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Clothing was used as a weapon in the Clinton scandal that rocked a nation in 1998—neckties were gifted, a dress was used as evidence, and the appearances of those caught up in this battle for the presidency were targets for virulent misogyny. “It’s all dress up,” Susan Carpenter-McMillan (Judith Light) explains early on in Impeachment: American Crime Story while making over a central figure in this infamous event. In Washington, D.C., every garment is under scrutiny, and political theater is as susceptible to trends, snap judgments, and brand awareness as Hollywood, and no one is more aware of this than Monica Lewinsky.
The latest installment in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology continues the ‘90s theme (following The People vs. O.J. Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace) with an examination of the women whose names will forever be linked to the media circus that enveloped Bill Clinton’s second term in the White House. Lewinsky (played by Beanie Feldstein) serves as a producer on the series and her insight into the events includes details as specific as the drab brown color of the suit worn by Linda Tripp on the day when Monica’s world fell apart. “I had access to her personal notes she had written down about where her pieces were from, when she wore them,” costume designer Meredith Markworth-Pollack tells ELLE.com.
While garments such as the Gap blue dress and the ribbon beret are indelible, the costume design team meticulously recreated the everyday closets of the major players embroiled in this saga. Below, Markworth-Pollack discusses the nine-month-long shoot, transforming the cast using clothing, and replicating the ‘90s.
Markworth-Pollack got involved in Impeachment through Murphy’s producer, Lou Eyrich, who is also a renowned costume designer, but she joined the project late. “They originally had a different designer and ended up needing to replace that person while they just started shooting the first episode,” she says. Hitting the ground running, Markworth-Pollack had to take a different approach to her design process that required restraint and holding back high-end sartorial flourishes (her previous credits include Dynasty and Reign). From the beginning of her time on Impeachment, the producers told Markworth-Pollack to replicate what was worn as much as possible. “We were costume detectives. The first thing I did when I came in is I made this Beautiful Mind-Russell Crowe graph on the wall connecting the times and the dates,” she recalls.
These historical matches aren’t only reserved for big punches (like the beret), but for everyday details such as neckwear, too. “The ties were such a big deal for us because, in a sea of drab ‘90s suits, you got to get your kicks in somewhere,” she says. Finding a tie match or another hidden gem was a needle in the haystack challenge that was cause for celebration. “We would literally be screaming through the office that someone found it in the depths of Etsy or eBay.” Original accessories were easier to source, which includes Monica’s bag collection (keep an eye out for vintage Kate Spade). One bag line that proved impossible to unearth is the now-forgotten collection Lewinsky designed for Henri Bendel in 1999. “That was the one thing I really wanted to find us and I couldn't. So I ended up making them myself,” Markworth-Pollack says. Lewinsky’s response to this interpretation speaks to the level of access: “Oh, those are good. But you could probably use one of mine.” Custom builds were also required for the principals to make historical matches for practical reasons “because so many times we needed two of them or the sizing was off.”
Sarah Burgess’s script highlights Monica’s interest in fashion, so it was important to convey her youth, Los Angeles background, and wealth through her attire. “Now D.C. is like a fashion show, but at the time, it was pretty conservative,” the designer says. “Even for her to not be wearing suiting all the time and wearing little heart sweaters and miniskirts was pushing it slightly.” Aside from one specific moment with lingerie, they didn’t want to make Monica look like she was “desperately seeking attention through her clothing.” Markworth-Pollack and Feldstein discussed the fine line they were walking in this depiction. “[Lewinsky is] innately a sexual woman, she's flirtatious, she's sensual, she’s curvy, she's magnetic, and that was something we wanted to portray too from her costumes.” The balance was achieved by “having it be soft, young and flirty, but not calling too much attention to itself.”
The exception to this provocative rule is a gesture mentioned in Jeffrey Toobin’s best-seller, A Vast Conspiracy, which served as source material for Impeachment, where Lewinsky flashed her underwear at the president. “We thought about how we're going to show this, and there was a lot of conversations into the thong,” Markworth-Pollack says of the scene in episode 2. The bubblegum pink color was determined by what would pop against the navy suit and Feldstein’s skin tone.
Of course, the infamous dress from the Gap makes an appearance (Markworth-Pollack’s team was also tasked with creating the stain), but viewers might not even realize it is the dress until later in the season. “It's called the blue dress, but it was such a dark navy that a lot of people thought it was black. That's what happens when you watch the show too,” says Markworth-Pollack of the understated flattering design. She didn’t want to signpost this garment because Burgess didn’t treat it as a major storyline until it shifts into focus. “I feel like this approach of showing its insignificance in so many ways was a respectful thing to do,” the designer explains. While the dress is subtle, it is impossible to tone down the recognizable beret and red lipstick moment. However, Monica only wears this style of hat on one other occasion because otherwise “it feels so costumey and so gimmicky, and then it turns into Molly Shannon on SNL.”
"Linda was so old school in so many ways,” Markworth-Pollack observes about Tripp’s style and contempt for the behavior of Clinton staffers. Whereas Monica’s mostly black-and-white work palette injects youthful patterns and silhouettes, Linda’s (Sarah Paulson) limited pieces repeat the same drab style. “It was really important to Sarah that she didn't have a huge closet,” Markworth-Pollack says regarding the juxtaposition of Linda’s economic status with Monica’s Beverly Hills wealthy upbringing. These repeats consist of about four suits and six blouses, which were custom builds. Linda’s exile from the White House to the Pentagon marks a shift in her costumes, from the taupe-heavy palette to her abandoning skirt suits. “She still wants to be taken seriously, but she has no one to impress there,” Markworth-Pollack says. “Whereas at the White House she wanted to make a name for herself. She wanted to show people that she was someone.”
