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‘House of Cards’ Costume Designer on Surprise Emmy Nom

“House of Card’s” Emmy nomination tally for 2017 is officially up one.

The series earned a nod for contemporary costumes, after the Television Academy determined “This is Us'” submitted episode was ineligible due to period costumes comprising too much screen time. As the sixth total vote-getter in the category, “House of Cards” was bumped up in its place. Though the Netflix series has received 53 nominations since its debut in 2013, this is the first time the costume designers have been recognized.

“It’s good to know that we were so close originally, but honestly I’m proud of everything we do every season, and it’s just icing on the cake for us to be in such great company,” Johanna Argan, one of the nominated costume designers for “House of Cards” tells Variety. “We do feel bad for those [that were stripped of the nom]. It’s an odd way to come about a nomination.”

Argan, who is nominated alongside costume designer Kemal Harris, assistant costume designer Jessica Wenger and costume supervisor Steffany Bernstein-Pratt, talks with Variety about the road to the nomination.

What do you think it was about this season of “House of Cards” that set the costumes apart for you and finally earned the nomination?

The first season of “House of Cards” was mostly a talking show. There wasn’t a ton of military presence or uniform presence or specifically detailed things like that. It was more about these two characters and the people around them, every day people. As the storyline expanded, the visual expanded, and the clothing and the production design, everything expanded.

Every season is sort of a transition: Claire starting off in season one being in more of the private sector, Frank having aspirations to be more than just a whip, them plotting every season. It’s this chess match they’re playing, but now they’re coming to this place where it’s against each other. Frank is so strong at one point, and then his world starts to crumble, and you do see him fall apart. When he’s falling, she’s getting stronger. Kemal and I, we work really hard on that to make it stand out within their arcs.

Also, I think our show is sort of unconsciously timely regarding how all the women have come forward in our show. Especially at the beginning of season four with Claire and bringing in Neve Campbell’s character. It was a lot of women out there. Another candidate was a woman. We were on par with women being so much in power and fighting to get in there. That struggle each season, the internal conflict versus what’s going on with the betterment of society and the world, all of that I feel like is very timely.

In the real world, we often see female politicians’ clothing choices grabbing more headlines than their policies, so clothing, in a way, can be used to intentionally distract if you wanted to. How have you played with that idea on “House of Cards?”

If we were in a very fair world where it was just about the work, clothing wouldn’t matter. But at the end of the day, it does when you’re a woman, and we saw it in Hillary’s campaign when the first thing they did was talk about her pantsuit and her hair and what-have-you. I can’t speak for Kemal, where her head is at when she’s reading the storylines [to dress Claire], but she and I collaborate very closely because I do the overall show. I also collaborate very closely with Kevin [Spacey] and the showrunners, and then she shows me her idea for Claire’s fitting photos, and we go from there.

All my women characters, I feel like it’s always a struggle for them to be seen by their politics or by who they’re trying to be. Their appearance is always going to be judged right away. You don’t hear that Frank wore a bad tie. But we’re very calculating with the way we dress them, for sure, for character purposes. [Real politicians] have people to advise them on how to look softer, how to look truthful. What are you trying to say when you make a public statement? That’s very important to what we do.

You already touched on the military uniforms being a newer addition to your team’s responsibilities. What else do you feel really set the show apart this season?

Elysian Fields, the kind of Skull & Bones thing where all of the world’s leaders go to camp up north in California. We did our version of that. I had to make all of these cloaks for a ceremonial ritual. They’re not supposed to talk business, but they do. It’s a club or a secret society, and our version was Elysian Fields. We were touching on the behind-the-scenes workings of who’s going to get elected, why they’re going to get elected, who’s standing in the way, why they’re doing this. Some things we have to make, and others we have to find, but it’s so research-based because it has to look authentic. We have to look real. Our world is paralleling our real White House. There’s just so much to do all the time that I could never do this by myself. Our show is such a huge show. I have a warehouse full of clothes and two working, full, giant trucks every day.

So with Elysian Fields, I made hundreds of cloaks and hand-painted a lot of the gauntlets myself. And I had masks made from this very specific mask maker. We based them off the real ones, but we had to change details because it’s our own version of it. And it may be for five minutes on screen, but the detail of it and what it takes to get it, it takes a team.

So how does it feel for your team to finally get recognized now?

We never take anything for granted. Awards and being recognized is nice, but I do what I do because I love it. I’ve stayed on the show because I feel like it’s my baby. I’ve kind of grown with Frank and Claire and Stamper and everyone. Doing what I do, especially in contemporary design, it’s a show that kind of comes along once, if you’re lucky, maybe twice in a career.

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