Costume Designers for 'Scandal,' 'Downton Abbey' and 6 More Top Shows Reveal How They Redefined Female Power Dressing This Season

Courtesy of Subject

Many of TV's most talked about shows revolve around dominant women — from a D.C. power broker to British aristocrats, a transgender septuagenarian and a time traveler — breaking through personal and professional barriers.

Kemal Harris (With Johanna Argan) 
House of Cards (Netflix)

Harris: "I came on board in season three. I have a background in red-carpet styling and was asked by Robin [Wright] if I would be her costume designer on the show. I was limited on the color palette since our camerawork is dark and moody, and we don't do primary colors. This season we used eggplant, burgundy and deep green, along with some lilac for Claire [Wright's character]. She is so sexy and so strong, and I love that you never see her cleavage or see her in a miniskirt. In season four, Claire is in an evil headspace and battling with good and bad. We would use trim as a contrast — black suits and white trim, gray suits with dark trim — playing the contrast with what was going on in her life."

Amy Roth 
Madam Secretary (CBS)

"Tea Leoni influences me the most because in my mind she could be secretary of state. She wanted to look like she wasn't unapproachable or polarizing, so this season I put Tea in more color and fuller and relaxed clothing. Everyone tells me how good Tea looks in red, so I put her in red blouses. She wears jackets to the office since her character never knows when she will be called into the White House or situation room. I buy ready-to-wear and make a lot of her suits. She wears Armani, The Row — she loves their three-quarter-sleeve jackets — Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana, Carolina Herrera and Zac Posen. She has no statement bags. She is a politician, and I try not to do 'fashion' since it could come across as fickle."

Dan Lawson
The Good Wife (CBS)

"It's all in the details and about finding feminine shapes, even if that means using slightly masculine fabrics. This season, I used Andrew GN suits for Alicia Florrick [Julianna Margulies] and would often add lace on the edge of a sleeve. The color palette definitely changed in this final season; there is a more neutral tone. Alicia had become extremely sophisticated, and neutrals don't necessarily have to mean black — we used taupes, mushrooms, interesting greens and lavenders. Julianna can carry off a neutral tone like nobody's business. One of Julianna's very first outfits was a black suit by Tahari. We ended the show with her dressed in a black Armani jacket [above]. I also used Max Mara, Escada, Akris and items from my line, 35DL."

Terry Dresbach
Outlander (Starz)

"We had to go through a massive undertaking to create the first season [Scotland in 1945 and 1743], and then season two was a completely different world [Paris in the 1740s]. We made 10,000 garments for season two alone, including hats and shoes, and we make our own fabrics to be accurate. Claire [Caitriona Balfe] and Jamie [Sam Heughan], who likes her just the way she is, was very powerful to me. The appeal of a marriage of equals is remarkable. Translating that was important. We wanted to retain a sense of the modern woman and dressed her in suits. The re-creation of the Dior Bar Suit [above] was a favorite. We used no vintage and made everything. Designers I looked at for the 1940s were Balmain, Balenciaga and Charles James."

Marie Schley 
Transparent (Amazon)

"Creator Jill Soloway's characters are very nuanced and have both good and bad qualities, so trying to showcase that was an exciting challenge. Season one was all about how Maura [Jeffrey Tambor] was expressing her more gender-neutral side, and in season two she's evolving and wanting to be more comfortable. We used clothing that was age-appropriate, and I dressed her in vintage since I was influenced by Maura's liberal background and thinking of her being young in the 1970s. Comfort was also important as far as what makes Jeffrey feel good. He needed to be able to move, so the clothes are flowy. Maura was more into dresses this season. I especially loved her dress for Yom Kippur."

Lyn Paolo 
Scandal (ABC)

"There was a major shift in the psyche and color palette this season for Olivia [Kerry Washington], as she was no longer her father's puppet. There was also a huge transition midseason in how we left Kerry with choices. I created mood boards and found that [Scandal creator] Shonda [Rhimes] and Kerry liked brighter and more shocking tones. Standouts included a Derek Lam red leather trench I had shipped from New York the morning of a shoot; I added gloves at the last second. I dressed Olivia in a Ferragamo purple, orange and black coat and more dresses and skirts this year for a sleek contrast from last season. I shop for Olivia all season and buy across the spectrum — Escada and Prada have been good to us."

Anna Mary Scott Robbins 
Downton Abbey (PBS)

"The effects of social change in the mid-1920s on womenswear were especially pertinent. I looked to Chanel, Patou, Lanvin and Callot Soeurs for their influences on each of the characters. I wanted to reflect Lady Edith's [Laura Carmichael] blossoming, both personally and professionally, within her working world in London. I explored interesting necklines, pattern, print and embroidery. I continued with signature [color] palettes for our characters but looked to reflect storylines. So while Lady Mary [Michelle Dockery] continued to wear deep primary colors and jewel tones, her palette softens when she eventually gives in to her feelings for Henry [Matthew Goode]."


Mining Tough Historical Details

‘Certain cloth was like branding’ as costume designers on two slave-era dramas found the fabrics and styles to help re-create a painful era in American life

Ruth Carter 
Roots (History) 


“Clothing for the slaves was an industry since many arrived naked. It became the responsibility of the owner to clothe them. There was a house dedicated to making clothing, and the plantation owners used a certain kind of cloth [such as gingham], which was like branding. Forest Whitaker [who plays Fiddler] starts out as a slave in good favor with the lady of the house and assimilates in the white world. He was a special slave who wore frocked three-pieces, hose and buckled shoes. He also wore a banyan coat, which we aged to look like a hand-me-down.”

Karyn Wagner 
Underground (WGN America)


“I read the book What We Wore, about pre-Civil War clothing, and found many of the items were ‘refashioned’ — the clothes would show marks of being remade for house servants, donated by the lady of the house. Heavy damasks and silks were used for the plantation owners, often paler in color. Every group had a color palette, so it was easily identifiable for the viewer. The slaves wore heavy cottons and an earthy palette — brown and camouflaged. The mistress of the house dressed the slaves like the damask wallpaper, treating them like upholstery. It was the only power she had over the slaves.” — C.W. 

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.