Spy Eye: An Interview With the Costume Designer for The Americans

Illustration for article titled Spy Eye: An Interview With the Costume Designer for The Americans

Like most married couples, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings have their share of ups and downs, passion and apathy, parenting mishaps and frequent misunderstandings and breakups. Unlike most married couples however, The Jennings, the TV family at the center of The Americans, are also undercover Cold War-era Soviet spies living in 1980s Washington DC.


In case you've never watched the show—or actually lived through the era—it's easy to cringe and imagine that the clothes the characters are wearing are less about personal style and more about conforming to the decade's overblown permutations of polyester. But Jenny Gering, The Americans' Costume Designer, elevates these looks to become a complex array of fashion and disguises that weave together the larger narrative. Somehow, she makes all the buttoned-up necklines, tube socks and polyester skirts convey tension and suspense. I spoke with Gering about the new season of the show, her thoughts on dressing (and undressing) spies and The Americans' new racy and refined collaboration with lingerie brand Cosabella.

Jezebel: Have your relationships with Elizabeth, played by Keri Russell, and the other characters changed as they evolve?

Jenny Gering: The characters on a well written show will change and evolve. Elizabeth is very complex and I like who she starts out as. I like the bones of the character. I like what she has to do, but as the story evolves that affects me less—I'm able to pick and choose what I relate to. Oddly enough, I like her as a mother. Not that I think she's a good mother, but I like that she wants to be. Her decisions, while sometimes off the rails, come from an honest place and I think that's what I relate to. That sets the stage for me with how she wants to portray herself as a woman—just Elizabeth, and not the disguises that she has to wear. There's an earnestness that I can relate to. For me that translates to her sartorial choices. She responds to natural fibers. There's a realness to it that attracts me.

That's an interesting thing to say, considering that the rest of her is so fake or contrived.

It is so fake, but I don't see it that way. It all stems from her having such a strong belief in her beliefs. It comes from an honest place for her.

When you design her costumes, do you try to choose what she'd think about wearing? Or is it more about the persona she's about to assume?


I have the same process for all the characters. I try to empathize with them. I just sort of design the clothes based on the choices that I'd make. It doesn't go to that level with Elizabeth. That would be more of a brain teaser than that needs to be. It's so instinctual to her. She would be wasting a hell of a lot of energy if every detail of every day had to be orchestrated for her.

What about regular women and how much time they spend trying to wear the right clothing or figure out how to dress the right way for the parts they play in their own lives?


I think that you're overlapping two issues. How much time are people women really spending figuring out their clothing or outfits? I'm not sure. The second part is— it's not a struggle, or at least it shouldn't be. It's not so torturous for me because it's what I'm good at. There are so many other things that I'm not good at, but this is natural for me.

In terms of women, one common question from women is: "Am I crazy to be spending so much time [choosing an outfit], or is there a way to streamline this process?" Or they seem to be asking "Why do I always feel like I'm failing at this? How can I be better at this?" Most women don't think they're good at choosing their own looks. They see it as a constant challenge.


So how can women streamline the daily process of choosing what they wear?

I'm not the kind of person to offer those good sound bytes. You know, " You must own one black jacket and a crisp white shirt." No. That's not it at all. It's about confidence. It's about giving yourself room and breath to appreciate who you are. I'm not immune to it. None of us are. We're all bombarded with copy telling us that we're wrong basically. But I'd much rather be complimented on my style than what I'm wearing. There's a big difference between who you are and what you wear. I'm so hyper-aware of this. There's such a limited amount of women who have access to everything that most women dream about—but somehow even they never look right. They're just following a formula and it looks really boring.


I'm always attracted to someone whose look is like it came from inside them—an interesting necklace, their grandfather's ring that they wear on a chain. That becomes the building blocks of their personality. I think women are so scared to just be themselves and wear the things that reflect that part of themselves. Those are the interesting women, the ones who give themselves permission to make mistakes. To explore. If you don't have that, you're not building a foundation for yourself. I think it's a real shame. It's something that women don't realize.

That's one thing about Elizabeth—the woman is confident. That's why she is sexy and that's why women respond to her clothes. They're basic pieces. She's sure of what works on her body and what works for her lifestyle. She has an appreciation for quality and a refined aesthetic and all that put together makes her attractive and makes the clothes so interesting.

Do you see lingerie as a confidence boost underneath clothing?

I hope so. I love every aspect of dressing as a woman. I love it. They get to tell a story. I love that if I'm bored or running errands I can put on a silk teddy underneath and it's another layer as to what's going on in my head. You should never feel that it's superfluous. I think it's important. It's like eating. Are you just eating to live or are you experiencing a fine meal with wine or candles or whatever makes it special? Live. Enjoy as much as you can.


Is that how the partnership developed with Cosabella?

I like where they're coming from as a brand. I've used Cosabella pieces in the past for Elizabeth. None of it is overtly girly or trying too hard. There's a confidence in the collection that I respond to. I feel that they allow their history or their quality and design aesthetic to speak for itself. It doesn't have to yell. I always respond to that quiet luxury. It always made perfect sense for me.


So do you, and your personal style, evolve as you work with certain characters and shows?

Not so much as the characters do, but yes, I'm affected by culture and trends and I do think I evolve. I do think there's been a consistent thread to my own look. It's sort of influenced by men's tailoring. I think it's a good balance between masculine or feminine. My look is not super duper girly girl, I love my heels and that's just a part of me, but I also enjoy the fact that I change. It keeps me fresh and plugged in and interested.


Rachel Weingarten is a lifestyle writer and columnist and native of Brooklyn. She's also a style expert, personal brand consultant, and former celebrity makeup artist. Rachel is the author of three nonfiction books, including Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days of the Year(Fall River Press, 2014) For more about Rachel, visit her online hub or tweet her @rachelcw

The third season of The Americans premieres tonight, January 28, at 10 pm ET on FX. The Americans and Jenny Gering's collaboration with Cosabella is available at select stores and online.


Image via Craig Blankenhorn/FX


House Milkshaker of Daftbollocks

My favourite thing about the Americans is that a Welsh bloke can play a Russian playing an American playing loads of different Americans. Such is the power of acting and wigs.