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How ‘The Americans’ Costume Designers Turned Russian Spies into Undercover Americans

How ‘The Americans’ Costume Designers 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.


The Americans Split - H 2013

Jenny Gering, costume designer for FX’s espionage thriller, (which premiered on January 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 clichés. It’s not. 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 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, and loosely follow 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 is 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 even 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, its all influenced by what you did.’ He could not have been nicer and more helpful.”

Not only was she inspired by Kaiserman’s designs, she also used a pair of her mom’s vintage Susan Bennis Warren Edwards boots, worn tucked into Kerry’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 ½,’ 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 femenswear: 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 in disguises from call girls to 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,” Greing 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.”

 

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