Part of the process in turning Paulson into Linda Tripp used padding and prosthetics, a decision that has caused controversy. In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times, the Impeachment star and producer stipulates some regrets surrounding the choice to wear a “fat suit.” Markworth-Pollack does note that this creative direction was implemented before she came on board and discusses how she worked with this foundation: “What I took on was how to make this woman who does not have Linda's body and does not have Linda's height and how to recreate that in the most realistic way possible.” Paulson wore four-inch heels and shoulder pads at all times, while the high-neck blouses and long sleeves concealed the padding and prosthetics. “I had the suits cut very boxy, which is a ‘90s style anyway,” she describes. “But also to give her the silhouette of wide shoulders, a bit of a waist, and then a long drop of the pant—that was very particular.” Tailoring and adjustments were required when Paulson broke her wrist. “She was such a trooper, and the timing, of course, it's the episode where she's holding a phone in her hand the whole time.” The injury couldn’t be added to the storyline, so it posed a last-minute technical challenge. “We had to recut all of her blouses and her suit sleeves on her right arm to drop them to cover her cast, which pretty much comes down to your knuckles,” Markworth-Pollack says.
The Supporting Players
Before Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones was the name associated with Bill Clinton’s ongoing legal battle. Paula (Annaleigh Ashford) is also a major fixture in Impeachment and she undergoes the biggest style shift in the series after wealthy conservative activist Susan Carpenter-McMillan takes her under her wing. “She wore a lot of really short skirts,” Markworth-Pollack says, “And I put these skirts on Judith—who looked phenomenal in them—and I’d be like, ‘Is this too much?’” But real-life photos assured the designer she had Carpenter-McMillan’s wardrobe spot on.
Whereas Carpenter-McMillan oozes glamour and riches (including a gold bow tie) from the jump, Paula’s style undergoes several changes to reflect her rocky journey. “Susan made her over into mini Susan and you can see that through the turtlenecks, through the suiting,” the designer says. “All of a sudden she starts wearing some brooches.” In contrast to the majority of the women in this limited series, Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco) favors bright colors. "Hillary to me is one of the most fun characters to do because she had such bold style,” Markworth-Pollack says about the First Lady who only briefly appears early on.
Ann Coulter was featured in surprisingly few images from this tumultuous time. “I was able to find a couple of interviews where you can kind of see these blurry images of her on CNN,” the designer says of the conservative pundit. “Everything I found was taupe suits, silk blouses, and lots of jewelry.” As with Carpenter-McMillan, Coulter also favors a higher hemline. “A lot of the time [she's in] a really short skirt and ballet flats. Well, Cobie [Smulders] isn't quite as tall as her so we put her in heels.”
The most costumey look is worn by Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) in his newsman trench coat and fedora, but this is once again a direct nod to the real person. “He takes himself as seriously as the Walter Cronkites, so that was pretty straightforward; it was scripted, it was in the research.” Markworth-Pollack took creative license with Drudge’s WFH attire and the addition of his signature hat when working on the story that almost brought down the presidency. “It's a bit over the top, but he puts the hat on to write this story, which I'm sure he probably did because that was his little gimmick.” Literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale sporting a blunt blonde wig) spends most of her screen time at home on the phone with Linda; so the first question Markworth-Pollack asked was, “How do we sell this eccentric, interesting, well-traveled, wealthy woman?” Luxurious silk caftans, high-end pajama sets, and turquoise and coral jewelry were the answer. “For me, the jewelry was important to show these were pieces she had probably collected from all over the world and playing a little bit more to that New York wealthy woman who appreciates the arts,” she explains. Lucianne’s phone calls are with Linda and this imagery is purposefully in opposition to “Linda sitting in her drab nightgown smoking cigarettes in her drab house.”
“I didn't want to beat the ‘90s over the head of the viewer because to me, when it becomes so obvious that you're trying to sell something, it takes away from the scene,” Markworth-Pollack says. The designer did, however, make nostalgic references to the decade of big logos through Monica’s workout and casual clothes, with identifiable brands such as Gap, Calvin Klein, and Nike. When Monica calls Linda to let her know Bill has been in touch, she is wearing pink B.U.M Equipment, which became a favorite of Feldstein’s. “Beanie was obsessed with that sweater; it was so cute she didn't know what it was because she's too young,” Markworth-Pollack says of the ‘90s brand. “Monica was very trendy and she was buying the most popular shirt at the time and it was a nice moment to get that in, but I didn't want it to be constant.”
One of the biggest challenges of a story set in Washington, D.C. in this decade is the men’s suits. Not only was the Impeachment costume team competing with several other productions set in the ‘90s in Los Angeles at the same time (including the untitled HBO L.A. Lakers drama), but the style of this period looks comical through a 21st-century lens. The boxy, large, and ill-fitting silhouette is distracting, and contemporary suits looked too modern—“the width of the lapel and how long and where the notch drops” was the giveaway. “We took a couple of liberties,” she explains. “We still used the ‘90s suits but we tailored them within an inch of their lives, we slimmed everything out dramatically to get more of a tailored polished look.” Accuracy was important, but the costumes on Impeachment are not meant to draw attention—unless it is specifically called for.
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