Dressing truth to power: The Politician costume designer's lessons on power dressing and how personal narratives are shared through the clothes we wear

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Power dressing can also be playful
Power dressing can also be playful

"... it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of 'stuff.'"

That is the tail-end of Miranda Priestly's (Meryl Streep) iconic monologue from The Devil Wears Prada, when an indifferent Andrea (Anne Hathaway) referred to clothes as "stuff" while the team was optioning garments for a shoot. 

This speech has always served as a reminder of how layered and intentional everything about fashion is, even for those who simply consume it for its functional purposes. 

In a 2017 article about how the colours we wear have an impact on how we are perceived, I wrote the following;

"Your clothing conveys who you are to others; hence the outfit you're wearing today could be a reflection of your mood.

"But sometimes it's based on a little more than what your weather app says as a little crispness in the air won’t necessarily stop you from wearing those short-shorts."

"Additionally, we are currently in a fashion era where minimalism is all the… well I would say rage, but there’s nothing loud or “look at me” about minimalism. So I’ll just say minimalism is in and that means a lot more of us are going for neutral, muted colours like black, white, ink, grey, brown, olive and burgundy."

READ MORE: Can the colours you wear make you more likeable?   

I then continued to highlight the commonly known fact that "everyone has a favourite colour or at least a go-to colour of sorts, usually one of the primary colours, as was noted in Live Science's pie chart of humanity's favourite colours. These tend to be either rather bright or a calm pastel tone."

But do you find that it’s easier to approach someone in an all-black ensemble or the lady with the cute ‘fro wearing a dusty pink blouse? 

Perhaps it depends on the kind of outfit they're wearing – the all-black ensemble could be a relaxed black pair of jeans and biker jacket combo, while the dusty pink blouse could be paired with a white pencil skirt and block heels.

According to Psychology Today, it is not only colours which give off a vibe about us, but the way we dress also gives off a certain impression to strangers (and people you know) about our personalities, and how seriously we take ourselves. 

In another article about first impressions I then gave the caveat that "not every environment we step into is fashion oriented, but the reality is that our clothes often say something about us before we even say a word." 

The Politician is a Netflix original comedy series officially airing today 27 September 2019. It's from Creators/Executive Producers/Writers/Directors Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan. It stars Ben Platt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Julia Schlaepfer, Laura Dreyfuss, Rahne Jones, Theo Germaine, David Corenswet, Bob Balaban and Benjamin Barrett. The first season consists of eight one-hour-long episodes that will take you through Payton's journey to political leadership as well as a style catalogue you didn't know you needed. 

Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), a wealthy student from Santa Barbara, California, has known since age seven that he's going to be the President of the United States. But first he'll have to navigate the most treacherous political landscape of all: Saint Sebastian High School. To get elected Student Body President, secure a spot at Harvard, and stay on his singular path to success, Payton will have to outsmart his ruthless classmates without sacrificing his own morality and carefully crafted image. Full of dark comedy and sly satire, Ryan Murphy's The Politician offers a rare glimpse into just what it takes to make a politician.

READ MORE: Everything you need for your ultimate forget-me-not first impression outfit 

But outside of politicking, there are subliminal fashion conversations that happen throughout the series, and Claire Parkinson is the costume designer who is responsible for that. 

She's been a costume assistant on the likes of A Cinderella Story, Suburgatory, Mistresses, and True Blood just to name a few. In addition to that, Claire has led the rails as costume designer on the pilot of Woman Up and more recently, The Politician

Claire Parkinson was in New York conceptualising Season Two of The Politician at the time at which we spoke over the phone about all things style, money, and power on this new Ryan Murphy show. 

Finding balance in power dressing

"It's about showing your inner power, and it's often influenced by things we've experience and how we experience the world in general," says Claire Parkinson when I ask her what her definition of power dressing is. 

"Power is internal," she adds. This is therefore how the costume designer built story outfits which correlate with each character's influence (or lack thereof) in this new Netflix series. 

Claire explains that Payton is a calculated character and thus, everything he does - right down to his choice of sneakers - is intentional (as you would expect of anyone who is incredibly image conscious).

