Ryan Murphy is set to make a splash with his Netflix debut, The Politician, where Ben Platt plays Payton Hobart, a bookish golden child with dreams of going to Harvard and eventually becoming the President of the United States.
But first, Payton will stop at nothing to become class president at his Santa Barbara high school, with the support of his mother Georgina and crew of political advisors in tow.
Some might say an effective politician is only just as good as his wardrobe, and the clothing Payton wears is deliberately chosen to match his buttoned up mood. The rest of the cast, too, takes notes from a very Palm Springs inspired aesthetic for this political satire. For example, when we are first introduced to Georgina she is sitting poolside, wearing a green caftan and painting a picture of a young boy killed in an airstrike for a series "to raise awareness and money for the Syrian war debt" while her shirtless twin sons brag about hunting Siberian bison. Payton sits nearby fully clothed in a red sweater and reading a Richard Nixon biography. It's not the last time we see Georgina in an unnecessarily elegant ensemble that may not be appropriate for the activity in which she is participating.
For The Politician, Murphy hired one of his longtime collaborators, Lou Eyrich, with whom he has also worked on multiple seasons of American Horror Story, to build out the "opulent" wardrobe for Georgina, Gwyneth Paltrow's mildly self-parodying character and the intense look for Jessica Lange's scheming Dusty Jackson. Costume designer Claire Parkinson built out the looks for the rest of the cast—including Platt, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, and Laura Dreyfuss.
Here, Eyrich and Parkinson break down their methods for developing the bold and brash wardrobe for Murphy's series.
How did you get involved with this show?
Lou Eyrich: I’ve worked with Ryan Murphy for 20 years, and I do all his shows. Claire and I had worked side by side on The Knick and I was on American Horror Story. She and her sister were in the office next door and we became friendly from that. I loved their style and the way they worked, so we offered the job to Claire.
Claire Parkinson: It was really great because I always got to see Lou working on all her amazing shows, and she was going to New York for Pose, talking about all of the vintage stores she was going to go to. I grew up mostly in New York and my mom was a stylist before I was born, so I grew up in the vintage world. I always wanted to work on an amazing show that was pushing the envelope, so it was amazing to get this opportunity from Lou and Ryan. It’s such an exciting project where you really are pushing the limits with some amazing creative choices.
What was the initial inspiration behind the costumes for The Politician?
Eyrich: The tone of the show is always set by Ryan. He’s very specific, he always has a vision. He pretty much sat down with Claire and I and told us he wanted the opulence of Santa Barbara. He gave us our direction, then we did a bunch of boards, then we went back to Ryan and he says what he likes or doesn’t like and we run from there.
What did some of those mood boards look like in the early stages?
Eyrich: With Georgina’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) look, he always wanted her dressed to the nines. Over-the-top, in an evening gown while she’s gardening, dripping in expensive jewelry, always dressed inappropriately.
Parkinson: We talked about influences from Palm Springs photography, but also the satire. Ryan had so many amazing references, he has such a vast knowledge of references, so we created boards based off of our conversations with him. For Payton (Ben Platt), we looked at really strong politicians like JFK and Robert Redford’s character in The Candidate. We looked at all sorts of inspiration for everyone. For McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), we were looking at Gloria Steinem and Katharine Hepburn, and also looking at David Bowie and making her a bit androgynous. Every character’s board had different icons. We looked at street style a lot for Skye (Rahne Jones) and we looked at Ali MacGraw in Love Story and Jackie O. for Alice (Julia Schlaepfer). We pulled inspiration from everywhere to figure out what story the characters are trying to tell through their clothing.
Eyrich: We also had to be really careful because we knew it wasn’t going to air for a while, so we couldn’t follow any specific trends that would date us.
Parkinson: That was something that was really exciting. We were trying to make it very timeless. Influence from everything, from high fashion runway to vintage. We love sourcing vintage. McAfee was wearing a lot of vintage ‘70s blouses underneath her contemporary suits. Even Skye was influenced by ‘90s Marc Jacobs grunge ads. We were looking at so many different decades. Astrid (Lucy Boynton) has a bit of a mod look to her. That’s what fashion is, it’s more about their voice I think, and what inspires them.
