding the hairstyle and the color. One of the first things is, who are we disguising this character to not look like?

Hicks: Because there were so many disguises this year, also, we would sort of refer to them in their function as opposed to a name. “The one where she kills this guy,” “The one when she’s in the McDonald’s,” you know. I know it sounds crazy, but there were a lot of them this year. It feels like we took the highlights from all the other seasons and they’re all in this season. They’re refurbished and changed.

McCutcheon: Elizabeth has at least 20 [this season]. I forget, I think she has six in the first episode.

Irish: The first episode of the season about killed us.

McCutcheon: Especially this season, it’s really ramped up so that was another thing too. That was a big concern of Keri’s and and all of ours, but especially Keri, is making sure it wasn’t too comical or like a fashion show of all these different disguises. Keeping it interesting and different, but also not wanting to get too silly.

Go inside The Americans costume department:

  1. More of the wigs that Cory McCutcheon keeps at his disposal. He also regularly works with Campbell Young Associates, a wig designer based in the U.K. and New York that maintain a stock of handmade ‘dos.

    Amy Lombard for Vulture

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  2. A reminder in the hair and makeup trailer that it’s always a mustache party when Philip Jennings gets in disguise!

    Amy Lombard for Vulture

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  3. A selection of earrings from Elizabeth’s disguise closet.

    Amy Lombard for Vulture

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  4. Costume designer Katie Irish: “We do a lot in winter: so scarves gloves, hats, coats — all are big things for us. We joke that a lot of times, after all the work that goes into the disguise, it really becomes about a coat.”

    Amy Lombard for Vulture

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  5. Irish displays a classic Elizabeth Jennings look.

    Amy Lobard for Vulture

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  6. Do you recognize this man? That’s Matthew Rhys, as Philip Jennings in disguise and convincing enough to go unnoticed by a Vulture writer and two FX employees.

    Amy Lombard for Vulture

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The Americans Walk Us Through Their Favorite Alter Egos