In the series, you'll notice that while the general theme of every one of Payton's outfits are preppy, idealistic and sometimes even 'stiff', there still remains a casual element to them. Communicating a sense of being approachable as a future president is one reason for this, but this is also because Claire still wanted to illustrate that at the end of the day, these are still teenagers. 

The Politician and power dressing

It's all in the details 

Any person who is strict about the image they have cultivated for themselves has a very deliberate approach to dressing both up and down. For example, I have a Saturday uniform for when I'm running errands; blue jeans, white or black Tee, and a statement pair of shoes and earrings. This is a very lax look, but it also says I know a thing or five about fashion. 

The same can be said about how Claire Parkinson has sartorially framed the characters on The Politician

"Details are so important - [seeing one of the stars of the series] wearing a powerful suit, a fun Tee, and fun sneakers can tell viewers that she is young, but she also an elevated sense of style," notes Claire.  

My personal favourite character in terms of style is McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss) who is a prime example of how to make understated fashion statements. The woman behind her impressive wardrobe describes her as "the power woman in all the power suits."

When in one episode, there was a momentary focus on her Commes des Garçons sneakers, I knew that her sartorial offering would be one to watch throughout the first season, and she didn't disappoint. 

During the rest of the series, we see this modish future powerhouse serve up a sense of style reminiscent of that of a UCT Politics major who owns a personalised tan leather satchel - pantsuits in an array of sorbet hues and prints, a playful Dries van Noten Tee as well as statement thigh-scraping Margiellas. 

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Their dogs only drink bottled water.

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However, while The Politician's costume designer hopes the "whole cast will be aspirational" in terms of style, she is also of the opinion that Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) will emerge as the style star of the show. 

"She's an OTT fashion princess and dresses in all kinds of style confidently, and completes each look with lots of adornments," says Claire. And throughout the series, you will indeed see Astrid, the "poor little rich girl" in standout earrings on any given day. Essentially, she's a portrayal of how to dress like royalty on a pauper's budget... or at least a suspicious side hustler's budget.

Speaking of budgets, it's hard to ignore the fact that the wardrobe selection on The Politician that is not only mostly preppy, but it speaks to class differences too. 

The concept of looking like wealth

Claire explains how the insufferable Hobart twins, through their preppy clothes, show a "strong correlation to wealth," and the same can be said of their mother Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow). 

Georgina's wealth is exhibited by means of "using luxurious fabrics and shapes," Claire reveals. There's an undeniable air of aristocracy characterising every scene Payton's mother appears in even when she isn't performing any of her typically "rich people" equestrian activities. This can be attributed directly to the fact that her wardrobe is icon-driven. We see her in eclectic Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Carolina Herrera, and vintage luxury items. 

Another character whose wealth speaks before she does is Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), Payton's girlfriend. Claire explains that because Alice's "number-one agenda is to get Payton elected," her wardrobe is mostly uniform, where Gloria Steinem was used as one of the references for this character. 

Alice's style is a Blaire Waldorf (Gossip Girl) and Cher Horowitz (Clueless) hybrid made of a tweed/pastels/pearls DNA helix. 

The difference between being fashionable and having style

You'll be introduced to a rather exasperating character on The Politician - Infinity's grandmother Dusty Jackson (Jessica Lange). Besides her scheming ways and profiting off her granddaughter Infinity's curated illness (whom Dusty dresses like a child and not the teen she is), I think she's there to portray the other side of how people consume fashion. 

With teased hair ('80s style), acrylic nails, heavy makeup, leggings, animal print, and fashion tops you'd find at any retail store, there's something quite dated about this veteran actress' wardrobe. 

It might even remind you of that loud distant relative who enjoyed their heydays when you were a kleintjie, and is still holding on to those fond memories along with the clothes that marked these memories. They're fashionable - they merely buy what's trending at the moment, but you wouldn't describe them as someone who has a strong style acumen. That's Dusty. 

"People live in an experience with their bodies - there isn't one dial that shows who you are, and that's why [so much can be communicated through our clothes]."
Claire Parkinson

The takeaway for the fashion community

Ultimately, Claire Parkinson explains that the purpose of her work is to drive home the message that "fashion doesn't always have to be so serious." 

Additionally, she says that she wants the audience to be cognisant of how icon-driven and timeless the fashion on this show is. 

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