Did any of the actors provide any input into the wardrobe choices? Especially those who have worked with Ryan before like, Gwyneth Paltrow or Jessica Lange?
Eyrich: The people who have worked with Ryan a lot, like Gwyneth, Jessica, and Judith Light, they know the world of Ryan Murphy and how Ryan has a vision, so they respect that and will always say, “Well, what does Ryan want?” They don’t come in and say, “This is what I want.” It’s “What does Ryan think?” That’s a big part of our starting point and then when I go into a fitting, we always contact them first and talk to them, and send them mood boards. Gwyneth was on board because she got to wear fabulous designer stuff, and she’s so busy with her other five jobs and her kids that she has a very limited amount of time that she can spend on a fitting, so we had to be very precise and go in like a missile to get it done.
Parkinson: Ben had 29 outfits in the first two fittings.
Eyrich: You have to go into the fittings knowing their whole arc and storyline. But Jessica, it took a little coaxing to coax her into this wig and those clothes. She just wanted to make sure it wasn’t cartoonish. She understands how important costumes are, and it’s all integral with the makeup and the wigs. She wanted to make sure in the fitting, what’s my hair going to be like, what’s my makeup going to look like, and understanding that this woman had to dress much younger than her years and had to be a little bit unaware of herself. Other than that, she was like, “Whatever Ryan wants!”
Parkinson: I think for a lot of the younger cast, it was really them figuring out who the character is. One of the first things you do when you start a show is the fitting. We get the script and we do the fitting, weeks before filming if we’re lucky, and some of the actors come into the fitting not quite yet knowing who this character is because we don’t have a lot of scripts yet. We might have one that we’re working with, and helping someone like the character played by Zoey Deutch, Infinity, I mean she just transformed in that fitting. And it’s really lovely to see as a costume designer. That very much is a collaboration because you’re helping them find the character. Sometimes they do walk out and are like, “Oh, I’m really starting to understand this character a little bit more through how they’re dressing and what they’re trying to express.” That’s really true with characters like Skye, who is a little bit more of a rebel.
Eyrich: This cast was very respectful of the process. None of them came in and said, “This is what I want.” They were all very collaborative.
Parkinson: Ben is so wonderful, because he really wanted to become Payton. We did six hours of fittings in two days to help create Payton with him and to get Ryan’s vision across.
And he had 29 outfits?
Parkinson: It was pretty wild because a lot of them were suits. I think one episode was 15, one was 14. You have to get a good range of looks in one fitting. Some of them have really strong senses of fashion as well. Like Lucy Boynton and Zoey Deutch, too. Strong fashion sensibilities. But they know this is a character and our fitting with Zoey was four hours because she wanted to be Infinity more than anything and she became her. You forget you’re fitting Zoey Deutch, and you’re like, “Oh, right. This is not this doll-like character, it’s just Zoey.”
How do you strike the balance between making a character seem just over-the-top and too cartoonish?
Parkinson: Even with Alice, I want her to be influenced by Princess Di and Jackie O, and even though she’s a bit ‘80s preppy, it’s like, how does that work now? We actually ended up making a lot of her skirts. I couldn’t find them in the stores. I was looking for a very specific silhouette that was a bit 1960s and even ‘50s. So all of her sweater sets and color palette—the pale pinks and oranges and greens—those weren’t all in the stores, and if they are then they’re not the right shape. Because that’s not what people are wearing right now. But you also want the viewer to feel like she’s still in high school, but obviously it’s a satire. It’s very classic, but also calculated. Her character was one of the most difficult to shop and it’s actually one of the most simple wardrobes of the whole show when you break it down. I would find a Chanel sweater set at a vintage store that would look better than something I could find at any fast fashion, or even a lot of the high fashion brands.
You touched on this a little bit earlier when you said you didn’t want the show to feel dated to any particular time period, but was there anything you really tried to stay away from? Or anything Ryan wanted you to stay away from?
Eyrich: Not a lot of black. We hardly used any black on anybody. It was very colorful.
