“Impeachment: American Crime Story” opens with the high-tension culmination of betrayal, the tipping point leading to the title of the latest installment of Ryan Murphy‘s true crime anthology series.
Disgruntled lifetime civil servant Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) has been secretly wire-tapping young colleague and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) as she discussed her workplace affair with sitting POTUS Bill Clinton (Clive Owen). With Linda’s cooperation, a squad of dark-suited FBI agents rev up their sting operation to “flip” Monica, who signed a false statement about her relationship with the President.
With Lewinsky herself as a producer, and based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1999 book “A Vast Conspiracy,” the FX series takes a new look at how the women involved in the impeachment — including Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), the Arkansas state employee who sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment, and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco) — were skewered by the media and judged by the public. Even if the exact sequence of events surrounding it remain hazy in our memories, so many moments from the impeachment are seared into our consciousness and forever Google-searchable. Of course, what everyone wore over 20 years ago also plays an integral role in our recollections — especially for the actual people involved.
In the premiere, it’s January 1998. The Feds descend upon a nervous Monica as she waits for Linda in the food court of a very period-authentic Pentagon City Mall. She’s fresh from a step-aerobics class, wearing a blue fleece zip-up, black leggings, athletic socks scrunched at the ankles and white Reebok sneakers. This pivotal outfit isn’t just culturally accurate to the late ’90s — it’s faithful to the historic event, as detailed by the real Lewinsky.
“Monica has this incredible memory. She could remember the brands and where she bought these pieces,” says costume designer Meredith Markworth-Pollack, who co-designed episodes one and two with Stacey Battat and then took over the series. “I have the notes from her: ‘The blue fleece sweatshirt that I wore the night the FBI agents grabbed me at the mall was DKNY.'”
With the help of Lewinsky’s “spot-on” sartorial recollection, which included descriptive outfit details, Markworth-Pollack and her team tracked down actual vintage matches to either incorporate into the wardrobes or utilize as references for precise custom-builds. (They created multiple copies of the navy fleece, above, which Monica wears for the entirety of an episode’s harrowing FBI interrogation.) She also looked to Lewinsky’s 1999 memoir, “Monica’s Story,” for a dramatization of famous — or infamous — occasions, like when the then-intern reveals her pink lace thong to the President at the White House.
“There was no photo of that day, but in her book, she described she was wearing her ‘navy pantsuit,’ so we made a navy pantsuit,” says Markworth-Pollack.
The costume designer found herself playing a forensic analyst of sorts in connecting pieces of archival imagery to determine accuracy to the timeline. She refers to a depiction of Monica’s first close encounter with the President, when the intern, wearing a red blazer, brings a pizza to the Oval Office.
“There was a black and white photo of that day in real life, but we knew it was a red jacket, because there’s another photo with Monica wearing that [on the same day] somewhere else,” Markworth-Pollack says. “There was so much detective work. Our offices were just covered in photos, like ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ when Russell Crowe has his [notes on] the wall with arrows pointing in every direction.”
The “historical matches” for “these really big, iconic moments that people who lived through the moment will recognize — like the beret, the blue dress and the navy suit she wore when she went in to testify during the trial” — Markworth-Pollack says, were key for the costume team and the producers to tell the story. She also points to a sage green suit (above) which Lewinsky recalled as from J. Crew, worn to an intern event and thereby photographed for the archives.
Luckily, the late ’90s dovetailed with the rise of celebrity obsession and the easy dissemination of news — and gossip — on the internet. “All the images of Monica that we needed are found online because, really, as soon as the story broke, her every look was documented by the paparazzi,” says Markworth-Pollack.
Hailing from Beverly Hills, Lewinsky was known to be quite fashionable, especially within the conservative D.C. government crowd. The script even calls out her style: “You certainly have the best fashion sense that an Airforce C-40 aircraft has ever seen,” says Monica’s Pentagon boss, Ken Bacon (Jim Rash). So, Markworth-Pollack sourced ’90s designer pieces to accurately illustrate Lewinsky’s fashion-forward aesthetic, particularly when it came to accessories.
“Monica had a good collection of Kate Spade bags, and we found those vintage ones,” says Markworth-Pollack. “I started getting paranoid because, all of a sudden, there’s been this resurgence of ’90s bags. I was like, ‘Ah! Everyone’s buying the Kate Spade bags!'” She also found the exact Prada nylon black backpack that Lewinsky remembers carrying to her Pentagon job after being transferred from the White House. We see her toting it later, to the Pentagon City Mall, where the FBI agents are waiting for her.
