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Will Tea Leoni, who plays newly appointed Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord in CBS’ new Madam Secretary, embody Hillary Clinton? Politically, perhaps (or not). But you won’t see her navigating Capitol Hill in boxy pantsuits and unmoving hair.
Costume designer Amy Roth sidesteps anything that evokes the potential 2016 presidential candidate’s notoriously clunky image. She relies on such designers as Giorgio Armani, Stella McCartney and The Row to make it clear that while McCord is “not a fashion queen,” she takes a more modern, sophisticated approach to Washington style.
Creator and showrunner Barbara Hall has said Leoni “brings her own political pedigree” to the role. Roth also took her cues from the actress when developing McCord’s style. “I pictured somebody like Tea in the White House,” Roth says, noting that the actress’ grandmother, Helenka Pantaleoni, co-founded UNICEF in 1947 and Leoni herself is a UNICEF Ambassador [since 2001]. “They’re a family that’s used to being of service. So she steps into this very easily.”
Like Leoni herself, McCord dresses with a subtle sophistication. Though it’s miles away from the looks of former Secretary of State Clinton, pantsuits aren’t off the menu. “Is she sitting on a panel? Then she should probably wear pants,” Roth says. “This is a woman who advises the president on foreign affairs. Her wardrobe should reflect her ability to exercise good judgment in all matters.”
The marriage of modest chic with smart sensibility is just one of the ways in which Leoni’s television wardrobe reflects the new rules of Washington power dressing:
Femininity can be powerful.
As a politician, you want to exude confidence and power. Masculinity, however, isn’t required. Condoleezza Rice typically wore skirts and dresses, Roth notes. After a style intervention in the pilot, McCord dons curvy silhouettes, skirts that show a little leg and silk-tie blouses. “She’s not concealing her femininity,” Roth says.
Buttoned-up and traditional is out.
“With the Bush administration, you weren’t allowed in the Oval Office without a jacket and tie. The Obamas represent the new regime,” says Roth. This show reflects the new reality. Sleeves get rolled up and jackets are shed.
Another way McCord’s look differs from former Secretary Clinton: no chunky pearls. “Hillary doesn’t show her neck, not much,” Roth says. “It’s a scarf, it’s pearls, it’s diversions.” Modern Washingtonians, even on the flip side of 50 (or almost), don’t balk at showing their necks.
Leoni, 48, is accessorized with personal choices, like gold acorn earrings that are symbols of peace. She and her onscreen husband, Tim Daly, wear the same, non-gender-specific necklaces, designed by Kate Jones, as symbols of their marriage. “None of it’s meaningless,” Roth says. “Elizabeth and Henry are a team. They are a modern, healthy couple who are equals. They are progressives.”
Unfussy hair trumps overly styled.
At a basic level, Leoni and Clinton have similar hair: shoulder-length cut, blond highlights. “But they’re very different,” says Chris Clark, Madam Secretary’s hair stylist. “[Leoni’s] has many more layers. It’s a casual elegance, not overly styled. We like flyaways. We like it to be a little rumpled at times.” (Leoni’s cut is by Clark; her color is by Marie Robinson of New York’s Marie Robinson Salon.)
And like most politicians, Leoni’s character doesn’t wear Clintonesque headbands, scrunchies or plastic butterfly clips.
“I think Elizabeth’s style is more easygoing than Hillary’s,” explains Roth. “She’s more subtle. It’s a modest sensibility and it’s hip thinking. It’s very progressive to just go in to the job and not make it about you.’”
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