Parkinson: Yeah, we didn’t use brown, either.
Eyrich: It was all strong colors, strong personalities, very opulent. It was all about money and attitude.
Parkinson: We really stayed away from denim, too. Except for Infinity’s character. I think Skye might have had some, but they always had an elevated touch, like grosgrain down the sides. I think we only did black for Astrid and the characters when they were in mourning.
How did you establish a color palette that would be bright but not too distracting?
Eyrich: It’s not like the whole thing happens at once. It’s orchestrated so that you see if Ben is in this and he’s with these two people, you want to make sure all of the colors are coordinated. Claire did the main cast so we would check in with each other about what Gwyneth is going to wear and what Jessica is going to wear, so that we don’t all show up in everything white. Claire would line up the whole line and be like, “Oh we’ve got three people in blue.” So you orchestrate it.
Parkinson: Certain characters had very deliberate color palettes. Infinity was very doll-like, Minnie Mouse colors. We did a lot of pale pinks and pale blues. Payton had a lot of Americana colors, like red and strong blues, but not just navy. If you notice, a lot of the colors that both Georgina and Payton wear, they wear a lot of red, so just classic bold colors that could tell their story.
McAfee wears a lot of monochromatic suits throughout the series, what other references were you drawing from when conjuring up that character?
Parkinson: The power suits are having a comeback in the best way. I love the ‘80s power suit very much right now. I believe McAfee’s green suit is Rachel Comey. It has a ‘70s vibe, it’s a low breast, cropped pant, knit. We wanted to make her very calculated with what she’s wearing because her whole agenda is to get Payton elected. So for her it was almost a suit every time. She dresses really well and has a lot of power in how she dresses and likes to show it, but it’s still a little bit uniform-like. They’re bold colors, but sometimes she’ll be wearing a high top sneaker to keep her youthful, or a vintage t-shirt with a strong slogan. She was very much influenced by Katharine Hepburn and Diane Keaton. Strong female figures that influences who she is and helped tell the story through her suits. She had these sky high Margiela platforms that were a little rock and roll, and really chunky Celine loafers that she wore with the green suit I believe. It was a bold statement that she was trying to make, but very much inspired by the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Eyrich: A lot of that came from Ryan as well. He would say he wanted the Gucci pearl sunglasses on Alice. He’s extremely specific about colors, like, he’s the one who wanted Gwyneth in the green caftan. And the Gloria Steinem glasses on McAfee.
And what about for Judith Light and Bette Midler near the end of the season?
Eyrich: I love them both, and we had so much fun dressing them.
Parkinson: Because this is obviously a satire, a heightened reality, we still wanted the Judith Light character to be a bit conservative but stylish, not like your typical politician. But we still made her color palette with navy, red, with some earth tones. Glamorous and put together. I also wanted to make sure we used good broaches. Keeping it youthful and strong but also power suits work for all ages. I don’t want anyone to think that you have to be a particular age to wear a power suit. Also, the show is really sexy. We wanted her to be confident and effortless. For Dede, played by Bette, we wanted her to be really glamorous and stylish. Ryan mentioned really bold colors, great jewelry, beautiful coats. A bit Carolina Herrera-influenced. It’s interesting because I shopped at a lot of the same places for a lot of the cast, and pulled vintage for everyone, including Bette. She was wearing a beautiful blouse getting a manicure and we wanted to make her bold with a vintage teal necklace.
How would you define the hallmark style of a Ryan Murphy production?
Parkinson: It was very much about making sure each character has a really strong voice and making really bold statements with how they dress. I think that’s what ties the show together. It’s opulent and powerful, but also the characters are real and have vulnerability. Even with Payton in the early episodes, if something was off, I’d change the way he dressed. If something emotional was happening in the storyline, I might not put him in a monochromatic red sweater and burgundy pants, or a pale green outfit. He might be wearing an oversized sweater, but still fabulous. It’s very deliberate. For Astrid, when she came back from New York, I put her in black. And that’s because she was mourning this life where she got to run away and escape. Ryan has such a strong vision and it’s really exciting to work with him and bring that to life with him.