‘The Americans’ Costume Designer on ’80s Suburban Style, Spy Disguises, and More

Laurel Pinson
The Americans

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in “The Americans.” (Craig Blankenhorn/FX)

If you weren’t one of the many viewers who ended up addicted to FX’s hit show “The Americans,” here’s a quick primer to prep for the Season 2 premiere this week: Set in the early 1980s, the show features two Soviet KGB spies—played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys—masquerading as an ordinary suburban American couple in Washington, D.C. While the series obviously features white-knuckle plot twists involving espionage and daredevil assignments, the series’ most gripping moments actually center around the spies’ (arranged) marriage and family life, which is rife with drama.

Translating the fast-paced period drama into an ’80s suburban wardrobe is costume designer Jenny Gering, who, along with the hair, makeup, and costume team of “The Americans,” was honored with the New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) Variety Ensemble Award at the Annual Designing Women event in 2012.

jenny gering costume designer The Americans Costume Designer on 80s Suburban Style, Spy Disguises, and More

“The Americans” costume designer Jenny Gering

Despite the show’s time frame, viewers shouldn’t expect acid-washed jeans, fanny packs, and worse. “The tacky over-the-top look didn’t really happen until the mid-’80s,” says Gering. “My research was more focused on the late ’70s, especially as it takes place in suburbia. If the location had been the East Village, things would have been different!”

Gering hunted down her characters’ wardrobes everywhere, from Brooklyn to Europe. “It helps now that the show has some recognition,” she says. “Stores and collectors have been seeking us out.”

Even more interesting than the characters’ (sometimes ho-hum) daily wardrobe is the disguises that Elizabeth (Russell) and Philip (Rhys) periodically wear on their various assignments. Maintaining their identities as boring suburbanites is critical to their overall mission, so when they go out and bust some heads on a mission, it’s essential that they’re virtually unrecognizable—and you’d be amazed how far a wig and a new wardrobe can go.

Keri Russell disguise "The Americans"

Russell in disguise. (Craig Blankenhorn/FX)

“The hardest part has been holding back when I design the disguises,” admits Gering. “It took me a while to realize that the point of the disguise is to make the spy invisible. The goal is to blend in—that can be tough from a design aspect.”

Try, for example, making the dazzling Russell look like a total frump by putting her in a short, curly wig and a pair of oversize glasses. “Both Elizabeth and Philip have their own disguise section,” Gering tells us. “I’m constantly looking for things that will come in handy. Anything that’s the opposite of what their characters would typically wear.”

It helps when you’ve got willing co-stars. “[Keri and Matt] have been so game from Day 1,” says Gering. “I do feel kind of guilt about asking Matt to wear bikini underwear in the very first episode, but he went for it!” (Ed note: He pulled it off nicely.)

For those viewers with an eye for any conspiratorial details, look to the wardrobe of Claudia, the couple’s KGB supervisor. “Margo [Martindale, the actress] and I decided she would have a collection of brooches. I chose the squirrel as it’s a very symbolic animal in Russia. A little nod to her ancestors.”

Lastly, for fans seeking a little sneak peek into Season 2 of “The Americans,” Gering revealed one fun tidbit about Russell’s character: “Elizabeth has a Catherine Deneuve moment. I liked that one!”

“The Americans” premieres Wednesday, February 26, at 10 p.m. EST on FX.