A Queen of Hearts in a House of Cards

The world's greatest collection of pencil skirts (and spoilers) ahead

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.

“Sex Shouldn’t be Comfy!”

A review of Kinky Boots

A classic makeover story, 2005′s Kinky Boots laces together two stories that become irrevocably intertwined somewhere between a drag queen’s broken heel and a young englishman’s broken dreams.

Charlie Price’s family shoe making business is failing; the market for well-made oxfords is dwindling with the rise of fast fashion, and Price is forced to start laying off employees and contemplating closure. Desperate for some sort of sign, Charlie mistakenly wanders into the life of Lola, a drag queen he assumes to be a woman and tries to save from assault. Later in her dressing room at a nearby drag bar, Lola complaints to Charlie about the reoccurring problem she encounters during her acts: her sexy shoes are poorly made, the heels collapsing or cracking under the pressure of a male-bodied person. Although he’s confused, Charlie takes a step into the unknown and sets his mind to building Lola a pair of new boots.

Charlie’s first pair of fetish boots are, to be concise, a complete failure. Cut from burgundy suede with a chunky, short black heel, he presents them to Lola with pride. She of course is mortified, openly resenting the idea that she inspired something “the colour of hot water bottles”.

“Red! Red is the colour of sex!” Lola cries,”Red is the colour of fear and danger and signs that say Do Not Enter.”

“But they’re comfy!” Charlie argues.

“But sex shouldn’t be comfy!” Lola returns.

Based on a true story that inspired a BBC special and a musical, Kinky Boots is all about the traditions and trends surrounding shoes and their makers, and the meaning they take on for consumers and their various identities.

For Charlie, shoes have always meant hand-sewn leather men’s brogues, a tradition passed through his family. For Lola, the very same shoes are a nightmare: even as a child, Lola is shown trading her basic brown school boy’s shoes for bright red bow-accented pumps. For these two people, shoes mean completely different things. Charlie sees them as something ordinary, comfy and practical, and Lola sees them as a tool that can contain or free her depending on their shade and cut. Charlie’s company (Divine Footwear in real life) ends up building the perfect sex-filled stiletto boot in cherry red, but revolutionizes the industry by putting a steel rod in the heel that can support a man’s weight. This innovation gives drag queens like Lola the confidence to sing and dance in their sexiest shoes on sturdy footing.

// Research by Sofie Mikhaylova

What Do You Become When You Can’t Be Yourself?

A look at the role of clothing in the struggle to shape one's identity in the film Pariah

Something stuck with me after I finished watching Pariah for the first time, but I couldn’t quite put it into words. The film is strong, emotional, and surprisingly realistic compared to other lesbian films I’ve seen over the years. It took a second watch for me to realize what was really moving me throughout the pain-laden plot: the clothes. I have never seen a life so ruled by clothing as the main character Alike’s. For her, clothing can mean fear, strength, punishment, or acceptance. It’s all about the timing.

Pariah opens in an all-ladies club, and Alike (or Lee as most of her friends call her) sits in awe of the women dancing on poles in front of her. She’s accompanied by her best friend Laura, who appears to be much more experienced in the scene. The two complement one another perfectly: Laura with a diamond stud in one ear, an Afro, and a red plaid shirt, and Alike in an oversized striped polo, do-rag, and cap.

But when the pair separates on the bus ride home, Alike starts to strip. The hat comes off and a bun of corn rows is revealed. Under her polo she wears a tight pink t-shirt with sparkle embellishments that spell out “Angel,” and small hoop earrings are added to complete the look. Her old clothing, along with her lesbian identity, is tucked out of sight into a small army-print bag.

At home, it becomes obvious why Alike needs to hide. With an extremely religious mother and absent father, she is constantly pressured to look like a normal, pretty, teenage girl. Her mother, ruled by the fear that Alike is in fact a lesbian, constantly urges her to go shopping, and makes a point of commenting on clothes that “really complement her figure.” Like her hidden bag of boys’ clothing, Alike stuffs the truth beneath layers of fear and uncertainty, and continues lying to her parents. Meanwhile her mother continues buying tight pink clothing in too-small sizes and complaining to her friends that, “For some reason Lee just doesn’t like anything I pick out for her anymore.”

Upon arriving at school the next day, she rushes to the washroom to change again, this time swapping her feminine attire for a tight white undershirt, a large graphic t-shirt, and a cap. Although she’s in clothing that mirrors her friends, she still seems uncomfortable and detached, miserably drifting through the day alone. When school is out, she switches back and heads home where she’s pressured about what boy she’ll take to the homecoming dance. The switches continue back and forth, over and over. Just watching it is exhausting.

From “strapping” with a dildo in her pants to look “harder” to impress a straight girl, to softening and finding a middle ground between who her friends think she is and who her mother says she is supposed to be to try and find happiness, Pariah covers every step of Alike’s transformation and every layer of clothing she pulls onto her body and off again. When she finally realizes there’s nothing wrong with the person she’s been hiding, she breaks and the truth she has been piling under bedazzled t-shirts, cardigans with pulling buttons, and skirts is revealed. She finally gives herself permission to stop changing, and settles somewhere between the two extremes she’s been trying to dress for. With her hair uncovered and tied in a loose knot, earrings in, and fitted sweatshirts where massive polos were once donned with shame, she is no longer Alike or Lee: She is simply herself.

