‘Stealth Wealth’ and Bare Feet: How Power Dresses on ‘Succession’

Followers of the Styles desk’s discussions about the clothes worn on “Succession” (as well as a number of social media accounts) know how obsessively fans have tracked and dissected the characters’ cardigans, caps, shoes, watches and, on occasion, unfortunate handbags.

On Sunday, the show reaches its finale and so a final check-in with Michelle Matland, the Emmy-nominated costume designer responsible for crafting a 21st-century version of Machiavellian chic and inadvertently spurring the “stealth wealth” fashion genre, seems in order. In an edited interview below, reached on the set of a new series, Ms. Matland — whose credits include “The Girl on the Train’’ and “Angels in America’’ — talked about costuming some of the most tortured, despicable and compelling characters on television.

Looking back, could you could have predicted where this show would take you?

You never do. Jesse Armstrong wrote an incredible brilliant story, but I’m not sure he knew where it was going to go. I never asked him. The one constant was the trajectory of each character, and over the seasons, they developed story lines and these inherent qualities you couldn’t have foreseen.

And it must have been an unusual challenge for a designer, since the setting is contemporary and the characters’ wardrobes don’t read as costumes.

We were not doing “Wicked,” but they are costumes. It’s clothing, but also costumes that create veneer for the characters. I’m only one tiny little piece of the storytelling, but the job is to help emphasize characteristics these characters have. And the essence of that is starting with where did they live, where did they go to college, where did they go to prep school? Those are questions I ask in every fitting. I don’t care if you’re playing the waiter. We don’t draw lines. We help authenticate the actors and that makes them real to an audience.

How so?

I was trained under [the five-time Oscar-winning costume designer] Ann Roth, and the thing that she does is help actors find their way toward their characters. When we did “Julie & Julia,’’ Meryl Streep was playing this amazing 6-foot woman, a historic icon. When Meryl showed up for the fitting, Ann put her in seven-inch heels and immediately her posture changed. Her chin and shoulders shifted. She became Julia. In “Midnight Cowboy,’’ Ann took the heels off Dustin Hoffman’s shoes so he’d have that walk.

But Julia Child was a real person. The Roys are fictitious. The costuming fools us into thinking otherwise.

I’d love to agree, but my humility won’t allow me to. Between writer, actor, costume and prop people, there are so many who make the story happen. It’s not always organic, but essentially you’re there to help the actor develop a profile and inhabit the part.

Where do you start?

Always the shoes. Start at the bottom and grow the character from there. Shoes are the most important article of clothing on a person’s body. They tell you everything. It’s like if you’ve ever fallen in love with a guy and you then see the shoes and realize, Oh, this is not going to work.

I’m not sure I ever clocked the shoes. But nobody missed Lukas Matsson’s bare feet — which is also costuming, I suppose.

The whole point of the Matsson character was to be antithetical to everything the Roys emulate. They stand for money. They stand for affluence. They stand for position and posture. He goes shoeless because he sees himself as super cool. He’s trying to stand out as this unique phenomenon. He’s money in sweatpants and no shoes, money in a tank top.

It’s a disorienting visual. Conversely, Jeremy Strong, in his portrayal of Kendall Roy, changed as he began inhabiting the power he inherited when his father, Logan, died.

The point is to use the costumes in a way that is not disturbing the storytelling. I don’t expect anybody to pay attention to what characters wear.

Given that the show is credited with boosting the trend for “quiet luxury,” that didn’t work out so well.

I think the trend for “stealth wealth,” or whatever it is, was created by someone’s … enthusiasm. I’m not so sure that it’s real. In costuming, though, what’s fun is establishing the difference between the Nan Pierces of the world and the Roys. Nan [the matriarch and head of a media conglomerate that rivals the Roy family’s Waystar Royco] is old money. She absolutely does not give a [expletive] about clothes. She doesn’t know what Loro Piana is. She wouldn’t go into a Brunello Cucinelli store if you paid her. When Cherry Jones as Nan comes in with that striped thing and scarf, she looks like she’s just come from gardening.

Her clothes are a “tell” for her class.

The Pierces are the uppermost. The Roys are just slightly beneath that.

Kendall got progressively less casual as the season went along.

Jeremy has a history of being very educated as to who a character is. He inhabits it. Many actors do, but some know more of the nuances.

The famous $625 cashmere Loro Piana ball cap?

Our job is always to follow the actors’ lead and figure out what makes sense for the story. I’m not there to prevent or to dictate. And we didn’t always know where the story line was going to go; I’m usually as surprised as anyone. I didn’t even see the funeral episode until yesterday.

One example of good costuming is when a viewer barely registers that the clergy in the show is not real.

It was great getting the opportunity to do all this incredible clerical research, which added so much delicacy. And we had to find vendors. Where do you go for this stuff? It’s not like we live in Rome.

All you had to do for Kendall was walk down Madison Avenue.

It’s great that Jeremy is very knowledgeable about clothes. And I really trusted him, because Kendall is the last man standing.

Hold on. Do we need to issue a spoiler alert?

I don’t mean anything related to the plot or who is taking over anything. I mean it as an actor who is on the set and always the last one standing on camera. Actors have to own their character and their presence and their clothes.

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