Disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes is recognized by the specific image she sculpted herself in: a deep-voiced, highly-mannered CEO decked out in black turtlenecks to emulate her role model, Steve Jobs. But in the Hulu miniseries “The Dropout,” which follows her trajectory from founding the company that would make her famous to being indicted by the U.S. government, viewers don’t see her in her well-known get-up until the end of the third episode, when she makes her full heel turn into a fraudster and grifter.
Across the first act of the show, the audience sees a very different Holmes, one who dresses like a typical college student of her time period, with a wardrobe made out of mid-2000s retail items. As she struggles to find her footing in the professional world, her outfits reflect her well-deserved imposter syndrome, conveying that she’s a teenager desperately trying to play the part of a boss.
“She’s starting the company, it’s like she’s still kind of dressing the same way she dressed in high school,” costume designer Claire Parkinson says. “Maybe she’s wearing a slack that she bought or a trouser, maybe she put a heel on. So it’s really like thrown together in this awkward kind of ill-fitting, not quite professional way.”
Parkinson is around the same age as both Amanda Seyfried, who portrays Holmes in the miniseries, and the fraudulent entrepreneur herself. As a result, she was very familiar with the clothing Holmes would have worn during the span of time depicted in the series, which starts in 2001 and ends around 2016, when Theranos finally collapsed following a series of investigations that exposed the ineffectiveness of its blood-testing technology.
While researching the styles of the show, Parkinson made sure that the outfits worn by the characters fit the evolving styles and fashion trends through the years. The earliest episodes feature puka shell necklaces and cargo pants in the style of classic Y2K fashion, which Parkinson pulled from Etsy and eBay. When the show flashes forward to 2007, characters start wearing skinny jeans and other pieces of the era.
For Holmes, Parkinson dressed Seyfried in preppy, intentionally-basic clothes during the first few episodes. Some pieces were lifted directly from the type of outfits Parkinson herself wore during the period; in the scene where Holmes first meets her foil Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf), Seyfried sports an orange Abercrombie and Fitch sweater with a yellow fair isle that Parkinson owned in high school. Parkinson also made sure that Holmes wasn’t wearing any trendy fashion from the time period, like low-slung jeans, and gave her a muted color palette in comparison to her classmates, many of whom wore pinks and teals and lime greens.
“Elizabeth specifically, I was looking at clothing that her mother might buy her from a little more preppy skewing stores like J Crew,” Parkinson says. “But then Elizabeth wants to wear some things that were a little bit more in trend, but kind of missing the mark.”
In “The Dropout,” Holmes’s adoption of the turtleneck as her signature look is depicted as a major step in her asserting power over her company, after floundering as its leader for two episodes. When looking for the turtleneck, Parkinson considered recreating a vintage Issey Miyake turtleneck, which Jobs famously wore. Eventually, however, she settled on using lookalikes from Austrian company Wolford, which created the item using recycled materials. Parkinson made alterations to the design, extending the neck and making it longer in the bodice and stretchier in order to emulate the tightness and length of the real-life Holmes’ turtleneck.
Aside from the turtleneck, Parkinson also recreated several famous looks Holmes wore over the course of her business world ascension, several of which were hand-made. For a brief scene where Holmes attends the Time 100 Gala, Parkinson hand-created the actual black dress she wore. One of the vests she wears in the series, with a light-colored hood, was created based on one that the real-life Holmes wore in photographs of when President Joe Biden visited Theranos. And for a sequence at the end of episode 6 set at a Theranos Halloween party, the designers recreated a wizard costume that Holmes dressed in, complete with the same velvet color schemes.
Throughout all of the changes in Holmes’ wardrobe, one of the constants is that her clothes are always slightly awkward and askew. Even when she’s wearing her black turtleneck, there are subtle miscalculations, such as poorly-shaped pants that aren’t properly tailored to her body, that cause it to register as being off. According to Parkinson, the intention behind this was to convey that Holmes was playing a part in her public life and that the persona that people are familiar with is something she wanted to create rather than who she actually was.
“Every costume I ever do, I usually want it to feel really true to the character, but this is the first time I’ve ever worked on something where I wanted it to be like ‘this is still a costume,’” Parkinson says. “Like she’s wearing a costume herself. So that’s really a weird different challenge as a costume designer, it doesn’t necessarily feel natural to her.”
Throughout the series, that awkwardness in Holmes’ costume is contrasted with the outfits of the people around her, who tend to wear better-fitting clothing. Her first major critic is her neighbor, inventor Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy), who wears comfortable but expensive clothing, such as cashmere sweaters and Brioni and Ralph Lauren items, that set him apart from the more basic clothing Holmes wears. One of the biggest contrasts is with her other major critic, Phyllis, who is dressed in put-together pantsuits with an array of beautiful scarves. In creating the outfits for those who oppose Holmes, Parkinson focused on making the items feel lived in and authentic to them, in order to contrast that sense of reality with the purposefully manufactured look that Holmes showed to the world.
“The black turtleneck, it’s like an armor,” Parkinson says. “It’s a facade against the fakeness of what’s happening in Theranos.”