'The Americans': How Costume Designer Jenny Gering Built Its Covetable '80s Spy Wardrobe

It takes a lot to keep up the ever-evolving style of undercover Soviet agents.
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Chantal Fernandez
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It takes a lot to keep up the ever-evolving style of undercover Soviet agents.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as undercover Soviet spies Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings on "The Americans." Photo: FX

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as undercover Soviet spies Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings on "The Americans." Photo: FX

The red brick warehouse that contains the costume department of FX’s flagship television show “The Americans” would be completely unremarkable in its industrial Gowanus, Brooklyn, block were it not for a glossy sign on the front door with the show's logo and title in bright red letters. Inside, racks of vintage clothing cover almost the entire floor and are even hung from the ceiling. Despite all that, it is miraculously organized. And as we learned from Costume Designer Jenny Gering during our recent visit, it has to be.

Now in its third season, the first episode of which debuts Wednesday night at 10 p.m., “The Americans” stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, Soviet spies working undercover as a regular American family during the Cold War. It’s thrilling television, created by a former CIA agent, that doesn’t hesitate to mix violence and sex or risk the lives of the innocent, all while still managing to maintain the likability of its lead characters. Wednesday night, the show picks back up at the end of 1982 and promises even more risky missions and funky '80s disguises as the Jennings are ordered to bring their teenage daughter into the family business.

It is from the packed Gowanus warehouse that Gering ensures everything on screen is realistic to the time period, even down to the month in which the episode is set. “We were just shooting [an episode] meant to be November or December of 1982,” says Gering. “I have GQ, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Vogue, Bazaar all from that month. I like to know even if I don’t necessarily have to incorporate it.” For her efforts, Gering, along with the show's hair and makeup team, was honored with New York Women in Film and Television's Variety Ensemble Award at the annual Designing Women event in 2013.

The show’s first season began in 1980, when '70s trends, like flared denim, were still mainstream. It took much longer for fashion trends to reach the main population than it does today, and Gering is acutely aware of that. But thanks to MTV, Gering says that by season three, "the trends are happening faster, it’s filtering faster. Things are looking more '80s basically in six months' time.”

Gering and assistant designer Katie Irish, along with a team of shoppers and production assistants, work at a feverish pace to keep up with the show’s filming schedule, which requires filming one episode while prepping the next one as well as doing re-shoots as necessary. “It’s kind of a puzzle every time, but we make it work, we make it happen,” says Gering. “It’s like doing three movies a week.” And much like feature films, they often have to pull together period-accurate costumes for huge groups of background extras, like they did for 300 people last season in an amusement park episode, in addition to the teams at the Residentura and FBI offices.

It’s an expensive proposition that requires the team to almost constantly build on top of the regular characters’ wardrobes. At the beginning of each season, Gering has a budget to “fill in and fluff up” each closet, and tweak the personal styles of the main players, especially Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings.

“This season, I’ve been very into velvet. Also her palette has changed a bit, so I had these made,” says Gering, holding up a pair of velvet high-waisted pants. “I found this original pair and just copied them in some really great colors. It’s a little smokier than what we had been doing for the past two seasons.” After wearing a J.Crew coat last year (“We had to cheat it because I wanted more than one”), Russell’s Jennings has upgraded to a black cashmere overcoat. “She would have never worn black in season one, it just wouldn’t be part of it, wasn’t mainstream enough.” Mrs. Jennings -- when not in disguise -- prefers silk blouses, trousers and, much to the audience’s delight, vintage denim. “This season, it’s much more about the stitching,” Gering says as she picks up another pair of jeans, vintage Levi’s with zipper detailing on the back pockets. “These from season one got such a big response — it was the high-waisted flair with the zippers. And as the time has passed I’ve straightened them.” (There is a full-time seamstress on hand for all alterations.) 

Even the lingerie is getting an upgrade. “When we first started the bras were more triangle shape and not padded at all, whereas now it’s slowly getting to be a little bit more what we would consider [current styles],” she says. She adds that for underwear, “It used to be more of a lower silhouette, a late '70s look. Now we’re getting a little more Calvin and the leg is higher.” FX has even decided to capitalize on the show’s lingerie style by collaborating with Cosabella on a limited-edition collection curated by Gering and inspired by the show. It has a retro feel and lots of lace -- more similar to what Russell’s Jennings wears when her spy missions require some seduction. The collection went on sale Friday.

