When Netflix decided they wanted to create an original television series, they had two things: buckets full of money and unprecedented access to the viewing patterns of all Netflix customers. They knew that Netflix watchers liked Kevin Spacey, they liked political dramas, they liked the original British series House of Cards—I like to imagine a Netflix executive listing all these elements in a board meeting, gesturing with his hands, and then putting his hands together. “Synergy, man,” he would say to the nods and raised eyebrows of his fellow business associates. And then maybe they would all laugh maniacally before getting David Fincher on the phone.
While I have no problem dismissively reducing the bare elements of House of Cards to metadata and previous viewing patterns, the truth is, I love the show. Kevin Spacey plays a malicious, vindictive politician (is there another kind?) hellbent on destroying the careers of the people between him and the presidency. The first episode begins with him killing a wounded dog. On a moral scale, the show only goes downhill from there.
But what can I say? I love a trashy soap, especially a beautifully lit and exceptionally well-acted highbrow trashy soap. There’s no convoluted political drama too outlandish for me. And there’s no character I love more than Claire Underwood.
Playing Kevin Spacey’s wife, Robin Wright is an absolute and perfect queen amongst mere mortals. Wright plays her like an iceberg: ostensibly cold and unyielding, her lines of dialogue are sparse, clipped, and contain miles of meaning below the surface. Her smiles are few and far between and seem reserved for business associates (or business-like transactions within her own marriage). I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to like Claire. The very first episode shows her pressuring her office manager to fire half the staff at her non-profit organization. The office manager resists every step of the way, but does it to please Claire. Once the office manager has completed her task, Claire fires her.
After repeated viewings with many pauses to consider Robin Wright’s complete and flawless beauty, I started to wonder: is Claire Underwood the only character on House of Cards with a symbolic wardrobe?
When you have a television show that seeks to expose the highest levels of modern American government, there’s no room for creative liberties. We all know what politicians look and dress like. Their clothes are conservative and boring as hell. The colour palette is black, navy, gray, and white, with tasteful hints of red. Accessories are flag pins for men, delicate Tiffany earrings for women. Shoes are leather loafers and sensible heels, always black. Even the journalists wear a kind of uniform on House of Cards—sweatshirts, jeans, simple tight dresses and fuck-me heels when the occasion calls for them.
Of course Claire has patterns. As befits the wife of a prominent politician, she does subscribe to the unofficial dress code. Her colour palette is almost exclusively black, white, navy, and grey. She likes crisp button down shirts, thick-rimmed black glasses, crewneck dresses with t-shirt sleeves, pencil skirts, blazers, and silk blouses. She likes all these things to be tight. Her shoes are black Louboutins. Nothing about her wardrobe seems out of the ordinary. But I work at WORN—I know there’s always more to an outfit than our first impressions.
If I had to guess what Claire Underwood thinks of herself, I would say she considers her body a temple. At multiple points during House of Cards we see her jogging; her arms are lean and muscular, evidence of some sort of trendy and rigorous workout regime. Her meticulously organized vanity points to regular applications of only the best skin care. She’s even the type of woman who wears a slip under dresses. Claire Underwood knows how to put herself first.
But her outfits give the impression that Claire Underwood is not a temple unto herself. Rather, the more I stare at her tight dresses and pencil skirts in neutral colours, the more I see a pillar in the most traditional sense of the word. A pillar like the classical order of pillars in ancient Greco-Roman architecture. In one of the few scenes where Claire shows real fury, she lays bare a laundry list of all the morally ambiguous compromises she’s made in order to help her husband, and we realize that Claire has been the centre of this entire drama. While Kevin Spacey schemes and manipulates in the strangest Southern accent I’ve ever heard, Claire has silently been paving the way for his success at great expense to her own. She has been propping up her husband, bearing the weight of his political machinations, carved not out of ice but of concrete and stone.
I’ve seen other reviews comparing Claire to Lady Macbeth. I find that to be a horribly reductive and cliché take on what is a rare complex female character. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Claire Underwood has complete agency over her own life—while she benefits from her husband’s political ties, she wants them for her own benefit. Her non-profit agency brings clean water to developing nations. Her goals hardly begin and end with the social status she gains from her husband. It’s worth noting that Lady Macbeth was often the go-to comparison for Hillary Clinton—a sad reminder that we have few female archetypes to compare and contrast in contemporary culture, fictional or otherwise.
Early in the series, Claire has a professionally triumphant fundraising event. She wears a stunning silver dress that appears to be fused to her flesh. Later, Zoe Barnes (another female character I could write another 1000 words on) tries on this same dress. “It feels like armour,” she says, letting us know what such a dress feels like on a normal human woman.
It did not surprise me at all that Claire would not want to wear a simple, breathable fabric. Of course she would cover herself in something hard, something impenetrable, something that would protect her from the outside world, something more suited to who she really is underneath. In her clothes, we can see how she really exists as a pillar of unparalleled support amidst a cast of flimsy humans. Her tragedy is that she is all strength, all concrete, yet she exists solely to prop up a mere house of cards.