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Impeachment: American Crime Story – how clothes tell the story of a scandal

When Meredith Markworth-Pollack began work on Impeachment: American Crime Story, she was determined that Monica Lewinsky’s now infamous blue dress be as low-key an item as it was when first purchased. The costume designer studied evidence photographs of the original garment (which Lewinsky had bought in Gap) before recreating a similar style.

“The blue dress is literally the first thing everyone wants to ask about. But I think it’s really beautiful, the way Sarah Burgess wrote it into the script, in that it’s so insignificant most people miss it,” Markworth-Pollack says. “It was a navy dress, and it almost looks black on camera, so people expect this big moment but that’s not it.”

The costume designer says it isn’t until later on in the series, “when we see it on the floor in [Lewinsky’s] closet and Linda asks about it, that we realise it’s the dress. I think it’s really well played because this show is changing the narrative that Monica is just known for a blue dress.”

The blue dress in question – much like the OJ glove or Jackie O’s pink Chanel suit – has gone down as one of the most memorable items of clothing in history, not for its sartorial value but for the role it played in a scandal like no other. It became the killer piece of evidence that proved Clinton’s vehement denial of the affair – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” – to be pure fiction. (“We did put a stain on the costume, but I don’t want to go into that,” Markworth-Pollack says of that particular production detail.)

(BBC/Tina Thorpe/FX)

She won’t go into it because Impeachment is not about rehashing the salacious minutiae of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. The latest instalment in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story collection – which has previously tackled the trial of OJ Simpson and the murder of Italian couturier Gianni Versace – instead revisits the events that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, refocusing them around Lewinsky’s perspective.

We did put a stain on the costume, but I don’t want to go into that

In many ways, it seeks to right the wrongs of the media’s portrayal of the then 22-year-old White House intern. Starring Lady Bird and Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein as White House intern Lewinsky, it also features Sarah Paulson (Ocean’s 8, Bird Box) as Lewinsky’s friend and betrayer Linda Tripp and Clive Owen (Children of Men) as Clinton. Lewinsky, who once told Vanity Fair, “It’s time to burn the beret and bury the blue dress. And move forward,” executive-produced the series and had an eye on the scripts.

Markworth-Pollack was in high school when the scandal took place, but remembers it nonetheless. “When the story broke, I remember the news going crazy – the sensationalism of it. But as I’ve gotten older, I realise Monica and I are not that far apart in age. She was so mature looking and carried herself in such a mature manner and dressed like someone in their 40s or something, people didn’t realise she was so young. But of course, I remember the way she was basically slut shamed in the media.”

(BBC/Tina Thorpe/FX)

The level of press attention on the story did have one advantage for the costume designer: “Both Monica and Linda’s everyday looks were really captured by the paparazzi once the story broke. From that point on we had hundreds of photos every time they left the house.” The challenge, then, was less about imagining what the central characters might have worn, but “matching the photos and deciding what liberties we were going to take,” she says. “In a way it’s easier as everything you need is there. I haven’t worked on a show where I was replicating clothes from real people but then you feel the pressure to really get it right.”

Lewinsky was an asset in this regard, offering up her “incredible photographic memory” to assist Markworth-Pollack and the costume department. “She was able to jot down exactly which designer she was wearing in these photos. She also had a couple of really special pieces that she wore at the time that she let us borrow – we ended up using a Gap floral dress that was hers in the ninth episode.”

Lewinsky grew up in Beverly Hills, California, and like most early twenty-somethings, enjoyed following fashion trends. Her nylon Prada backpack (an iconic accessory of the era) features in episode one when she is approached by the FBI in a shopping mall. “She also had all these Kate Spade purses, so we found the exact bags, the exact coats,” says Markworth-Pollack.

Monica dressed like someone in their 40s or something, so people didn’t realise she was so young. She was basically slut shamed in the media

Portraying that love of fashion was important to the costume designer, who says it’s what makes the character distinctive in her environment. “When you take this person and you put them amongst a sea of 40- and 50- something men in the White House and in the Pentagon, we really needed to make her pop,” she says. “That wasn’t through a bright red dress causing too much attention, it was subtle. We did that through silhouettes and pattern.”

The “drab suits”, as Markworth-Pollack describes them, had to be adapted from the boxy styles of the West Wing in the Nineties. “We would get these vintage 90s suits and they’d eat our actors alive,” she says. “We couldn’t put them on camera like that as they looked like a parody of themselves. So, we hacked apart these suits and some were even custom made.”

(BBC/Tina Thorpe/FX)

When it came to dressing Edie Falco (The Sopranos) as first lady Hilary Clinton, Markworth-Pollack designed polished looks that would “serve as an armour for her”. “She was always ‘done’ and keeping up with appearances – even when her work was crumbling, she would walk out every day done to the nines.” It’s an attitude of “if I look like nothing is wrong, then nothing is wrong”, says the designer.

The president famously wore custom Armani suits, which didn’t leave much room for embellishment from the team – but when it came to Clinton’s ties, the costume department was able to have some fun. “That man made some very odd tie choices,” jokes Markworth-Pollack, pointing out that “for the deposition, he wore this bright navy and polka dot tie. It’s such a humourous tie to wear to such a serious event,” she marvels. The team scoured eBay and Etsy for something similar. “In a sea in men’s suiting you have to get your kicks in somehow.”

Paulson’s turn as Tripp was met with controversy when viewers criticised the show for putting her in a fat suit to play Tripp – something Paulson has since said she has “regrets about”. To dress her, the team had to custom make every item to ensure the audience couldn’t see the prosthetics, “and to help accentuate them,” says Markworth-Pollack. “Also for me with Linda were the accessories, Linda really liked gold jewellery and so we had these staple pieces for her throughout the show.”

Fashion’s recent obsession with the 90s made sourcing extra items easy. “We could run out and grab things, especially when we needed multiples,” says the designer. “I could go to Urban Outfitters and grab a sweatshirt that looked just like something from the era.”

(BBC/Tina Thorpe/FX)

With most scenes taking place in formal settings, there wasn’t much space for casual streetwear, but Markworth-Pollack and team did “throw in” some classic 90s items – big gold jewellery for Tripp, some Calvin Klein and a Rock the Vote T-shirt for off-duty Lewinsky. “We also had this Bum Equipment sweatshirt that Beanie wore in one scene. Bum Equipment was a huge brand in the 90s but Beanie was too young, she kept saying, ‘What is this ‘bum’?’” Feldstein loved the sweatshirt so much that in the end she asked to keep it.

For Markworth-Pollack, it was the costumes during the impeachment trial itself that were most challenging and rewarding. “That’s when we did all of Monica’s big historical matches – the scenes when she was testifying,” she says. “The paparazzi was following her everywhere, so we matched everything to a tee. I’m really proud of that work.”

Impeachment: American Crime Story is on BBC Two, October 19 at 9.15pm

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