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The Costume Designer Behind House of Cards, SNL and 30 Rock Tells All

We meet the man responsible for the wardrobes of Claire Underwood and Liz Lemon.

If Netflix's House of Cards has taught us anything, it is that binge-watching is not a passing fancy, and that Claire Underwood, played by the incomparable Robin Wright, is the most beautiful human alive.

Her wardrobe is nothing to balk at, either. In fact, I've never wanted to wear perfectly tailored blue button-ups, black pencil skirts and silvery grey strapless dresses more than when I was watching that show. So I had to know more about House of Cards' costume designer.

Tom Broecker, who dreamt up the show's wardrobes, has been Saturday Night Live's costume designer for 16 years, and is also responsible for Liz Lemon's hoodie-and-blazer combo on 30 Rock. (He's also the costume designer on The Big C. Busy man.)

It just so happened that I've been quietly studying the clothes on 30 Rock for years, so I had plenty of questions for Broecker beyond House of Cards. But that's where we started.

Fashionista: How did you end up on House of Cards? Tom Broecker: The producer, John Melfi, who I’ve known for a really long time, called me in to meet with David [Fincher, the director]. I talked to him for a couple of hours, and that was that. Sure, those two hours were intense.

Let's talk about Claire Underwood's wardrobe first. Was she wearing a lot of Armani? Branding-wise, it was across the spectrum: a lot of Theory, Banana Republic, one or two Ann Taylor Loft items. Then for night it was Narciso, Gucci, Armani, Ralph Lauren, Zac Posen. Her work look was usually an oxford shirt by Banana Republic, then we would add a L'Wren Scott peplum skirt. She wore Calvin, ran the gamut. We did high-low.

Everything was tailored so well to her body. The idea initially was to be a modern day Lady Macbeth—she wears her clothes as armour. They had to be completely tailored, but not too noticeable because she’s a politician's wife. She does run a foundation, so it was about looking good but not standing out. She wears clothes to protect herself.

Were you responsible for the haircut, too? She sort of had that cut when she came. It got a little shorter as we went along. Her face is so spectacular. There's a scene in one of the earlier episodes, when she's sitting on the couch in a dress by The Row altered and completely fit to her. You see her collarbone, neck and head, sitting there so still and so small—that's what it was about.

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I've been interested in your work on 30 Rock for some time, so I might be reaching, but was Zoe Barnes' office wardrobe inspired by Liz Lemon's? There's a scene in an early episode when Zoe (played by Kate Mara) wears a hooded sweatshirt with a blazer and jeans, and it feels very Liz. I don't know whether it was or wasn't a conscious decision. Zoe's a tomboy at heart. She's got a killer rocking body, but she only knows clothes one way. She has one good luck dress—that white dress. She thinks that dress and a push-up bra are going to get her forward. She uses clothes as a comfort thing, and she doesn't have the money to do much more. Where was that white dress from? We don't want to spoil it for readers who haven't seen the show, but it's a significant part of the plot. It was from Zara, and we reworked it to make it look like Alaia. Pretty much everything was from Zara, Topshop and Urban Outfitters. Her Rag & Bone boots were as expensive as she got. Her army jacket was from American Eagle. Joel Schumacher [who directed two Season 1 episodes] said, "She's Patty Hearst." She's in the trenches, she's fighting.

There are a lot more male characters than female—and they're pretty much all in suits. How did you go about dressing each one of them differently? I would go to Washington all the time. I went five times. I'd sit out there and take pictures. In the legislative, the young guys dress a little differently. The lobbyists dress differently. Subtle differences. Most people don't make much money. JoS. A. Bank is huge down there. A lot of Brooks Brothers. There's not a hugely tailored quality. When Obama says he has five suits, he really only has five suits—he just switches out his shirt.

How did you approach the wardrobe of Kevin Spacey (who plays majority whip Frank Underwood)? Kevin's suits were completely different. We wanted him to wear British suits as a nod to the original show. They have an otherworld quality.

And what about Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), Frank's former press secretary who is now a lobbyist for drill-happy natural gas company SanCorp? He seems to have the money to wear fancier stuff. He's wearing Tom Ford shirts and ties. Suits from Richard James, Hugo Boss—a lot of his shirts were French cuff. He has a very expensive watch.

Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels), the photographer who is mixed up with the Underwoods personally and professionally, is really the only guy who doesn't wear suits. He basically wore all of my clothes. I took everything from my closet and gave it to him. Except for the tuxedo.

You've done wardrobes for drama, but also a lot of comedy—even sketch comedy. You've been working on Saturday Night Live for 16 years. The two worlds must be drastically different. Lorne Michaels [SNL creator] is such an amazing boss, which is why I've been doing it for so long. That schedule is really intense. You have to be the master juggler. The thing with have more of a chance to create a character, develop a scene. With sketch comedy, you have a five-minute impact. Five minutes to say everything about the character. The thing I love about drama is that sometimes, people are inconsistent, and you get to explore that. They are both challenging in very different ways.

I have to ask you something that I've always wondered about. On 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski's character wore a lot of cute designer stuff: Erdem, Isabel Marant. It kind of felt like those hipper designer pieces were "slipped in" to the wardrobe. Like I was in on a secret. Was that intentional? Most people weren't watching 30 Rock for the fashion, so.... It was one of those things, if we liked a dress, she would wear it. Jane's character on some level was not the reality of what a sketch comedy actress wears. We sort of took a lot of liberty. Having worked with lots of sketch comedy actresses, what they wear to rehearsal is not what they wear on television. Jane dressed more like a sitcom actress. We'd set it up, "oh, she's coming from the Regis and Kelly show, that's why she's more dressed up now."

You're an actor, too. How did you get into costume design? I was never really good enough to make acting my life. I sort of let the time pass away, and then went to graduate school for set and costume design. Costume design is everything I like rolled into one job: art history, psychology, drawing, fabrics.

Do you think it's important for aspiring costume designers to study it at school? The thing about this profession...there's not a real direct way into it. That's the hardest thing about it. To be a lawyer, you go to law school. It's not like that. I always say, do everything: you need to read, need to know text, need to know how to break a script down. There's a big difference between costume design and styling. In costume design, you need to understand what the dress means—why that particular dress is right for the scene.