“Designated Survivor”

October 21, 2016

Anna Wyckoff

In the ABC show Designated Survivor, United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) assumes the Presidency following a tragic explosion, which claims the lives of the sitting President and all his cabinet members. In the age of 24-hour news cycles and dozens of broadcast networks, never have audiences been savvier about what real government looks like. Creating credibility is the greatest challenge Costume Designer Nancy Gould faces as she clothes a world audiences know well.

In addition to striking the correct tone of familiarity, Gould must adhere to an entire government’s endless rules regulating the appearance of its employees. Documentary research is her cornerstone. Additionally, she counts advisors from the FBI and the White House as part of her team. “It is intense,” she says, “because the show covers every branch of the military and every way that you could depict the military, you want that part to be completely accurate, because that is what’s real. The point of this story is to make it as real as possible and as current as possible, but also deciding where to take artistic license.”

The scope of Gould’s task is astonishing. It is an enormous, fast-paced show and she can be shooting multiple episodes at one time. With thirteen regular characters and about twenty day players on average, she can be dressing as many as 60 people per show. She takes pride in creating all the looks of the background as well as the principal characters. “I think it’s unique to create the background, too. For example, we just had a party and literally dressed everyone from head to toe, which was incredibly rewarding.”

Designated Survivor shoots out of Toronto, but Gould relies on Los Angeles for most of her rentals and purchases. “There really are no costume houses up here to speak of, and definitely not military resources,” she explains. “The military is sourced completely out of LA, predominantly through Eastern Costume.”

For the President, the First Lady, and the White House officials, Gould uses understated elements to add subtlety and believability to each character. With President Tom Kirkman, she created an arc in his costumes, where he becomes increasingly refined. “In the pilot we took more of a professorial approach to his clothing. You had to know he was a lower level cabinet member. Then, there was a point where he had a beautiful three-piece, custom-made tweed suit, it just set him apart a little bit from the navy-grey that predominates the White House. Consequently, when we get to the end of the pilot, he borrows someone else’s beautiful navy suit and you can see the difference of where his life was and what lies ahead.”

For his wife, Alex Kirkman (Natasha McElhone), who is an EEOC lawyer at the beginning of the series, Gould took a more casual, less traditional approach. Gould mixed corporate items with details like boots. “As Natasha transitions into her official role, I didn’t want to make her just the wife, just the First Lady. It was important to me to reflect that she is a strong, intelligent woman in her clothing and not lose her in a world of suits. My approach is playing on the feminine/masculine influence of times past, and my inspiration for her is Lauren Bacall. Her clothes have an interest to them that is a little bit of a throwback, sort of a style icon, and sort of elegant.”

Imperative to Gould is to service the story and not disrupt the flow of the plot with frivolous costume choices. She veers toward a darker, more sophisticated palette to underscore the gravitas of the drama. Even within the tight framework of the political world, Gould finds breathing room to make small moves which have a big impact. “It is important to me to have accuracy and distinction. But I think it’s the believability, which keeps the beat of the story going.”

Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays on ABC at 10 p.m. ET


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