On Showtime's The Affair, which wraps up its first season Sunday night (it's been renewed for a second season), clothes are a critical part of the he said-she said dual narrative. "Costume design is always such a huge, intrinsic part of telling a story," The Affair's costume designer, Caroline Duncan, tells Yahoo TV. "But in this story it became one of the devices for our storytelling."
The Affair follows the torrid romance between Noah (Dominic West), a Brooklyn teacher and married father of four, and Alison (Ruth Wilson), a married Long Island waitress mourning the death of her 4-year-old son. Most of the story is told in flashback as Noah and Alison are questioned separately by a police detective looking into a mysterious death of someone they both know. And let's just say Noah and Alison's recollections don't exactly sync up. "There is no one truth," Duncan says about Noah and Alison's dueling memories. "The truth may lie somewhere in the middle."
And that's where Noah and Alison's clothes come in. In each of their flashbacks, Noah and Alison are wearing completely different clothes — or very different versions of the same outfit — even when they're each talking about the exact same event. For instance, when Noah tells of seeing Alison in the Hamptons diner where she works, he recalls her wearing a short, tight, bright yellow "sexy waitress" uniform. But in Alison's memory her uniform is below-the-knee, loose and stained.
Such contrasts offer subtle but tantalizing clues about each character's state of mind. But even with West's and Wilson's valuable contributions to their characters' dual wardrobes ("They're dream actors who wanted to be part of the process," Duncan says), all these costume changes and shifting perspectives are a lot for Duncan — and viewers — to keep track of. So before Sunday's finale, we asked Duncan to break down the key sartorial differences for us.
Alison's Look: Sexy Temptress vs. Mourning Mom
After that first glance in the diner, Noah continues to project his midlife crisis fantasies onto Alison. "She is a very empowered woman in his memory," Duncan says. "Sexually, she's got a confidence to her… a whimsy. She's carefree and free-spirited."
When Noah later meets up with Alison on the beach, he remembers her wearing a short sundress that flows seductively in the ocean breeze. But in her account of that same night, Alison is huddled up in a big, bulky sweater — a distinctly unsexy look that reflects her enduring sadness. "Everything [she wears] feels almost like a shroud," Duncan says. "She probably hasn't bought herself new clothing since her son died. Some pieces probably are a little too big on her because she's probably lost some weight in the grieving."
Noah: Harried Dad vs. Super 'DILF'
Noah undergoes a similar transformation. He doesn’t see himself as Mr. Suave and the clothes he wears in his flashbacks reflect that. "There's sort of a loose, easy casualness to him that is a bit unkempt," Duncan says about Noah’s "Brooklyn dad" uniform: "a button-front shirt and t-shirt sort of sloppily worn with shorts or jeans."
But when Alison is telling the story, it's as if Noah has gone through a sexed-up style makeover. "She sees him as this cool alien," Duncan says. "He's got it together. He has the perfect life that she does not have." And just like Alison mentally cleans up Noah in her memory, Duncan streamlines Noah's wardrobe. "We took him out of chinos and shorts and put him in dark New York City man jeans and a nice button-front shirt, with no undershirt, so you can see a bit of his chest."
Related: Showtime's 'The Affair' Is TV's Most Compelling New Drama
Keep it Real
While the costume differences are significant, Duncan tries to stay true to the characters regardless of who's telling the story. She and her costume team operate under one simple rule: "Everything that we see on these characters in both memories are probably pieces that that person might have in their closet." In other words, "It's not as if all of a sudden she looks glamorous and high-end in Noah's memory of her," Duncan says. "She's dressed like a local girl from a small town in Long Island in both her memory and in Noah's."
Sex Changes Things
So far, there has been only one time on The Affair in which Noah and Alison are wearing the exact same outfit in both flashbacks: The day they had sex for the first time. Duncan says she and her team were adamant about flipping the script for that momentous occasion. "We all felt you would remember what you were wearing and what the person you're in love with was wearing when you first have sex," she says. And Noah and Alison's subsequent, and frequent, sex scenes gave Duncan a break from those complicated wardrobe choices. "The wardrobe required is not something anyone will see," she says with a laugh.
Maintain Some Limits
Duncan decided not to extend Alison and Noah's shifting wardrobe device to the other characters on the show. "We felt like changing every character in every scene would become a gimmick," Duncan says. "We couldn't justify it." There are two big exceptions: Noah's store owner wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and Alison's rancher/surfer/drug dealer husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson). "We felt like you'd really, really remember what your competition is wearing — maybe even more than you remember what your lover is wearing," explains Duncan.
And in one of the show's few comedic touches, Noah and Alison's memories of their romantic rivals' wardrobes are even more off-the-mark than their memories of each other's. "Noah makes Cole into the Marlboro Man," Duncan says. But through Alison, we see Cole rock a surfer casual look. "He’s not running around in cowboy boots in the house," Duncan says. "He's from Montauk." Similarly, Alison transforms Helen from the stylish-yet-sensible mom Noah sees into this glamorous New York City sophisticate whom Alison clearly finds intimidating.
Impressions, Like Clothes, Change
Now that The Affair’s first season is coming to a close, we’re seeing a shift in the way the characters remember each other, and themselves. While still hopelessly in love with Alison, Noah’s rose-colored view of her has darkened somewhat — and so has his memory of her wardrobe. In a recent episode when Noah confronts Alison about her and her husband’s illegal activities, she’s wearing black. "She's no longer in these sweet little sundresses," Duncan says.
And then there’s Sunday’s sure-to-be-explosive season finale. When asked what clothing clues she sprinkled into that episode, Duncan laughs and says simply, "We changed a lot of the rules."
The season finale of The Affair airs Sunday, Dec. 21 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.