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Interview: Costume Designer Claire Parkinson on the Heightened, Aspirational World of ‘The Politician’

THE POLITICIAN (L to R) JULIA SCHLAEPFER as ALICE CHARLES, BEN PLATT as PAYTON HOBART, LAURA DREYFUSS as MCAFEE WESTBROOK, THEO GERMAINE as JAMES SULLIVAN, and RAHNE JONES as SKYE LEIGHTON in episode 2 of THE POLITICIAN. Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX/NETFLIX © 2020

It’s been a full year since season two of The Politician debuted on Netflix, but the show, which has yet to be renewed for a third season, is indeed eligible at this year’s Emmy Awards. Though it managed just a few nominations for season one, its best shot to repeat may be for its costumes, which stand out almost as sharply and boldly as its colorful and highly opinionated characters.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with costume designer Claire Parkinson on what drew her to the show, the joy of exploring identities through clothing, and an intriguing, albeit very different, upcoming project.

Q: Let’s talk about The Politician!

A: Great! It’s crazy, it’s been a year since I’ve really talked about it because we finished right before the pandemic started last March.

Q: Wow. So how did you become attached in the first place to the show?

A: So, I was designing a television show called The Mick at Fox Studios, and I always was around Lou Eyrich, who was designing a lot of Ryan Murphy’s shows, really all the Ryan Murphy television shows, and she was going back and forth to New York to work on Pose. And I was always talking to her about New York, because I’m from there, and we were talking about all the vintage stores. I was telling her where I like to go, and we had this great friendly relationship. One day, she called me, and I was actually in Italy on a trip with my sister, and she called me and she said, I have this great new show that Ryan’s creating, that Ryan Murphy Television is creating, and I think you’d be the perfect fit, would you be interested? And I said, yeah, I’d love to! And I met with Ryan and her, and we talked about the characters for about a week, and I did inspiration boards for every character. And it kind of just happened like that.

Q: How did your own familiarity with Ryan inform your approach to this show?

A: I think I just knew this is going to be this really heightened, aspirational world. I felt really lucky because before I had really even read the script, I had many meetings with Ryan, and I knew the very aspirational nature of these characters. And I also love collecting vintage. I grew up with a mother who collected vintage, who was a stylist as well. And I knew that this show is going to be very timeless, heightened, colorful, very California, and working with Ryan, he has such a strong vision that when I came up with all the characters with him and Lou, who worked with me on season one, I had a really strong idea of who each person was before their fitting. Obviously, things pivot in a fitting, because that’s where the magic really happens, but we just had the best, very informational back-and-forth dialogue about who these people were, who inspires them, what icons they look up to. And it was very different than any kind of contemporary show I’ve done.

Q: How do you work with the production design department, because it often feels like the characters’ outfits are informing the sets behind them, but I’m sure it probably goes more the other way.

A: Yeah, it’s such a collaboration. I’m working on something right now that just every day, I’m like, can you send me what fabrics you’re using? I want to know what the floors are. I want to know what the walls are. We talked a lot with Jamie McCall, the production designer, and each location we’re going to be filming in, where we can bring in color, which rooms are more neutral that need the color of the wardrobe. There was one scene I love from season one, where Payton was wearing this mustard yellow sweater, and I saw that the molding had some mustard at the ceiling, and the rest of the room was pretty teal, but it’s this great combination, he’s running back and forth from the table and this strip of paint matches his sweater. It’s such a great moment when you see it come to life on camera and you’re watching the monitors. Sometimes you change it too, because it doesn’t make sense. I’ll do a rehearsal and I might be like, ooh, let’s go back and take out this outfit, like if the location is darker. Especially in season two in New York, I was so worried about everyone looking too dark. I didn’t want to do all-black New York. I wanted everyone to still have the California edge, but more mature. How can we bring that into these dark, mostly fall and winter locations? I needed Alice to still be wearing pale pink and yellow. She might be wearing more prints like Jackie O pale pinks and yellows, but she also needs to wear Americana political colors. The production design and the costumes were such an integral part of the show. They had to be in order to bring this Ryan Murphy saturated world to life.

Q: As you mentioned, there’s a big transition between season one and the finale, and then season two, in terms of all the characters sort of growing up, which they don’t really do. But they’re definitely changing, going from high school to college and post-college. Did you do completely new boards for everyone, and how did that process work?

A: I did. It was a few years later now, I think it was two or three years later. We wanted McAfee still to be wearing suits, but instead of high platforms and sneakers, she was wearing loafers. Everyone had little pivots in wardrobe. Some were more substantial. Astrid, I was like, she’s Brooklyn meets downtown rock and roll, we’re bringing in metallic and leather and faux fur. Let’s make her a little more badass. For Payton, let’s do more ties, but he’s still not going to be your typical politician. He’s wearing like Prada platform flats and very Tom Brown cropped pants. And instead of wearing typical navy suits, he might be wearing a rust-orangey-brown with a stripe mock neck underneath. We wanted every character to still be this very heightened version of reality and more mature, for sure. I mean, we also had Bette Midler and Judith Light this season, and we also didn’t want them to be your typical politician. Although Dede is a politician, she still might be wearing a leather pleated skirt with some knee-high boots, maybe not on the campaign trail, but also, behind the scenes, there’s a little mischievousness, especially between Hadassah and Astrid. I wanted them to have these strong, female, powerful moments with their clothing.

