How 'The Americans' Costume Designer Turned Russian Spies into Undercover Americans
Costume Designer Jenny Gering used her mom's closet as main inspiration for the 1981 wardrobes seen on FX's latest thriller.
Jenny Gering, costume designer for FX’s espionage thriller The Americans (which premiered on Jan. 30), wanted to do a period show that didn’t scream ‘80s.
“My main goal was not to distract the audience with a lot of fashion cliches. It’s not Hot Tub Time Machine. My job is to set this show in 1981 and let the audience relax and enjoy the story.”
The story – written by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, who happens to be the brother of Slate editor and noted political journalist Jacob Weisberg -- centers around Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, two Russian spies embedded in the U.S., where they talk, act and dress like Americans. The pair, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, are in an arranged marriage with two very real children. The series loosely follows the true-life stories of Russian sleeper agents undercover in the States.
“Honestly, as soon as I heard the show’s year, 1981, I thought, 'I have to do to this,' and it was like second nature. I relied heavily of an old friend of my parents, Bill Kaiserman, who designed a line called Rafael ... Most of my mother’s closet consisted of his clothes. My dad, too. I grew up seeing my parents wearing his designs. That’s the reason this period resonated so deeply for me, because I know that moment in fashion so well.”
Gering found much of her inspiration for the show’s early ‘80s looks in her own past -- her high school yearbooks, as well as her mother’s closet. She found an old look-book of Kaiserman’s fall/winter 1977 collection, which she calls her ‘bible’ for dressing the extras and the principals. She even contacted Kaiserman, now living in Milan, to tell him about her gig and thank him.
“I haven’t seen Bill since I was about 12 years old. But I called him as soon as I got hired and told him, 'You are my inspiration and whatever I’m seeing, it's all influenced by what you did.' He could not have been nicer and more helpful.”
Not only was she inspired by Kaiserman’s designs, but she also used a pair of her mom’s vintage Susan Bennis Warren Edwards boots, worn tucked into Keri's high-waisted, stiff, vintage Lee jeans. The shoes were a quintessential '80s luxury footwear brand worn by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jackie O.
"The boots are a size 6 and a half, which is Keri's size,” says Gering, with a tinge of mock bitterness. "So I thought someone might as well get some use out of them.”
Gering dresses her spies predominately in navy, grey, maroon and autumnal colors, which were popular in that time. “I do a lot of corduroy, tweeds and knits, very tactile fabrics. I try to stay away from black. This was before we got into the sleek black of the late ‘80s.”
She relies heavily on vintage pieces and combines them with new items from Brooks Brothers, Madewell, Theory and Old Navy. She loves Russell's character's classic American tailored pants topped with vintage Yves Saint Laurent silk blouses and accessorized with gold chains.
Rhys’s clothing is also predominantly vintage, with current pieces occasionally pulled from Brooks Brothers and Barneys Private Label.
But both actors frequently get to play dress-up, with disguises including call girls, nerdy businessmen and uptight secretaries. One of Gering’s favorite Russell get-ups was a recent “slutty” look worn when she had to recruit a compulsive gambler.
“She ensnares the guy during an illegal card game,” Gering explains. “So we put her in a black femme fatale wig, worked in a little black leather, a really tight skirt and took her to what you might call a very tacky place. “
As for upcoming costumes, like any good spy, Gering keeps things vague. "There are a lot of interesting disguises coming up. And that’s all I can say.”
"The Americans" airs Wednesday nights at 10 pm on FX