How ‘Scandal,’ ‘House of Cards,’ and ‘Madam Secretary’ Are Making D.C. Stylish


Courtesy of ABC

“I don’t need a stylist,” says the lately appointed Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord on CBS’s new political drama, ”Madam Secretary,” which premiered on Sept. 21. The reluctant politician, played by Téa Leoni, wears the wardrobe of a preppy ex-CIA analyst, which is exactly what she’s meant to be.

But are tweed blazers and cornflower blue button-ups dignified enough for the third most powerful person in the U.S. government? About two-thirds into the pilot, McCord is convinced otherwise. (It seems that her personal image consultant, played by Mozhan Marnòm of House of Cards, may even have a recurring role in the show.) McCord’s makeover, which includes an oxblood shift dress and matching coat as well as a smart-looking shoulder-length haircut, is even covered on the national news. “No offense, Mom, but a new outfit really isn’t a global event,” says McCord’s teenage son.

Wrong! McCord very much needs a stylist — for so many reasons. The idea that Leoni’s wardrobe will be scrutinized scene by scene via shop-the-show blogs — and, if she looks good enough, Twitter — is not lost on the writers of “Madam Secretary.” Instead of just making her look good, they’re acknowledging the fact that it’s imperative. The right TV wardrobe can result in far more than idle Internet chat — it can mean big profits.


Netflix / Everett Collection

In fact, the current obsession with female power brokers on television shows like “Veep,” “House of Cards,” “Homeland,” “Scandal,” “The Good Wife,” and now “Madam Secretary,” has costume designers outdoing each other, trying to make their stars the most stylish. On “House of Cards,” political wife Claire Underwood’s Giorgio Armani gowns and razor-sharp platinum crop were as talked about as the show’s most twisty plot points. Alicia Florrick’s modern skirt suits were so killer that Daniel Lawson, costume designer for “The Good Wife,” created a line for U.K.-based work-wear label 35DL, inspired by the politician’s-wife-turned-lawyer’s look. But nothing has been more hyped than the Limited’s Scandal Collection, designed in collaboration with the show’s star, Kerry Washington; its costume designer, Lyn Paolo; and The Limited’s head designer, Elliot Staples. ABC and the Limited are betting that the popularity of Olivia Pope — not to mention her cozy wrap coats and cream wide-leg trousers — will translate into sales.

“There are powerful pantsuits but they always have a waist and a peplum and a way that makes you feel like you’re always holding onto your identity as a woman,” Washington explained at last night’s debut of the line in New York City. “More women are feeling like they don’t have to be invisible or masculine in order to be in power."


But how realistic are these looks? The original costume designer for “House of Cards,” Tom Broecker, who consulted on the “Madam Secretary” pilot, has a knack for adding just enough of a fashion patina to the standard Washington wardrobe of nondescript suiting and square-toe heels. (Amy Roth is in charge from Episode 2, so it’ll be interesting to see what changes she makes to McCord’s look.) “It’s more elevated, more stylish, more aspirational,” Broecker says of the D.C. wardrobes he builds. “You want people going, ‘That’s really nice, I want to wear that jacket.’ We’re telling a story through these clothes. We’re not shooting a documentary.”

Paolo says the looks in “Scandal” hit somewhere between fantasy and reality. “I’m in the middle of two worlds,” says the costume designer, who also worked on the “West Wing.” “On [that show], I tried to be more true, more realistic, because it was about the president. Olivia’s world is a mix of two worlds. That gave me more free range to go and embrace fashion that you might not normally see.” While Paolo remarks that women in D.C. tend to wear patriotic red if they’re trying to jazz things up (think Hilary Clinton’s matching pantsuits and headbands), she’s made winter white Olivia’s power color. And while she opts for many designers favored by the D.C. elite — including Akris, known for its suiting, and Max Mara, known for its statement coats — Paolo also mixes in a Dior peplum here and there as well as a vintage gown or two.

Despite the new stylish “Scandal” collection, at the end of the day the sensible pantsuit still reigns in real-life D.C. Still, we know one lady who would approve of all these high-fashion looks: Michelle Obama.