Disguises to Adidas: ‘The Americans’ Costume Designer Shares Tricks of the Spy Trade

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings.

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. Patrick Harbron/FX

Welcome to our TV Fashion column, where TV Ate My Wardrobe‘s Emma Fraser discusses the trends in television apparel. This week: The Americans‘ costume designer shares tricks of the spy trade. 

Airline uniforms and cowboy hats, dad sweaters and silk blouses; on The Americans costumes range from everyday attire to disguises and both perform the function of blending in. Whether it is keeping up the pretense of perfect suburban family life or getting some vital intel, the clothes Elizabeth and Philip Jennings wear is a vital tool in their spy arsenal. I spoke to The Americans costumes designer Katie Irish about the new season – which returns to FX Tuesday, March 7 – the process behind crafting disguises, heading into 1984, research inspiration and not having to worry about such a big coat wardrobe for Elizabeth this year.

Katie Irish has worked on The Americans since episode 5 of the first season when she was brought in by costume designer Jenny Gering to help out with some big background scenes and when she took over at the start of last season there was the extra task of hiding Keri Russell’s IRL pregnancy as it wasn’t going to be written into the story. This meant a whole lot of props including giant salad bowls, raised counters in the kitchen and coats…so many coats. Despite doing a great job of concealing (my sister didn’t even notice she was pregnant) the latter is still something Irish notices “But I still watch it and I’m like ‘Oh look, she’s sitting in her bedroom wearing her coat, why is she still wearing her coat?’”

But there was some maternity wear on display as Pastor Tim’s wife Alice was in her third trimester and this is not the kind of garment that you can easily find when shopping vintage for one very big reason; they are far from flattering. As Irish explained to showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, “Do you know what maternity fashion looked like in the ‘80s? Because it does not look like what it does today. It is not stylish in the least. I will make it as stylish as humanly possible.”

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. Patrick Harbron/FX

Americans tailor Sarah Moore built the clothes from vintage patterns and even then they ended up adjusting things because they were just too big. “We took them down easily by a quarter or a third as far as how full they were. It was still that voluminous and large,” Irish said. “Put a bow up high so everyone looks at your face and just ignore anything below that is kind of the idea it seemed like for 1983 maternity fashion.”

Even style icon Princess Diana had her work cut out for her in making these clothes look good and she was one of the inspiration points for Alice’s entire look with Irish referencing this particular moment saying, “God bless this woman she is trying and she looks as stylish as fashion is going to allow her at this moment, but it is still not great.” (Also, it seems The Americans was slightly ahead of the Princess Diana renaissance curve as FX has just announced that season 2 of Feud will focus on the royal couple. More ‘80s fashion ahoy.)

There’s no need to worry about maternity clothing or bump hiding in season 5 as Alice gave birth in the season finale and Russell had her baby in May. There will be less coat-wearing indoors and a return to Elizabeth’s silk blouses. Irish hinted at “Things that are a little more streamlined, which always suit Keri’s petite frame.”

Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings.

Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. Patrick Harbron/FX

High-waisted pants are must from this period, one thing that Irish has to remind actors of during fittings. “The universal comment from me is ‘Pull your pants up, keep pulling,'” she said. “I’m like, ‘I know it’s a lot higher than you wear them today. Keep going. You see how long that zipper is, yes keep going, keep going. There you go. Find your belly button and that’s where your waistband is.'”

This isn’t to say there won’t be new outerwear as this show is filmed in New York during the winter months. Instead of buying vintage or, as was the case during Russell’s pregnancy, getting a new Coach coat in multiple sizes, Irish designed one from scratch. A number of versions of one item are often required due to the number of stunts, and Irish explains that “The advantage of making a coat is that way I can always have multiples if I need it. I have used [Elizabeth’s coat] to death. My assistant designer will tell you it’s almost on its last legs now. We’re going to have to retire it after this season.” Sadly this means if you’re looking to

Sadly this means if you’re looking to buy a coat like Elizabeth’s this year then you’re going to have to find someone to make it for you.

But, if you do want to wear something that appears on The Americans, sports apparel might be your best bet with sneakers being one port of call. “The whole market for classic sneakers has really been a godsend for us,” Irish said. “There are so many times, especially for background, where shoes can be very difficult just to have enough when you have huge background scenes. A classic Adidas shell toe is a classic Adidas shell toe.”

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbron/FX

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. Patrick Harbron/FX

While I am still on the hunt for a Dunlop T-shirt like Philip wore last season – Irish told me to keep an eye out on Etsy – there is another flashback to a big brand with Paige wearing Esprit in the season premiere. I asked Irish what made her pick Esprit–especially the sweatshirt–for Paige. “I have a month of prep and I love to spend the first couple of days just immersing myself in all of the various magazines, catalogs, TV shows, music and movies that all came out at that same time,” she said.

