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'Showing Not Telling' with Claire Underwood's wardrobe from House of Cards

It’s an adage that storytelling involves showing and not telling, that is, showing us via other means, such as conversations, activities and relationships, who a person is. Easier said than done. This particular writing rule seems to be acknowledged in the breach. So here’s a superb example of how to show and not tell: the changing wardrobe of Netflix’s Claire Underwood, Vice President, occasional President, and co-schemer-in-chief on House of Cards. Her evolving clothing over five seasons says more than any text.

SPOILER ALERT: STOP READING NOW

When House of Cards started, Claire was seen in pencil skirts, glasses, and blouses. These outfits were prissy but also professional and functional. Many women have such outfits in the closet. Claire made lots of time to pound the pavement in running shoes and lycra. We saw her frequently on her bed in silky pjs reading or padding around her place barefoot. At this point, Claire had a job as the head of an environmental NGO, and thus had colleagues. She cared enough about this NGO to scuttle a bill that could have helped her husband’s career. She was respected enough about the environment that she acted as the soft power with the greenie members of Congress. While scheming against the sitting president and his wife, she once broke down in tears. She seemed to have friends, or at least peers, who came over for dinner and shop talked. At 50 she was overtly going through menopause and would stand in front of the open fridge door to cool herself. In other words, she was more or less like many middle-aged, career-driven ambitious women, only hotter. Okay, way hotter.

 

By season 5, Claire’s character had changed. Any ambivalence she might have about her role had been resolved. Her commitment to obtaining power was now set in concrete. And that changed her. But notice this: we don’t get told it changed her, we get shown it.

ABOVE: This shoe are Louboutin, one of two shoe designers that Claire Underwood wears. And if this shoe design doesn't make you wince slightly then you lack any human empathy. 

RIGHT: Because the black is the only change in colour, it emphasizes the waist. This is an earlier season as is evident by the smaller and more realistically sized breasts. Because the skirt ends above the knees, it is still possible to take a stride in it.

For one, activities outside this narrow pursuit ended. She had no life outside the White House and no hobbies, job or interests. The man she loved, and to whom she confessed her deepest secrets, she knocked off. No friends came to dinner and there was no laughing or crying, and she no longer sweated in front of an open freezer. She never left the White House itself – except to murder. Although she was large and in charge, her world had narrowed. In many ways, she was weaker: isolated, friendless, loverless, and dependent on two people with their own political agendas. She was therefore more vulnerable to the vagaries of politics and less secure in her position and status.

 

It’s a complex transformation. On the one hand, she had everything that she -and many many people- wanted. She was someone many people wanted to be. On the other hand, she suffered as a result and lived a life few of us would necessarily choose. How best to show us the contradictions of this transformation? What best symbolizes her new power but also the price she has paid for it?

 

Her wardrobe.

 

It changed to reflect her new reality. Her business suits went from functional to fetish. Her shoes became a tottering 5 inches that she never took off, regardless of the pile on the carpet or the hour of the night. She could walk, but only cautiously and after only a few steps, only with pain. Her tops were so skin tight that if she had an olive for lunch we could see the bump, and her skirts so narrow she was as hobbled as a cowboy’s horse. Check out her inauguration gown as the first elected female Vice President of the United States, her only elected position ever. Like all her clothing, it was a gorgeous creation that looked stunning on her. This off-the-shoulder white gown with a very short train granted her (like all floor-length white gowns) a touch of innocence. Yet it was so tight around the knees that she could barely walk in it and had to take baby steps. The single most powerful woman in the United States unable to freely move. That might have been a statement about the nature of power except that the elected President strode in wearing his dinner suit. So it was not a statement about the nature of power but a statement about her power in particular. As she went up the ladder she became less capable and more constrained, less able to manoeuver and more helpless.

 

But it’s more than that. The more powerful she became, the more eroticized her outfits. This was not an eroticism of soft pleasures, of languid afternoons sliding into sultry evenings. Nor was it an eroticism of fecund biology yearning for procreation. Instead, it was an eroticism of discipline, intervention, discomfort, coldness and control. Her heels must have hurt. They simply must have. Her figure, frequently outlined, was no longer within normal parameters. Her breasts had increased in size and were overly large for her thin frame, her waist was cinched in with belts, and her rounded bottom was clearly visible through the material. The clothing went up to the neck, down to the wrists, and at least below the knees. When skin was exposed, it was always her shoulders with her jutting collarbones, hard and unyielding, her jaw angled above. In case we missed the point, big brass buttons and regimental stripes announced the militarism. This was high fashion flirting with bondage.

 

As her reality became more extreme, her clothes became so too. As she achieved a status that no female before ever had, she looked less and less like a woman and more and more like a cartoon cut out of one. As the hunger for power consumed her, it also consumed her healthy clothes until she wore shoes that damaged her health. As she became more and more powerful in the hidden world of politics, we saw someone become literally more powerless.

 

This presentation was not accidental. It was a well-thought out strategy to show her character using a non-verbal language. Her reality’s been well told, just not with words.