Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood House of Cards.

Francis Underwood and the Streamlined, No-Nonsense Dress Code of the Powerful

In an early episode of House of Cards, Francis Underwood, deliciously played by Kevin Spacey, makes an important distinction between money and power as he sees it. In one of his many co-conspiratorial asides to the camera, Underwood tells us how so many choose money over power, a mistake made by many in Washington. Unlike Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, who sought money and the gaudy accoutrements to go with it, the villain in this Shakespearean tale of high-stakes chess explains:

“Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years,” he says. “Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”

This piece isn’t necessarily about Frank’s sociopathic, amoral and extremely entertaining character. It’s about his power and the streamlined, efficient and effective sartorial choices he makes on his boundless quest for more of it. (For the benefit of the reader who has yet to see the show, no spoilers here. Promise.)

Amorality aside, Underwood is representative of an uncommonly busy man who does important work that affects a tremendous number of people, in both good ways and bad. This is a man charged with the task of making a myriad of grave, high-level decisions every day, from the moment he wakes up until the second he puts head to pillow. In order to do so most effectively, he must present himself as someone who will be taken seriously. And he is taken seriously, because, at first glance, he is clearly a man with whom one does not trifle or fuck.

Men like this, both in story and in life, tend to keep their wardrobe very simple and streamlined. These busy power folk make careful sartorial choices that force us to notice the man, not the clothes. They avoid busy stripes, plaids and patterns. They seem to stick mostly with muted solids in varying shades of blues, grays and tans. Shoes? Simple, timeless and well-crafted in mostly black, some brown.

Vanity Fair's Michael Lewis with Barack Obama at the White House in 2012. Photo by Pete Souza.

Vanity Fair‘s Michael Lewis with Barack Obama at the White House in 2012. Photo by Pete Souza.

In Michael Lewis’s profile of Barack Obama for Vanity Fair last year, the most powerful man in the free world explained: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” the President said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Though Frank Underwood is not the President (yet), he is a character of considerable power. A man of power has no time to trifle with the frivolous. He can’t be bothered with deciding whether a certain pocket square goes with a certain tie. A man like this requires a sure-thing dress code, one that enables him to reach into his closet blindfolded and not screw up. Garanamals for the busy and powerful, if you will.

I realize we’re talking about Washington, here, which is no hotbed of style. It is, according to some, “Hollywood for ugly people.” But within the constraints of appropriate attire in political power circles, there is definite space for a degree of elegance and distinction in a man’s mode of dress that sets him apart from the untailored grunts who carelessly dig around the racks at Men’s Wearhouse. (Yes, Paul Ryan, I’m looking at you.)

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in navy pinstripe.

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in navy pinstripe.

The boys’ club in Washington is a predictable sea of blue and gray, with the occasional splash of red with the tie. Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood works this constraint beautifully. All of his suits, like Obama’s, are solids in blue or gray, with the occasional pinstripe. Where Underwood distinguishes himself from the flunkies is in careful tailoring. If Spacey’s suits aren’t made-to-measure, they look like it. The fit in the shoulders is perfect, the arms of the jackets are just slim enough, the length of the jacket drops correctly to his thumb knuckle and the fit in the chest and mid-section hugs his form with just enough room for movement. For the vents, he goes both ways: some of his jackets have a single vent, and some have side vents.

Underwood’s trousers spare us the off-the-rack trajedy of excess pleat fabric that practically dips the rise down to the knee. His trousers are cuffed and flat-front with a reasonable slimness in the leg. Age and industry-appropriate.

Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Michael Kelly in House of Cards.

Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Michael Kelly in House of Cards.

His tailoring doesn’t stop at suits. His shirts, also all solids like the suits, are tailored, as well. Many men make the mistake of thinking a button-down collar is appropriate for serious business. It isn’t, particularly at the power table. The blousy, loose, schoolboy fit that billows above the belt is wrong, too. Underwood does it right with white or sky trim-fit shirts, tailored with darts, with a spread collar and double-button barrel cuffs. As much as I like French cuffs, they’re a little flashy for American government and perhaps a little fussy for the uber-busy man who likes to roll up his sleeves in the middle of the day.

Underwood’s ties are simple. If they’re not solids of varying shades of black, blue or gray, they’re very subtle patterns: blue on blue, gray on gray, with a width that matches the jacket lapels. Bulletproof.

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I’m loathe to imagine Frank Underwood at a weekend fundraiser barbecue in a bold gingham shirt and red chinos. At such an occasion, a man of power would likely avoid the Skittles-colored contrivances of right now and go with the tried and true light blue shirt and khakis. But it wouldn’t be just any light blue shirt or khakis. A lean, mean, custom fit and smart tailoring would set him apart as the no-nonsense power player that he is.

It’s real simple. These guys don’t have time to bother, as President Obama said. But in order to balance no-time-to-bother with the look of power, they have taken the time at some point to arm themselves with an arsenal of smart, clean, fitted, no-brainer choices. They do, in fact, care. There’s a wonderful scene in an episode of House of Cards (no spoiler, promise) where Frank needs to clear his head. What does he do? Cut to Underwood’s basement, his sanctuary, where we see Frank, high powered Congressman and majority whip, in silent solitude, taking great pleasure in carefully shining his own shoes.

Creative and expressive dress is beautiful. It’s part of what makes New York New York. On the other side, the busy and powerful have prepared a no-fuss, fool-proof, time-saving system that works. While the rest of us spend time in the closet and in front of the mirror wondering if this will go with that, the power players like Francis Underwood are already dressed and looking, well, powerful, and out the door by the time we’ve settled on a tie.

5 thoughts on “Francis Underwood and the Streamlined, No-Nonsense Dress Code of the Powerful”

  1. Astute writeup! Love the attention to detail, you noticed a few things I hadn’t yet. Doesn’t every man wish to appear as if he didn’t care (or were too busy to), when in fact we’ve spent hours at the tailor and in front of the mirror. Enjoyed it!

    1. Absolutely! We want it to look effortless (even though we’ve invested a lot of time and trial & error in “effortless”). Thanks for your comment!

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