Q: Did any of the actors have input or try to have input into what they’re wearing? Do you take any of their real personalities and adapt those into the characters’ wardrobes?

A: Yeah, for sure. When I met with Bette Midler early in the process to discuss her character’s style, the shapes that work really well on their bodies, you have a real conversation about the colors that look good on someone’s skin tone. We also designed a lot of her wardrobe. So before we had scripts, I was already sketching and sourcing fabrics for her. We knew Hadassah was going to be wearing very bold 80s kind of yellows and teals and fuchsias, and honestly, a lot of it you can’t shop. You have to design. So we did a lot of sourcing that way for her. Every character is such a collaboration. The best part of my job, I would say, is the fitting. It’s where the magic happens. I love to help actors navigate who this person is, who they’re inspired by. McAfee, we talked a lot about David Bowie, and Annie Hall. Why each character dresses a certain way, it’s really a conversation. For sure, one of the best parts of my job.

Q: If you had to choose, is there someone you’d say you enjoy dressing the most? You should correct me if that’s not the proper industry term.

A: Yeah, styling. I mean, there’s little parts of everyone. I would dress McAfee, if I could wear a cool suit every day I would. But I also really love Astrid’s style because, although she looks trendy, she’s actually wearing a lot of vintage. Her clothing might be a brand new Louis Vuitton black monogram jacket, but then she’s wearing a bright pink turtleneck and then an 80s bubble skirt. Everything is over-the-top. Big jewelry, big sunglasses, little handbags. Clothing that is different every episode. A lot of the characters are kind of uniform in style, but her style is all over the place in this very fun way, where you’re always kind of surprised by what she’s wearing.

Q: Is there somebody who you say is most challenging to style?

A: I think Alice was one of the hardest characters, because all the clothing she wears is not something that’s necessarily trendy at all. So you have to really dig for special pieces. We were finding old Chanel from probably fifteen years ago. Her fittings are really elaborate, they’re very time-consuming. Everything is very ladylike and put-together, and a lot of times are looking at pieces from the 60s that we might be recreating for her character now and trying to make it more modern. It’s this very vintage-inspired first lady and how can you make that cool now. That’s really a challenge, but something we loved, because she’s not showy, she doesn’t care about brands, and she also has a very specific color palette. So you have to find pieces that fit within that color palette and shape and texture. So Alice was a little bit more challenging, but very rewarding.

Q: I don’t know if you know anything about whether a season three is in the cards. If it was, what kind of new outfits and new direction would you be looking to take with the characters?

A: Oh, gosh. I really wouldn’t know until I read that script. It would be an amazing dream come true if they did it again because it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had so far as a costume designer. I really think it was an amazing opportunity, and it’s pretty rare that you get to have a show that is so timeless, unique and heightened. I think, if Payton was going to be running for president, or what’s his next campaign, how can we still keep that really fun and bring that satirical element to life within a real White House-type scenario? That would be a challenge for sure.

Q: What else are you working on right now?

A: I am designing the new Amanda Seyfried starring as Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos for Hulu. Elizabeth Meriwether wrote the script, and I’m literally starting my first fittings this week. I’ve been tied to this project for a year and two months. I got it one week after I got home to LA from The Politician in New York and we’ve pushed four times. So knock on wood, we’re filming in about three weeks, I’m really excited. Our cast is insane. I don’t know who’s been released, but I will say, I think it’s going to be a really cool project. And it’s a true story!

Q: You have a slightly different approach to that show, I assume?

A: Yeah, lots of research, but a lot of interesting early Y2K clothing. So, looking at a lot of trends that were in at that time. A lot of them were really awful in the early 2000s, and how can we make this look okay. It’s more grounded in reality, which is a different type of challenge for me. They’re really interesting characters. The people that are involved with the big fraud of Theranos, there’s a lot of research, there’s also a lot of politicians that kind of got brought into the mix as well. And she was on Forbes covers. She just was a very terrifying story that we get to tell. And I think Amanda’s going to tell it in a really cool way. I’m really excited. It’s based off the podcast, it’s called The Dropout.

Q: There’s a lot of black for sure in that one.

A: Yeah, but, we’re definitely doing a lot of pre-black turtleneck moments that we get to create ourselves because there is a lot of research of the before.

Q: That sounds very interesting. I look forward to seeing that, and hopefully, one day years from now, The Politician season three and beyond.

A: I would hope so. I miss all of them so much. It was the best cast and crew and it’s been such a strange year that. Last season, when we were nominated for the Emmys, it was kind of bizarre because we were all at our homes and we never got to really go and experience it. It was obviously so amazing to be nominated, but it was also sad that we didn’t get to share it with a lot of our crew and creators like we normally would. And it was my first nomination too.

The first two seasons of The Politician are streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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