After episode four of The White Lotus season two aired, Haley Lu Richardson searched her name alongside her character’s name, Portia, and the name of the series on Twitter. “It was such a shocker for me,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting all the stuff I saw.”
Indeed, Portia—the depressed Gen Z assistant on vacation in Sicily with her unstable boss, Jennifer Coolidge’s indelible Tanya McQuoid—has become something of a social media flashpoint in this season of the HBO series, mainly because of her wacky fashion sense. Richardson saw posts about her looks being a spot-on depiction of 20-somethings in San Francisco, while others said “I hate Portia’s wardrobe, but then I look in my closet and I’m the exact same—I don’t know what to do with that information,” the actress paraphrases. She got defensive on behalf of costume designer Alex Bovaird when she saw a tweet claiming Bovaird put her in the “ugliest shit.” “I was like, you’re not getting it,” she remembers. “She’s a character. We collaborated. We made this person together.”
Now, Richardson wants to be a part of the conversation. In fact, she says she’s been itching to talk about Portia's outfits, which have included, among others: A cropped, oversized Ralph Lauren Polo with a crocheted bucket hat, baggy pants, and a dinosaur necklace; a zebra-print bikini top with a striped knit shrug; and a two-piece going-out number with a bandeau top and bell bottoms. The sixth episode, which dropped Sunday, features another baffling ensemble: a Lee Pipes two-tone shirt in pink and purple paired with a patterned blue skirt. Her eyeshadow always clashes with her clothing and her nails are a chartreuse that is both trendy and “stomach-bile green” (Richardson’s words).
But all these deranged ensembles are carefully calculated by Richardson and Bovaird to capture Portia’s aimlessness. “Portia is consumed by TikTok and ‘the discourse,’ Bovaird writes to W in an email. “So we thought it would make sense that she is trying hard, and that she follows the mish-mash trends. She makes bad choices and is lost, doing a random job, so whenever we got her dressed, we tried to tell this story in the clothes, too.”
Before filming, Richardson discussed with Bovaird how Portia might shop at Urban Outfitters and thrift stores. But when the actress arrived on set for her first wardrobe fitting, she was surprised by how “eclectic, loud, and wild” the looks presented to her were. She was thrown off. “But then I was like, I actually love this,” she says. “I was talking to [creator] Mike [White] about Portia and her desperation, this extreme desire to feel alive, to feel like life is giving something to her, like she has a purpose in the world. It would make sense that this messy desperation would be reflected in what she wears.”
Bovaird and Richardson followed a particular mode of operation: If a Portia outfit looked too cute, they would add something to throw it off. Richardson cites a crocheted dress paired with Converse that Portia wears out to dinner with Tanya. “I was like, ‘We need to add something that throws this off,’” she recalls. “Then we got this long-sleeve shirt with some contrasting, not-compatible pattern, and tied it around my waist. Then it felt like Portia.” Bovaird thought of it this way: “You know that expression from Coco Chanel, ‘Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off?’” she writes. “Portia looks in the mirror and adds one more thing.”
Bovaird sourced Portia’s outfits from vintage stores, Depop, Urban Outfitters, and Zara. But in the world of the show, according to Richardson, Portia is definitely lured by Instagram ads. That’s where she likely got the House of Sunny midriff-baring look she wears for a date with Jack (Leo Woodall). “She talks so much about not wanting to be a part of the social media-verse, not wanting to be controlled by that,” Richardson says. “But the sad irony is, she is so deep in it, so controlled by it. She couldn’t throw away her phone if she was paid a billion bucks.” And she would definitely buy something that was advertised in her feed while doomscrolling at 2 AM.
At least one item, however, came from Richardson’s own closet. Actually, she even made it herself. That crocheted bucket hat was one of the actress’s own creations—and she is a staunch defender of it. “I wear an even crazier version of that bucket hat regularly,” she says, noting that her other one is rainbow-colored. There were two hat options to pair with the polo—the other was a pastel yellow sun hat with flowers. Richardson went for the bucket. “I don’t know what people have against bucket hats all of a sudden,” she says. “I think they’re cute.”
Though Richardson says that both she and Bovaird are “protective” of Portia, she also notes they agreed a particularly egregious, mismatched shirt-and-skirt combo in the final episode will test even the biggest fans. “Things do get extra wacky with that purple top and the skirt and those infamous white sandals that were even a joke on set,” Richardson says. Costar Theo James would tease her about the “ugly-ass sandals,” and Richardson says she’s inclined to agree with that description. “My mom thinks they are ugly,” she adds.
Whatever your opinion of her ensembles, Portia has undoubtedly struck a nerve with viewers—and Richardson has a theory as to why. When the character is introduced, she’s possibly the most relatable of all The White Lotus guests—a harried assistant with a shitty boss. But as you spend more time with her, she becomes just as complicated as everyone else.
“I would challenge people to find some sort of understanding for her,” Richardson says. “And also, if they can’t—ask themselves why they despise her so much. Is it because they know someone like her and that makes them uncomfortable? Is it because they have similarities and that makes them uncomfortable? I think that’s what this show is all about: making people reflect on their own lives.”