How ‘Mrs. America’ designers revived a ’70s feminist showdown

April 14, 2020, 8:00 PM UTC

Depicting the blue state–red state divide about half a century early, FX on Hulu drama Mrs. America, which premieres Wednesday, shows how a conservative Illinois housewife named Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) fought ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment championed by New York feminists including Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), politician Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and Democratic Party presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba).

The nine-episode limited series, created by Mad Men writer Dahvi Waller, summons the fractious ’70s through the evenhanded handiwork of a design team keenly attuned to the telling details of home, hair, and wardrobe. “The important thing for all of us was that we didn’t want to cast any of these people as caricatures,” says Mrs. America‘s Emmy-nominated production designer Mara LePere-Schloop.

Speaking from New Orleans, where she’s been sequestered since the COVID-19 shutdown of her next project in Vancouver, LePere-Schloop tells Fortune, “We wanted to humanize the characters on both sides of this debate. At the same time, we very intentionally created different worlds to explain the context of where these people are coming from.”

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in the FX on Hulu series “Mrs. America.”
Pari Dukovic—FX

The perfect kitchen and a Guggenheim launch party

For Schlafly and her minions, LePere-Schloop designed a mild-hued middle-class milieu. “Our conservative women come from earlier notions of domestic life, so we wanted their environments to have a slightly dated vibe,” LePere-Schloop explains. “Phyllis lived in a Tudor house in Alton, Ill., and we had some great photos of her kitchen, which is painted buttercream yellow and pastel blue. The directive I gave to the team is that Phyllis’s world should exist in the palettes and textures of the 1950s, the era of the domesticated woman.”

Mrs. America cuts from Phyllis’s bourgeois habitat to the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, where a glamorous Steinem hosts her Ms. magazine launch party. Filmmakers were allotted exactly three nerve-racking hours to shoot the sequence on location, hurriedly replacing contemporary signage with period graphics.

LePere-Schloop and her team also recreated the 1972 Miami Democratic Convention in a Toronto auditorium, complete with a sea of powder-blue folding chairs. “As soon as we saw the pictures of the convention where it’s not just folding chairs, but powder-blue folding chairs, the hunt was on to find thousands of chairs in that color,” she says with a laugh.

Steinem’s longtime Manhattan residence in a 73rd Street brownstone building served as the model for the character’s soundstage apartment. LePere-Schloop says, “There was this period when Gloria Steinem got into this sort of curated bohemian look with matchy-matchy sofa and curtain fabrics. Our set decorator Patty Larman and her wonderful buyer spent hours trying to find the right fabric that would capture the essence of Gloria Steinem.”

Character-driven wig work

Mrs. America’s principals excel in giving speeches, but the characters’ hairstyles also speak volumes. Hair designer Anne Morgan, who won a 2020 Oscar for styling the women of Fox News drama Bombshell, says, “Hairstyle defines class; it defines political viewpoint; it defines the kind of woman each character is. When you look at someone’s hair, it’s like looking at their shoes: You know who they are.”

Teamed with department head Rick Findlater, Morgan supervised five wigmakers in the creation of hairpieces worn by 98 lead and supporting cast members. Actress Byrne channeled Steinem with a major assist from the signature waterfall of blonde-streaked hair crafted by French wigmaker Martial Corneville. Morgan says, “Gloria used her sexuality as a feminist, not as a victim but in a proactive way. I gave Martial very specific instructions to make sure the hair had height in the back and would swing freely in front rather than laying like a dead body on her head. We needed fine, really long hair that could take blonde [streaks] in front but wouldn’t look cartoony or modern day.”

“That wig made her acceptable to the white world,” says Morgan of Shirley Chisholm, portrayed by Uzo Aduba in “Mrs. America.”
Sabrina Lantos—FX

Hair designer Kerry Warn maintained sole custody over Blanchett’s wig, constructed by U.K. wigmaker Peter Owen. “He made it dark blonde with highlights around the hairline just as Phyllis had,” Warn says.

Each night, Warn put the wig hair in rollers and fixed it with setting lotion. “This was important in order to achieve the look and give it authenticity because the real Phyllis Schlafly had a very ‘done’ look whenever she was in the public eye,” Warn explains. As the series progresses through the years, he notes, “the wig gradually gets more structured to the point where you can almost smell the hairspray.” 

Hair-as-signifier also shaped the public persona of black Democratic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Instead of sporting an Afro the way activists like Angela Davis did, Chisholm always wore a well-manicured wig in public, Morgan says. “In every picture of Shirley, it’s the same hairdo from when she went away to college, even when she’s running for President. There’s these little bangs with little curls that come around her cheeks. That wig made her acceptable to the white world.”

Right-wing wardrobe vs. chic aviator glasses and outrageous hats

When costume designer Bina Daigeler conceptualized the pastel-tinged clothes worn by Schlafly and her housewife followers, the Madrid-based artisan drew inspiration from French macarons. “I used this mixture of mint green, baby blue, lilac, and rose for all the women around Phyllis,” says Daigeler, whose credits include Pedro Almodóvar films Volver and All About My Mother. Six seamstresses and two head tailors constructed Blanchett’s outfits based on official press photos of the Republican activist.

“Phyllis was always very put together in an A-line skirt and a blouse, ready to be a good wife, mother, a perfectionist,” Daigeler says. “Phyllis and her friends had their clothes custom made, so we did the same.”

Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan in “Mrs. America.” Costume designer Bina Daigeler says, “What you see on Rose Byrne in ‘Mrs. America’ are the exact same kind of glasses that Gloria Steinem wore in the ’70s.“
Sabrina Lantos—FX

In contrast to the skirt-wearing conservatives, most of the feminist characters favored casual clothes. “We put our [women’s] libbers in softer fabrics and stronger colors, like jewel tones and poppy shades,” says Daigeler, who gives the Steinem character extra points for fashion savvy. “Gloria Steinem always looks effortlessly amazing in her uniform of jeans, T-shirt, belt, and those fabulous aviator glasses.” To accessorize Byrne-as-Steinem, Daigeler tracked down a vintage pair of historically correct tinted glasses. She says, “What you see on Rose Byrne in Mrs. America are the exact same kind of glasses that Gloria Steinem wore in the ’70s.” While Steinem’s chic activist persona made her a media darling, the crowning achievement in ’70s-era feminist fashion arguably belongs to New York congresswoman Bella Abzug and her famous hats. Outfitting actress Martindale, Daigeler says, “I re-created some of Bella’s most important hats, and others were new creations. Bella Abzug wore those hats as a statement. She said, ‘If I’m wearing a hat, nobody can take me for a secretary.’”

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