For the mall sequence, Lewinsky’s memoir recalled Tripp wearing a brown pantsuit, which Markworth-Pollack recreated and tailored to fit Paulson. The Emmy-winning actor donned three hours’ worth of neck and face prosthetics, plus body padding (which she discussed with the Los Angeles Times). “Hers was the most collaborative,” says Markworth-Pollack of working closely with Paulson in fittings.
Linda’s journey of muted office suiting illustrates her emotional spiral, following her demotion from the illustrious White House to gray, depressing cubicle life in the Pentagon, where she meets Monica.
“In the White House, [Linda] definitely was a bit more polished and professional. She took her job very seriously,” Markworth-Pollack says. “When she basically got fired and sent to the Pentagon, we really told the story of how she just started giving up. She slowly went into this pretty dark place of simply not caring about her physical looks, about herself and about the people around her.”
Reflecting real-life imagery of Tripp, the costume designer recreated Tripp’s gold puffy heart pendant and stretch metallic choker, which also subtly help denote the time jumps through the non-linear episodes.
Due to Paulson’s prosthetics and padding, costumes needed to be painstakingly designed both for the sake of character and comfort. “Every little detail had to be meticulously tested and thought out,” says Markworth-Pollack. The 5’6″ Paulson even donned specially-made shoes to help transform her into the near-six-foot-tall Tripp: “I was so in awe. We’d be shooting — it’s 90 degrees outside — and she’s in full prosthetics, wig, so many layers to fill up these suits and four-inch heels all day long. I couldn’t believe it.”
First Lady Hillary briefly pops up in the first half of the series, visiting the staff restroom (and greeting an aghast Linda at the communal sink) in a signature pantsuit and elegant neck silk scarf. Later, she’s wearing an interpretation of Clinton’s gold embroidered Oscar de la Renta gown for recreated television footage of the 1997 Inaugural Ball.
Markworth-Pollack estimates Hillary’s costume closet consists of half recreated “historical matches.” For a flashback of the Clintons’ 1992 “60 Minutes” interview in which the future POTUS candidate — alongside her husband, then seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination — addressed extramarital affair allegations, the costume team replicated the monochrome green turtleneck and blazer skirt suit, black headband and gold earrings. They also found matches for Clinton’s regularly worn accessories, including her bald eagle pin by D.C. jeweler to First Ladies, Ann Hand. (“That was a really exciting moment. Those little things. Anytime you find the exact pieces, it’s like, ‘Oh my god.'”)
For Hillary’s imagined and dramatized sequences, Markworth-Pollack shopped ’90s designer vintage (“a lot from The RealReal“) and created some additional original interpretations. She recalls a scene set in Martha’s Vineyard, as the scandal unfolds. “They’re having dinner with Bill’s lawyer and you’re like, ‘Okay, there are no images of this,'” Markworth-Pollack says. “But then, I found all these images of Hillary in Martha’s Vineyard, and she’s wearing linen pleated-front palazzo pants with sandals and striped shirts. And that’s what we ended up doing.”
Interestingly, hunting down the same printed ’90s neckwear worn by President Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) became a fixation for Markworth-Pollack and her team of historical wardrobe detectives.
“Bill Clinton had a very odd tie collection. The ties, for some reason, became the obsession of the costume shop,” she says. “We were really proud of [finding] his ‘Save the Children’ tie.” Her team even tracked down the same “bold polka-dot tie” that he wore IRL to the Paula Jones deposition. (“Why would you wear that?” she asks, about such a jaunty fashion choice for such a serious occasion.)
Revisiting the baggy ’90s suit silhouette on the rakish Owen also proved a challenge. Markworth-Pollack credits Jack Kasbarian, the head menswear tailor at Western Costumes, for pulling off the period-authentic looks: “He lived through it and was like, ‘Oh, I remember Bill’s suits were all Armani.'” They found a vintage Armani suit, with a wide dropped-notch lapel and roomy arm for the boxiness, to take apart, recreate and then alter to fit Owen. “It was finding these really subtle things,” she says.
Overall, Markworth-Pollack — who cut her teeth assisting Eric Daman on “Gossip Girl,” gained a cult following with her contemporary-inflected Elizabethan costumes on “Reign” and sartorially outdid herself each week in the “Dynasty” reboot — enjoyed the exercise of 20th-century historical storytelling through wardrobe.
“If there were any historians who go through this and map the historical photos to what we actually did, I would like to think I would get a pretty good grade,” she says.