House of Cards opens on Frank (Kevin Spacey) a congressman who has just been passed over for Secretary of State, a position he had been promised by the newly elected President. Incensed, he does not return home until late in the evening where he find his wife Claire (Robin Wright) waiting for him, angry that he didn’t call her during such a significantly pivotal day. The two main characters of the show are introduced and they are the couple who can teach Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Napoleon and Josephine a thing or two about political maneuvering, scheming and subterfuge. Frank ends their quarrel with an apology. Claire stalks off, throwing glassware on the ground, and calls out, “My husband doesn’t apologize, even to me.”
The stakes are set, and they are high.
When Claire finds Frank again, it is the dark hours of the early morning. They share a kiss. Frank hands his wife a cigarette and says, “We’ ll have a lot of nights like this, making plans, very little sleep.” Claire smiles her approval. Galvanized by their epic scheming, Frank announces he better get to work. Claire’s response is appropriate for sharks circling in for the kill: “I’ve got a suit for you upstairs. The navy blue one.”
Dressing the array of characters angling for power and position with the dedication of mobsters was a task not suited for the faint at heart. It was an opportunity costume designer Tom Broecker embraced.
Broecker has worked on Saturday Night Live since 1994, during which he earned five Emmy nominations. He’s also been the costume designer for 30 Rock since 2006, which has earned him another Emmy nomination. Broecker was brought onto the project by executive producer John Melfi. After a two-hour meeting with director and executive producer David Fincher, it was clear he was the perfect person for the job.
“It was one of those projects where the script is amazing, David Fincher is amazing, the production design was spectacular, and the actors are just fantastic to work with,” said Broecker.
House of Card‘s entire season of 13 episodes premiered on Netflix on Feb. 1. The series is an adaptation of the original BBC drama series of the same title based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, a British politician and author.
Adapting the series and setting the drama in Washington involved extensive research. Broecker lives in New York and much of his preliminary research could be done from home. “Because [the show] takes place in Washington and is about politics, it was easy to do initial research. Most of it took place online, watching CNN, and C-SPAN and getting congressional information from The New York Times.”
Although Washington isn’t far from New York, it is an entirely different world. In order to soak up the subtleties, Broecker immersed himself in the research in the field. A couple of months before shooting began, he began taking spy trips to Washington. “I was just hanging out, watching people going in and out of buildings [outside of Lobby, Congress buildings], camping myself out, taking lots and lots of photos surreptitiously to get a really good feel for what sorts of people work for what types of governmental offices,” explained Broecker.
Realizing a particular look for each individual character was a collaborative effort, Fincher presented back stories for the characters. “We had a template for who these people should be and what they should look like and we went from there,” said Broecker. Fincher directed the first two episodes, setting the stage for the entire season, and passed the directorial seat to guest directors for the following episodes.
Broecker noted that the process of working with a mix of directors required an attentive eye to the congruency of the characters. “David thought of this whole experience as a 13-hour movie. It was about setting the tone from the very beginning and running with it and letting the guest directors come in and have their ideas and feeding off of them as well. My job was hearing what the guest directors wanted and funneling it through to make sure it was cohesive with what the original ideas were for these characters.”
It also took a shared effort with the actors to bring the main characters to life. Spacey, who did double duty also serving as an executive producer, and Broecker met to discuss the details of his character. “Kevin wanted to have a nod to the British show, so we chose a British company (Gieves Hawke on Savile Row) to get all his suits from. They don’t necessarily read as English, but they read as something other than American perhaps… The whole idea with Kevin is that he was always put together and meticulously tailored.”
Constructing Claire’s look was a task Broecker particularly reveled in. “The initial idea for Robin is that she had to be the female version of Kevin, sort of a modern day Lady Macbeth. There’s no one in Washington who came to mind when creating her. She needs to constantly be toe-to-toe with Kevin in the tailored, crisp and refined. For both her and Kevin, the idea is that they use their clothes as armor and as a facade to keep them apart from others. We all do to a certain extent. We put on our clothes to project a certain idea, and the idea [for them] is that the moment they walk out the door, they are public personas, so they always have to have a layer of protection, which is their clothes, to keep their internal life from seeping out. Part of that was to have her clothes always beautifully tailored. She’s very clear, very streamlined and very linear. This woman is not frilly and feminine, but incredibly sexy. But the sexiness just happens, it wasn’t overt. It was a fun, amazing thing to be dressing her.”
It was a challenge for Broecker to dress the main characters, the supporting characters and anyone who is on camera with the help of only one assistant. Shopping, dressing and minding all the specifics of so many characters and adhering to the color palette was an overwhelming volume of work. Broecker approached the massive scope of his job with a dedication that rivaled the determination of the ambitious characters he dresses. “There are those moments when everyone is working toward the same vision and it was such a strong vision you can’t help but want to do your best. It was a lot of work but then you see the final product and you say, ‘Wow, that’s why you work so hard.’ It all came together.”