Filed in Articles & Interviews The Americans

Dressing ‘The Americans’

Where does Elizabeth Jennings get those jeans and other pressing questions for the ’80s spy drama’s costume designer.

In the FX spy drama “The Americans”, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are Soviet spies deep under cover as your typical American family in the Washington, D.C. suburbs circa 1981. They are often playing dress up, taking on new identities to execute their missions, and someone has to dress them. Jenny Gering, the costume designer for the show, recently spoke with U.S. News about outfitting the cast, her favorite costumes and what inspires her.

Where do you get your inspiration for all the costumes?
It starts from caring about the characters and trying to empathize with what they’re going through in some way. I’ve spent a lot of time—many months—doing that, so I feel like I know them and how they would react in certain situations. And by react I mean, make choices the way we all do. Everyone’s got their own point of view about how they want to look. Even if it’s not conscious—these decisions are made without really thinking about them, but we all have these certain images of ourselves.

Not only do you have to create looks for Phil and Elizabeth, but for the identities they take on as spies.
Their main motivation is protection. It’s self preservation, because they cannot have anyone identify them. But I also think there are elements, just the way that actors that disappear in different roles, that I think [Elizabeth and Phil] lived such controlled and dangerous lives, they also have fun with it. So for Elizabeth to break out of her straight-laced, everyday role as mom and business owner, and be able to put on the leather skirt and a black wig and really be badass, that’s got to be fun for her. It’s the same kind of process. I just imagine, part of them must really enjoy this, or try to anyway.

Where do you find the costumes themselves?
I would say the majority of the clothes are vintage. We’ve been really, really lucky. There’s a lot out there if you know where to look. It means tweaking a certain vintage piece to make it fit the actor better or even to make it suit our needs better.

There are times when we do need to buy off the rack because we need multiples of things for stunts. That’s a little bit trickier. I am very much a stickler for authenticity, so it has to look right. It has to have the right shape, color palate, texture. It’s doable, we do it. But, it’s not my first choice.

What have been some of your favorite costumes?
I loved where Keri as Elizabeth was playing a women who is — not slutty — but sort of tough. She wears a long black wig, red lips, and her persona is so completely opposite from Elizabeth. So that was fun because it was going in a whole other direction.

We love dressing [Phillip] as “Clark.” That’s a lot of fun. Clark is this character who seems to keep popping up. He’s just so dorky and it’s always fun. It’s sort of like having a Ken doll and imagining, Ken goes fishing, Ken does this. What would Ken wear to have a barbecue? It’s almost like Clark is that way. He is so unimaginative in his own style—it’s somewhat literal and I just find it very funny.

I’m a big fan of Phil’s track suits.
Those are vintage. We scour. Mostly we find some great vintage pieces, I usually don’t like to put him in a complete track suit. I feel like Phillip would just be taking elements—grabbing what’s clean, not really thinking about it. I think it was just two separate pieces we just mixed and matched.

Keri has some great coats.
I love the fact that we are shooting in winter because we get more layers to work with. But I have to say it’s not always fun for the actors, shooting for hours and hours outside.

I love Elizabeth’s jeans.
She wears Lee jeans. They are vintage jeans. Sometimes you find dead stock—which is vintage clothing that was never worn. So it will still have the same tags on it. That’s always a big score. It’s very exciting to find dead stock. They’re all just vintage Lee jeans. I love the purity of using the real item. It’s so funny because back then, denim didn’t have any stretch in it. All of our actresses, the first time they put on the vintage jeans, they’re shocked how stiff and tight they are. But Keri totally rocks it.