“One of the things that just seemed ubiquitous across both school yearbook photos and in magazines and on TV shows was Esprit. It just came up and it was something everyone seemed to have. So it seemed like one of those things that would be a cultural touchstone moment for setting us in ‘84, but that wasn’t out of character for Paige to own or for Elizabeth to plausibly have bought for Paige.”

The Americans is now in 1984 and this has never been a show which has screamed “This is the ‘80s” in an over the top way, but as we move further into this decade of many questionable fashion choices there will be some subtle changes. Irish points out how “Philip and Elizabeth still look like Philip and Elizabeth. Obviously, if there is a new blouse, her blouse might have a bit more shoulder pad to it than it did last season, but it’s not something radically different.”

The place where you might see more of the trends, Irish said, is on the younger characters. “Teenagers want to be current to the time. They’re the ones who are reading the magazines, they’re the ones who have some expendable income. They’re not paying the gas bill or a house mortgage. So they go and they buy the new pop culture T-shirt or whatever the newest earring is. So usually that’s how we start to navigate the time changes in each season. The other thing is just color palette. We’ve been shifting it more into a ‘80s color palette away from the late ‘70s which the show started with.”

Disguises also tend to be one avenue for exploring the more extreme fashion choices of this period and Patty was one such an outlet for this last season; Irish points out that “I was able to pull in the color palette from ‘83, the jumpsuit trend and that kind of big thing that Elizabeth would never have worn, but it made sense for that character and that disguise.”

Alas, Patty is ‘dead,’ and saying goodbye to disguises is hard, so I discussed with Irish how losing Martha to Russia means Clark and Jenny have been put out to pasture. But those items are still on hand rather than being sent elsewhere. “Just in case because you never know,” Irish said. “He’s not dead.”

Research for disguises takes different forms with magazines and catalogues playing a big part depending on who Elizabeth and Philip are pretending to be and you can see a lot of the kinds of images Irish uses for inspiration on her Instagram (she also gives a great behind the scenes look at the many people who work on The Americans)  As Patty is the most fashion forward disguise we have seen so far I asked where Irish looked to when creating a character this glamorous as opposed to the more dressed down Jenny “I did a lot of Vogue, I did a lot of Cosmo. For Jenny there was a lot of J.C. Penny catalogue and Sears. Things that would’ve been much more mainstream.”

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings and Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings and Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. Patrick Harbron/FX

So how do they develop a disguise look? Well, multiple departments are involved and Irish told me all about how they go from page to screen giving the example of two new disguises Philip and Elizabeth are debuting this season. The looks in question are Dee and Brad, who I mentioned in my ‘TV style to look forward to in 2017’ post.

“From the writers’ office we get bios for these people, not something that is ever included in the script, it just helps me know; here’s how old they are, here’s how long they’ve been flying, here’s who they fly for, she loves cooking. Little tidbits to help fill out these disguises so you can begin to know them as another person, which is the goal when creating a disguise is they have to be plausible. Obviously, because he’s a pilot that dictates how long his hair can be, that dictates what facial hair he can have because there are rules and regulations. And flight attendants; it was still in the period where some airlines told you what lipstick color you had to wear. Things like that. There some rules that start to get set up.”

A big group meeting follows with the costume, hair and makeup departments, producer Chris Long and the episode director all discussing their research and then they settle on a look. In this case, they had already decided that Brad flies for Pan Am so that dictates certain aspects such as the gold trim on the uniform. Next, comes the fittings, another collaborative process: “At the end of the day they’re the ones who have to bring it to life, so it doesn’t really matter what I think if they’re not comfortable in it.”

The resources used to create the disguise costumes on The Americans can vary greatly and there are a number of things Irish factors in. “It really depends on how these characters are written and those bios we get from the writers’ office,” she said. “That begins to tell me where this character would shop, what’s their socio-economic status, how much expendable income do they have, how much do they care about what they look like. That’s really been what dictates where I go for research.”

When I asked where the weirdest place she got a piece of research or clothing from, the answer is Etsy. “[Etsy] has been an invaluable research source for us. I got these beautiful magazines that actually had patterns in them as well from the Ukraine.”

This led to me asking about Philip’s son Mischa and Irish remained tight-lipped about what we can expect from Mischa’s attempts to find his father. The same went for my inquiry about the cowboy hat we see Philip sporting in the promo. The Americans cast and creative team, like Philip and Elizabeth, are very good at keeping secrets.

Tune in to FX on Tuesday, March 7 at 10pm to find out more.

Emma Fraser is the creator of TV Ate My Wardrobe and spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion and costuming; Abbi and Ilana’s Broad City style, the wigs on The Americans and Mindy Lahiri’s pajamas are just as vital as talking about ’90s, ’00s teen shows. Emma has a MA in film and television, and she probably holds Angela Chase responsible for this path. You can find her on Twitter @frazbelina.

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