Pariah puts the importance of dress into perspective for us. Not only is dressing important to how we feel about ourselves, or how others perceive us, but it has the power to change our lives, for better or for worse. In Alike’s case, one poorly timed outfit swap could crumble her entire life, her family’s love, and her friendships. It made me realize although clothing has always meant freedom for me, it can be the opposite too. Some people are trapped in their clothing, and there’s no simple zipper or button solution to release them.

All The Stars Explode Tonight

Looking at this year's Best Costume Oscar nominees

Whether you decide to hate watch the Oscars this weekend or turn it into a drinking game (is there really a third option?), I know I’ll be tuning in for at least one category. Best Costume Design is one of the few ways achievements in clothing is recognized in the mainstream media that isn’t on a best/worst dressed list. It doesn’t hurt that it is also relevant to my love of movies. So who’s gonna take home the golden statue? Trying to guess is half the fun (drinking games are the other half).

Anna Karenina
Jacqueline Durran

Durran has been nominated for an Oscar twice, once for Atonement (of the infamous green dress) and once for 2005’s Pride and Prejudice (both by Karenina director Joe Wright), but has never won. As an assistant costume designer, she worked on Topsy Turvy (only one of my most favourite costume porn movies EVER), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (seriously), and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Anna Karenina’s costumes are as lush and opulent as you would expect to find a period piece starring Keira Knightley (translation: every Keira Knightley film that isn’t Bend it Like Beckham). Though the competition is tough and I’m not sure if Durran’s work is enough to charm the Academy over her competition, she’s already won my heart. Really, isn’t that the most important award of all? (Rhetorical question, it clearly is.)

Les Miserables
Paco Delgado

This is Delgado’s first Oscar nomination ever, and as costume designer on Les Miserables, he was responsible for making over 2200 outfits (what did you accomplish today?). He’s receiving international acclaim for his work on Les Mis, including nominations for Spain’s Goya award and a BAFTA. In the past he’s worked with Alejandro González Iñárritu on the costumes for Biutiful, and Pedro Almodóvar on The Skin I Live In. This film and has been getting a lot of attention on the awards circuit, and the costumes were featured in the December 2012 issue of Vogue, but everything is pretty standard historical drama fare (with the exception of the Thenardiers, natch). There are definitely more interesting entries in the category this year, which is why I don’t think this will be the winner.

Joanna Johnston

Despite more than 20 years in the business, this is Johnston’s first nomination. She is particularly known for her collaborations with Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,The Colour Purple). Lincoln has also been an award season favourite (because America, duh), and the costumes are pretty good, although it’s mostly just Sally Field’s, and I don’t see it being the winner. It just doesn’t get me excited like any of the other nominees. The majority of the costumes are just old dudes (and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in black wool suits. Maybe there’s a top hat or a patterned vest to spice things up. For the most part, the costumes are booooooooooooring. However, because the Academy is made up of stodgy Olds, that might be a point in its favour. Plus not having it win might be considered treason, I don’t know.

Mirror Mirror
Eiko Ishioka

Remember last year’s Mirror Mirror? Yeah, I don’t think many people did. If you’re going to skip it though, it’s worth at least checking out the screencaps for Ishioka’s fabulous work. She won once before, in 1992 for Bram Stoker’s Dracula—the costumes in that movie are incredible, so justly deserved. She has designed costumes for theatre, film, and print, and was known as Japan’s leading art director and graphic designer. Her first film was Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. She died on January 21, 2012,
and since the Oscars love giving awards to the recently departed, I predict she’s going to win. Plus, even though Mirror Mirror was a total flop, there’s no denying that her ornate, over-the-top costumes are incredible.

Snow White and the Huntsman
Colleen Atwood

Yes, there was more to this movie than Kristen Stewart’s British accent! This is Atwood’s 10th (!!!) Oscar nomination. She has won three times, in 2002 for Chicago, in 2005 for Memoirs of a Geisha, and in 2010 for Alice in Wonderland. The first movie she worked on was the ’80s coming of age film Firstborn (I’ve never seen it, but both Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Downey Jr. are in it, so I might have to). She is a frequent collaborator with Tim Burton, notably working on Edward Scissorhands. (And on top of Edward, her first Oscar nomination was for 1994′s Little Women, which means she is already a winner in our eyes for getting to play dress up with Winona Ryder on multiple occasions). Unlike Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman is a much darker and grittier interpretation of the classic fairy tale, and Atwood’s costumes reflect that. They’re just as dramatic as Mirror Mirror’s, but lack the whimsy (and colour) of Ishioka’s designs. Given her pedigree with the Academy, if Ishioka doesn’t win, Atwood probably will. Call it the battle of the Snow Whites. And yay for fantasy films being nominated!

Who do you want to win? Join us on Twitter on February 24 as we live-tweet the events.