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Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings as Stephanie the home care nurse in The Americans.
Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX

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Keri Russell’s Spy Disguises Have Been the Best Part of The Americans

All the inspiration and ’80s research that went into the many, many costumes.

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After six seasons, the last and final episode of The Americans is upon us. We’ve seen Elizabeth Jennings smoke countless cigarettes, wondered numerous times where the hell Henry was, said “Poor Martha!” often, and still haven’t stopped talking about that, ahem, suitcase incident.

Mostly, though, we delighted in the spy disguises. From gloriously terrible ’80s wigs to Philip’s sad mustaches, the disguises kept fans talking season after season. They are arguably the defining characteristic of a show full of originality.

In the course of The Americans’ run, the costume department created upward of 120 different spy disguises between Philip (played by Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (played by Keri Russell), according to costume designer Katie Irish. Irish has been working on the show since the middle of the first season and became head costume designer in the fourth season. She says her department has about a month to do prep work before each season, during which she buys “many magazines, school yearbooks, catalogs ... anything I can get my hands on” from the applicable year. She orders a lot of this vintage material from eBay and Etsy.

While we have seen the characters taking off their disguises occasionally throughout the season, they’ve never been filmed putting them on. There’s a reason for that. “It’s just not sexy. It’s not as interesting to get dressed as it is undressed,” Irish says. “And in the ’80s, there were a lot of pantyhose. No one wants to watch people putting pantyhose on, even someone as lovely, beautiful, and talented as Keri Russell!”

A sample spy disguise mood board.
Photo: Katie Irish/FX

One of the incredible things about The Americans is how true to the time period the wardrobe styling is. If you didn’t actually live through the ’80s, it would be easy to assume that everyone looked like a character out of a John Hughes movie or the cover of a Culture Club album. Portrayals of that time period tend to be highly stylized and exaggerated.

But Irish focused on looking at real people via old family photos she found. She also referred to old Vogue magazines and the Sears catalog to see how outfits were put together at opposite ends of the wealth spectrum. The costumes used on the show are a combination of vintage, custom-made, and modern items that were altered. Most of the wigs are rented or borrowed, not made specifically for the show.

For spy persona that had recurring roles during a season, like Stephanie the home care nurse this season, Irish was given fleshed-out character bios starting in season five. “They often tell us whether [the character is] single, married, divorced, if they went to college, if they didn’t, where their hometown is,” she tells Racked. “These are things that the audience doesn’t necessarily need to know about that disguise, but it helps me really root the character in a real time and place and persona.”

Irish took the time to chat about seven of Elizabeth Jennings’s spy disguises from the past few seasons, which range from arguably the frumpiest to the most stylish of the whole season.

Photo: David Russell/FX

Patty, Mary Kay makeup saleswoman (season four)

The most challenging and fun one for me was Patty. She was anti-Elizabeth. She is a woman whose job depends on her looks and on how she presents herself. This is the woman who is meant to go door to door selling the American dream of makeup that will make you beautiful and successful.

It was in this character that I actually really got to use the classic ’80s colors for the first time. I got to do really big jewelry on her. We did some really fun shoes. She always had blue eyeliner and coral lips, which is something Elizabeth would never do but was very appropriate for the time.

And then the challenge was Keri was pregnant that season. She was naked in a number of scenes, and Keri is that magical unicorn that you can shoot from behind when she’s eight months pregnant and no one knows she’s pregnant, so we did. She’s not [based on] one particular person. I definitely looked at a lot of Mary Kay saleswomen from that time. I looked at Mary Kay, the founder. I did look at Dynasty. I did look at some of the Revlon beauty ads.

Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX

Jennifer, Clark’s sister (recurring role)

Jennifer was introduced in the first season at the wedding [of Clark and Martha. Note: Poor Martha!]. I was a shopper on the show at that point. One of the things everybody was interested in was Jennifer should not be too distracting, too attractive, too noticeable to anyone. Looking at her and Clark together, you should think, “Okay, yes, they’re a nice family, sure.”

We did not have a bio for her, but in my mind, I always thought of her as a large animal veterinarian. I can’t tell you why, but there was a very practical groundedness about her. Jennifer never wore heels outside of the wedding. She always was in a very practical shoe, and she’s in a vintage Pendleton coat here. Pendleton is one of the brands that we actually would look at every season to see what they did.

