(Warning: If you haven't yet binged on all three available seasons, there might be some spoilers ahead.)
Of all the scenes that I believe best represent Claire Underwood — "House of Cards"'s stately ice queen — it's a state dinner thrown in the President of Russia's honor during the show's third season. Played to frosty perfection by Robin Wright, Claire begrudgingly submits to the White House's expectations of a first lady, but not before putting her own stamp on an otherwise tense evening. When both the Russian leader and her husband push, she pushes back, and does so wearing a slinky Ralph Lauren gown as only Claire could.
It's a dress I make a point to ask the character's costume designer, Kemal Harris, about when we sit down to chat over guacamole in advance of the Netflix series' season four premiere. "That gown had the old Hollywood glamour," Harris says, describing how it was pulled straight off Lauren's fall 2014 runway. "It was sexy, but it was fully covered. The back was open, but it felt like it was still tasteful enough for a first lady to wear. It had that steely, cold silver fabric that is Claire's blood."
Indeed, Claire's reputation as a glossy, heartless fembot precedes her. It's a trait Harris prioritizes when putting together Claire's wardrobe, which she's now done for two seasons, with the fifth set to begin production this summer. As one half of a powerhouse styling duo with Karla Welch, Harris was first introduced to "House of Cards" when she began dressing Wright for the show's first season premiere in 2013. The pair hit it off, and eventually, Wright convinced Harris to spearhead the costumes for her character — and her character only — starting with season three.
As a fan of the show, it wasn't difficult for Harris to get right to work, especially considering where Claire was, professionally, at that point in the series. After serving as the head of a nonprofit and as the country's second lady in seasons one and two, respectively, Claire's signature style was due for a presidential update at the start of the third. "We had long discussions with the creator and the showrunner and all the directors about how we could make Claire distinguished as a first lady," Harris says. "How could we bump up her fashion to the next level without losing the Claire aesthetic?"
Harris touches on the topic of color — or lack thereof — which serves as an artistic pillar thanks to Executive Producer David Fincher's favored palette of overcast grays and moody blacks. She elaborates: "Everything is very dark. No bright red. No primary colors." This, of course, was a bit counterintuitive: first ladies often build their closets upon those very hues. Harris and Wright turned to a number of classic films from the 1940s — including "Adam's Rib" and "The Maltese Falcon" — for source material.
"There was some inspiration there from women who were similar to Claire in the sense that they wore skirts and heels every day, but the collars of the blouses were a little bit softer," Harris says. "In seasons one and two, I'm not going to say Claire was utilitarian, but she's working for a nonprofit. She's wearing her work sweaters and simple pencil skirts. She's in work mode. They're literally clawing their way to the top. In season three, they've arrived." It was then, when Harris took over, that she incorporated what color she could. "There were some burgundies; there's some deep greens; there's a raspberry color. I brought in more full skirts. That was a new silhouette, which was so much fun to do."
One element Harris did not dare touch, however, was Claire's sex appeal, which has been a tenet of the character's personality — sartorially or otherwise — for as long as "House of Cards" has been on the air. "People are scared of her, but they also find her very sexy," Harris says. "And I love that, because nothing is overt. We never have to have a low V-neck. We never have to show skin. It's all just sharp tailoring." And her personality — all vicious confidence and seductive mannerisms — helps matters: "She's almost always wearing a dress; it's very rare that you ever see her in pants. But she wears these feminine clothes in a way that's stronger than any man in a suit."
While Harris ensures me that Claire's sensuality remains prominent, it may take on a different form than what we've grown accustomed to in the coming episodes. Details from Harris are scarce, but fans can certainly expect that the Underwoods's marital tensions will carry into the new season. "Season four starts with the same energy and attitude as season three," Harris says, touching on the climactic moment that is Claire walking out on her husband, the president. "It's Claire just not giving a shit. It's like, 'Oh, you need me to help with your campaign? You should have thought about that sooner.'"
From what I gather, season four builds on the wound that has been festering between Frank and Claire for however long it's been since three ended and four began. The time hop here is unclear, but it's surely long enough for Claire to spiral into a rebellion of sorts. This, Harris says, is all represented in Claire's costuming. "I purposefully tried to avoid black at the end of season three, because she wore it so much in one and two and those were her nose-to-the-grindstone, hardworking seasons," she says. "In season four, I went back into black, but I balanced it with a lot of whites and neutrals — for reasons you'll see." Harris trails off, with a knowing smirk.
To that end, she hints that Claire will be "going back to her family roots" — this being an elite, wealthy community just outside of Dallas. "I did use some tweeds and textures, and then brought in a lot of contrast trim," she describes. "There's so many ways to do a blazer, but when you have a limited palette, there's only a few things you can change up. We would add trim, because she's trying to redefine herself. So, in my brain, the trim is like her redefining her boundaries, just trying to draw her line in the sand."
If we know Claire, this line, whatever it may be, will get drawn, and it will be on her own terms — regardless of who she has to take down in the process.
"This is why we love Claire," Harris says. "She's the most selfish, evil person on television today. I think we're all drawn to her because we wish we could be half of that; give me an ounce of her determination. She doesn't hold back in season four."