Washington, DC fashion looks one way in person (pretty sharp, we think) and another way on the fictional small screen. Think Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Nancy Reagan- red dresses on “Veep” (take notes, Hillary!) and “Scandal”’s Kerry Washington rocking sharp trenches and sharper suits as a political fixer. But how do costume designers figure out how to dress cap-city based characters in a post “West Wing” world?

Last night, the Smithsonian Resident Associates hosted a chat about just that with costume designers from two locally set hits: Netflix’s dark political thriller, “House of Cards” and FX’s 1980s spy-vs.-spy drama “The Americans.” We were on the scene for the conversation moderated by Washingtonian fashion editor Kate Bennett , and picked up clues on dressing to look powerful and, ironically, how not too stand out too much in a still-conservative town.
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Why does “HOC” star Robin Wright always sport oh-so-fitted dresses and menswear-ish shirts as she’s portraying Claire Underwood, wife of political star (and sneak) Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey? Tom Broecker, costume designer for Season One of the show, says her Prada and Gucci dresses, “are almost like suits of armor, yet they’ve got a femme-fatale sexiness,” — in part due to his staffs’ retailoring them to fit Wright like a chic second skin. She’s always in heels (usually Louboutins ), too, he says. “It’s something about the way heels give you a different posture, and a character like Claire wears them to go toe-to-toe with men,” noting that women characters in background shots are often wearing flats. “They’re the ones doing the work,” Broecker laughs.

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Wright’s better, er, more scheming half, Spacey, gets his conservative-yet-sharp style from Saville-row tailored suits that Broecker and his staff meticulously reassemble for a high-end look. “I wanted to show that Francis is at a higher level — like John Boehner or John Kerry — and that he’s into expensive suits,” says Broecker. And, for anyone who’s ever caught an Iowa stump speech (think Obama with those rolled up shirtsleeves ), Francis has a separate, more-folksy wardrobe from when he jets back to his home state of South Carolina to ply constituents.

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FX’s Americans depicts a very different D.C. and very different characters: Set in the early 1980s, the spy drama focuses on two deeply imbedded, married Russian KGB agents, played by Keri Russell and hunky Matthew Rhys. “Their looks are riffs on classic late 1970s sportswear — trench coats, cashmere, boots— more than things from the mid 1980s,” says costume designer Jenny Gering, who uses mostly vintage pieces to give the show an authentic feel. “Keri spent most of Season One in my mom’s old knee boots!”

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Still, while she plays a spy (disguised as a suburban mom and travel agent), Russell also exudes authority via what she has on. “She’s strong and confident, not overtly feminine and girly,” says Gering. “She loves a silk blouse that’s unbuttoned a bit too far and jeans that are a little too tight. That’s her armor.”

The takeaway — besides a lively discussion (and the scoop that Kevin Spacey sometimes wears a tie he got from Bill Clinton): Proper tailoring and classic pieces  never go out of style on-screen or off.

Oh, and we’d all like to be able to rock heels and a sheath like Robin Wright.

Jenn Barger is a DC Style Factory stylist with 13 years’ experience working as a fashion  journalist in the nation’s capitol. Her DC Style Factory clients include professional Washingtonians looking to add unusual, funky pieces to their classic DC wardrobes. She specializes in vintage shopping and is an expert in combining pieces with history with new, modern looks. Email dcstylefactorystylist@gmail.com to work with Jenn!