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‘The Americans’ costume designer on Keri Russell’s and Matthew Rhys’ cool Cold War style

Tonight, FX premieres The Americans (10 p.m. ET), starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a pair of Russian spies posing as married travel agents living in suburban Virginia in the year 1981.

The Cold War-era series presents an interesting challenge for costume designer Jenny Gering, who joined the show after the pilot episode (where we see Russell wearing a pair of Guess mom jeans).

“Yes, we want to create a sense of place and time and feel like we’re there, but we don’t want to have crazy clichés running around that will take you out of the story,” Gering says. Something that helps: This is the transitional early ’80s. “It’s a completely opposite silhouette to what people consider to be ‘the ’80s.’ In most people’s heads, it’s big and boxy on top and slim on the bottom, and the ’70s are more slim on top and fuller on the bottom. It was just a chance to really show women’s figures and beautiful tailoring. Everything’s very tactual — there’s a lot of leather and suede. And the palette is lovely — there’s very little black and grey, it’s very autumnal.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What kind of research did you do?
JENNY GERING: So much, and it was so much fun. Everything from books and films — Ordinary People was a big one, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Eyes of Laura Mars, even though that’s a late ’70s reference — to really trying to get a sense of every day, so that meant Life magazine and Playboy, which is a surprisingly good resource. You’d think there’s not a lot of clothes in there, but the ads were amazing and helpful. I really looked to advertising, because even though it’s a heightened sense of reality, it really tells you culturally what’s going on in that moment. Also high school yearbooks were really helpful. Photos from all different types of clubs. Anything with a photo of a large group of people was helpful because usually you’d see a range — men, women, socioeconomic — in one shot. And looking from photos from the Reagan White House was very helpful.

You’re doing a lot of suits.
This show is not set in Greenwich Village at the height of the punk scene. This is, for the most part, suburban Virginia and conservative D.C., so that really informs the look of the show. The men are in suits — we’ve got FBI guys, businessmen, a couple of diplomats. It’s such an interesting time, because it’s so transitional: So, sure, some men are gonna still be in three-piece suits with wider lapels, and their pants may have a little flair. Whereas other men, their lapels and ties are slimming down. That’s just representing a cross current of real life. That’s the way a lot of people will wear a suit that’s three or four years old, whereas someone else might have just purchased one.

This is also a time when spies used sex to get information. We see some lingerie in the first two episodes.
Again, it’s so much fun, because it was so different. If you look at Victoria’s Secret catalogs from specifically 1981, they are much more representative of what was happening in the ’70s than in the ’80s. There weren’t a lot of boob jobs at the time in the mainstream. [Laughs] So, you saw a lot of triangle-shaped bras, a lot less padding, not as many underwires. Lingerie also wasn’t yet part of what women wore every day. For the most part, women wore much more practical undergarments. Lingerie was something you broke out for your wedding night or your anniversary. A few years later, it was marketed [differently], and that’s how Victoria’s Secret found its foothold: Women were dressing in such a masculine way for work to try to “compete” with the men, the whole idea was to have something lacy and fun underneath.

You have a woman in episode 2 who hides a camera between her bosoms. Can we expect more of that?
I can’t tell you how many drafts we had of what would be the perfect harness. We have not yet had another prop like that come up. But I can’t wait for more.

Knee socks also seem to be popular — on men exercising and women at bedtime.
[Laughs] That’s something where we can have a little fun. When you see Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Philip (Rhys) playing racquetball and they’re wearing short-shorts and knee-high socks, it is funny. There’s no way around it. But that is what men wore. The women, I love that: First of all, I think it’s sexy without trying. It’s not overt. A T-shirt and knee socks — what could be cuter? And it was extremely popular. I mean, women wore mid-calf shirts with clogs and knee socks all the time. Little touches like that show that Elizabeth (Russell) would have things like that. Even if we don’t see the whole outfit, she would have the makings of it.

Do you have a list of banned pieces? Things you never want to be seen on the show?
Babushkas. [Laughs] We’ve had so many flashbacks [to Elizabeth and Philip training in Russia]. I just don’t want that cliché, for sure. But in terms of 1981, there’s nothing about the time that I find thoroughly and completely offensive. Bad fashion doesn’t scare me. My whole thing is I can’t use something that isn’t accurate for the time. I scoured vintage stores from here [New York] to Philadelphia to Albany. I used vintage as much and as often as possible. The only time that I would have to buy things new, is when we were shooting stunts and we’d have to have multiples. The other thing I did was find pieces I love and then recreate them — shop my own fabric and have them built. But again, that’s just following a template that is completely accurate.

The disguises must be fun, too.
They are such a joy because I work so closely with hair and makeup and the actors, and we just really go for it. There was one character of Matthew’s [Laughs]. We came up with a whole back story, and Matthew is just so talented that he had us in stitches pretending to be this person. I can’t say who it is, but there’s a blond wig involved.