A chemise from "The Americans" Cosabella collaboration. Photo: FX

A chemise from "The Americans" Cosabella collaboration. Photo: FX

Gering pays a lot of attention to detail when it comes to the Jennings because they are critical to the show’s believability -- each look must be mainstream enough to maintain the couple’s cover as normal Americans but identifiable enough to help the audience understands these characters. “I try to keep it as personal as possible for her so that her decisions and her choices have a point of view, because that’s really important to me,” says Gering of Elizabeth. “Especially where we have so many disguises. I want Phillip and Elizabeth to be as solid as possible.” 

The show has become famous for its elaborate disguises, which often include some amazing wigs. “One of [Rhys’s] disguises, we call him Fernando, has a mini-pony and we love him,” says Gering, laughing. These looks allow Gering and her team to get more creative and use more unusual or flamboyant vintage pieces to build a character. “The creators really let us come up with [the disguise outfits],” she says, referring to herself and the hair/makeup team.

Each disguise prep begins with the wigs, deciding which ones will work and if there will be enough time to put them on between scenes (sideburns in particular take a long time to apply). Then, Gering and the actor usually pull pieces from the show’s extensive stockpile of vintage clothing, shoes and jewelry until they create a cohesive identity. “So many times, I’ll start a fitting and it’s a new disguise and I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m sorry, I just don’t know who this guy is yet,’ and Matthew or Keri say, ‘I know, I don’t get it.’ And 20 minutes later we’re like, ‘I totally know her now!’ It’s like playing dress up, you’re having fun and figuring it out.’

Of course, this strategy works best when there are lots of vintage pieces on hand to choose from, especially since Gering might only get a week's notice about a disguise or the sizes of a new actor hired for just one episode. As a result, she is constantly sending out a team of shoppers to scour vintage stores around New York and in the Northeast for things she feels are missing from her fictional closets. “That’s what my lovely ladies are off to do right now: search and destroy,” says Gering, laughing. “We have a list every day of, oh, Martha needs more blouses or Sandra needs a coat, see what you can find. And they know what Sandra looks like and they know who she is.” One benefit of being in the third season is that the costume team can see a vintage tie and know exactly which character would wear it. And if Gering needs something quickly, she can also have  vintage dealers send her racks on memo from Philadelphia or Albany based off the look she needs. Another critical source? Gering’s family hand-me-downs, some of which are from designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Sonia Rykiel. “Luckily my mom is one of those crazies who kept everything, and my aunt as well.” Russell wore Gering's mom’s knee-high boots in almost every episode of the first season, as well as her jackets and blouses. “I love that I can say, ‘Aunt Sandy, you better watch the show tonight, you’re going to be happy.”

Relying on vintage for a show with so many action scenes creates a serious problem—multiples are much harder to come by. Gering needs anywhere from three to eight identical pieces for any scene involving stunts to give the actor and the stunt double enough chances for multiple takes. “I don’t care what it is—if the girls are out and they see any kind of vintage multiple, they’ll buy it even if we don’t have a use for it right now. It’s so rare and it’s like a miracle.” But when miracles are hard to come by, Gering looks for dead stock -- warehouse stockpiles that were never sold at the time of production. “We have to work as much as possible with people who deal in dead stock because for us, it’s the holy grail.” She proudly showed off multiple sets of candy-colored oversized earrings, ready for action no matter how crazy the disguise.

Another one of the job's challenges is that Gering needs to be aware of more than just early '80s trends, and relies on her team -- and their families -- for help. For example, the show has several flashbacks to Soviet Russia after WWII. Coincidentally, the seamstress’s husband and one of the costumers from season one are Russian and lent family pictures from the time period so Gering could get an idea of what people wore day-to-day. “There’s not a lot of resources; you may not look like you’re homeless but you probably have two or three sweaters that can keep you warm,” she says. “I try to be as historically accurate as possible, but then I also try to imagine what that meant on a daily basis and how that translates.” The same is true for Russian and U.S. military characters, which Gering says her assistant oversees partly because she has many Navy officers in her family and also because of the relationships she's developed with several uniform rental shops.

Even if Gering wanted to invest in more of those looks, there’s simply no space in the Gowanus warehouse, especially considering that she can’t get rid of anything that has been used on screen before, including all the clothing the Jennings’s young son grew out of over the summer, because she never knows when it might be needed again for a flashback. “It happened to us, someone who I thought, ‘I’ll never see that person again’ -- it was a dead person who came back last season in a dream.” 

And with the Feds closing in on the Jennings and the Soviets demanding more of their agents, season three of “The Americans” promises even more drama, more action and, of course, more brilliant disguises. “We are just halfway through the season and we already need more storage so we can get some of the stuff out of here and make more room,” says Gering, passing by a box of vintage winter boots. “We know we are going to be shooting exteriors for the next two months and I said, ‘I need vintage boots, get me whatever you can find.’ Look at this, it’s like a treasure trove.”