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Dressing The Americans: Disguises, Mom Jeans and Making Keri Russell Look Bad

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Photo: Ben Hider

While Game of Thrones (which I don’t watch. Sorry!) may be the more popular TV obsession in this office/the world, a few of us have also gotten sucked into The Americans on FX–and not just because of the drama-filled plot twists between the CIA and Russian spies. The (early ’80s) clothes, hair, and Keri Russell’s overall flawlessness, are also pretty awesome to watch.

So, we were pretty excited when we heard that the entire hair, makeup and costume team of The Americans would be honored with New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT)’s Variety Ensemble Award at the annual Designing Women event, which we attended last night.

Other honorees included hairstylist Mandy Lyons (Sex and the City, Moonrise Kingdom), makeup artist Andrea Miller (The Good Wife, Third Watch), and costume designer Deborah Scott (E.T., Titanic, Avatar, The Amazing Spider-Man 2).

Each recipient was presented her award by someone she’s worked with and each presenter would regale the audience with a few personal anecdotes about the honoree–and we have to say, The Americans set sounded like both the most fun and most difficult place to work.

The Americans executive producer Joe Weisberg presented the award to costume designer Jenny Gering, makeup department head Lori Hicks and hair department head Peg Schierholz. Weisberg outlined the lofty demands he placed on the department heads, including that the characters look ’80s but not too ’80s; attractive, but authentic; that the disguises (used frequently by the Russian spy main characters) be “fun for the audience,” but still serious. “And we’d like you to win an award,” he finished.

Gering, Hicks and Schierholz more than rose to the challenge. In the green room before the show, Schierholz told us she started her hair research by going on eBay and buying every copy of Time from the late 70s/early 80s she could find, as well as fashion magazines, teen magazines, and even Playboys from that time. She and Hicks also had personal experience to draw from. “We both lived in Washington D.C. in 1981,” Hicks added.

Gering cited Faye Dunaway and Charlotte Rampling as sources of inspiration, but when it came to many of the disguises, they had to use their imaginations, with some help from the writers and producers, of course. Weisberg, they explained, knew what the CIA actually used as disguises because he used to be a CIA agent in the early 90s. Real CIA disguises are a bit more subtle than the TV costume team were used to.

“Our favorites are not always the ones most popular with the creators,” Hicks said. “We like the ones that are more noticeable.” Still, they didn’t have to restrain themselves too much. “In 1981, everyone looked like they had a disguise on, because they wore big glasses and they did wear wigs in the late ’70s. It would take longer for fashion to catch up [back then], so you had a lot of different styles happening at the same time.”

Creating the disguises definitely doesn’t sound easy–the main characters have to look different enough to fool CIA officers, while remaining recognizable to the viewers. Schierholz said Clarke, one of Phillip Jennings’ recurring aliases, took a particularly long time to come up with and get right. “The execution is not so hard; it’s the journey to get to it [that takes time].”

The biggest challenge of all, however? Making Keri Russell look anything but beautiful. Not only is she genetically blessed, but she’s also a complete chameleon, pulling off each and every disguise with ease. “To put some of those looks on Keri–that little Dorothy Hammill wig with the glasses and pleated jeans, that was painful but she pulled it off,” Schierholz recalled.

“She can really wear a lot of different things,” added Hicks. A challenge, Gering explained, when the script called for Russell to look drab and unattractive: “We’re like, yeah, ok, tell us how we’re gonna do that.”

“We tried,” Hicks added. “It’s really time-consuming,” said Gering. Hicks continued, “I would say work her like an 18-hour day, then she has to get up and take the kids to school, then she looks a little bit bad. Barely.”

Costume-wise, Gering pulls as much vintage as possible, scavenging everywhere from New York to Pennsylvania; but sometimes, when they need multiples for stunts, they have to go shopping at places like Urban Outfitters, Madewell and Comptoir des Cottoniers. “Luckily, there’s a bit of a moment now that it wasn’t too hard to find things.” I told Gering about my Topshop mom jeans, which she said are “tweaked” and not exactly accurate. All of Elizabeth’s perfect-looking high-waisted denim on the show is vintage. And her footwear was particularly easy for Gering to source. “Keri wore my mom’s boots from the ’70s for most of the show.”

Speaking of Russell, I had to ask about her hair. It’s smooth and straight on the show–and looks incredible–but I can’t help but miss her Felicity-era curls, which we won’t be seeing again anytime soon, thanks to the magic of chemicals. “She has a keratin straightening that she does every so often,” her hairstylist told us. Yep, Keri killed her curls. R.I.P.

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