There were a couple of companies that are like that — Land’s End, L.L. Bean, these companies that have been around for a while and still carry some of the very classic things. Jennifer is wearing a coat in that very specific ’80s dusty rose/mauve color. It doesn’t look great on her skin tone, which also helps in making Keri look more homely. Which she is not. Obviously.

Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Brenda, fashion buyer (season five)

It was interesting because it was written into the script that she’s a women’s fashion buyer, which automatically necessitated looking in higher-end magazines for what she would be wearing. This is a woman who would have access to all of those things. She’s the first time I had a character that could actually be dressing like she was out of the pages of Vogue.

One of the things we were looking at in how to make her different from other [disguises] is at this point in time, there was a lot of very graphic black-and-white design with a pop of color. Also, you had supermodels like Linda Evangelista all cutting off their hair.

So I presented for approval the idea that she only wore black and white and very graphic patterns. She had a red pair of heels or she’d have a hot pink bracelet or she’d have teal earrings, but otherwise, the whole idea was that everything would come from texture for her. So I got to use fun tights and things like that. It’s a frivolity that Elizabeth would never dare to do, but the way that this character was written actually necessitated it.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/FX

Dee, flight attendant (season five)

That was her at-home, after-school-with-Tuan [a Vietnamese-American spy who was supposed to be the adopted son of Elizabeth and Philip’s characters] look. In the ’80s, flying was still glamorous, and again, in the script, we know that Brad and Dee Eckert, Philip and Elizabeth’s covers, are a pilot and a flight attendant.

Through conversation with Sasha’s parents, we know that she has to watch what she eats because her uniform is so tight. So again, we have all of these clues written in this fabulous script that this is a woman that cares about what she looks like and has an image to portray. She’s got a denim skirt and she’s put a little bit of effort into what she’s wearing.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/FX

Wendy, high-powered DC consultant (season six)

She was another longer-running character for this season. And we know that she works at a consulting agency. She consistently, supposedly, has meetings at the State [Department]. So this was definitely a professional woman, like in [Baby Boom] with Diane Keaton.

Any kind of reference to women in the workforce and powerful women at that point is what we were going for. This is where you’re really going to see the classic large shoulders of the ’80s and a very defined waist, a slightly oversize jacket with a silky blouse and skirt. That kind of menswear tailoring was all definite interests for this character.

Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX

Stephanie, home care nurse (season six)

I was like, “Okay, so we are decidedly not glamorous for her this season.” Making Keri Russell look not lovely and gorgeous in anything she wears is a little bit of a challenge. I needed things that physically made her much boxier.

She’s a home health care nurse for people who are dying. That necessitated things that were machine-washable. You wouldn’t wear something that needed to be dry-cleaned to go deal with someone’s bodily fluids. You needed a practical shoe. Keri always said it was the most comfortable costume she was ever going to wear because she’s always in sneakers or orthopedic flats, some elastic-waist pants, and then either a turtleneck or a shirt and a little smock that we created for her.

In the late ’80s, scrubs were still only worn in a hospital and only worn in the operating room. In 1987, nurses were still wearing white dresses in many parts of the country, and if not dresses, then they were wearing a very tailored tunic and pants look. A lot of nurses still wore that nurse hat.

The solution we found was that Pepto-Bismol pink smock that we create based off a McCall’s pattern. [The wig] was definitely about how can we make Keri frumpy and unassuming. She was going to be in these people’s houses every single night, and she needed to be as unassuming as possible and voted least likely to spy on you as humanly possible.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/FX

The Chicago disguise (season six)

She didn’t have a name. We only ever saw [Philip and Elizabeth] talking inside the hotel room. It was a safe place in there, so they never called each other by a name. They’re in a different part of the country. There is a difference between DC and Chicago. DC is much more conservative than Chicago, and that was definitely the case in 1987.

Because of where they were going to be doing this operation, we knew it was a more working-class part of town, and so we wanted something that was more working-class-looking. We were looking for things that would be practical. We knew she was going to have to get in and out of the van. The boots were used to avoid having her in sneakers because Stephanie [the home care nurse] is in sneakers, so trying to get to a different silhouette that could not be confused with anybody else.

There was no specific inspiration for the look — it was a lot of people’s family photos online from the time, honestly. Thank you, world, for putting your family photos online!

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