In FX’s newest series, The Americans (premieres tonight), two undercover KGB agents pose as a married couple living in suburban Virginia in 1981. Costume designer Jenny Gering talks to TIME about shopping vintage, drawing costume inspiration from Playboy and why early 1980s fashion is underrated.
What attracted you to the show?
The fact that it was set in 1981. I knew most people would be expecting the high 80s look—bright neons, shiny materials—but the aesthetic of 1981 is a late 70s vibe: earth shoes and that kind of look. Because you have so many influences—from The New Romantics look from the U.K. to the conservative influence from the new [Reagan] administration—there’s a lot to play with.
What was the aesthetic of 1981?
A warmer, more autumnal look. Corduroys and velvets and chenille and a lot of knits. The early 80s are so under appreciated! It was such a beautiful, tailored, sensual time in fashion because the fabrics were so rich and it was a much more accessible time than people think. We’re out of the big flairs, shoulder pads and all the stuff people think of the 80s. It was very much about fit.
It’s also important to remember the show is not set in the East Village—it’s suburban Virginia and Washington D.C. so you see a lot of fashion influence, but it’s trickled down.
Where did you look for inspiration?
My crew and I have hit every vintage store from Brooklyn to Albany, N.Y.. We’ve gotten things, we’ve made things, we’ve copied things we love with fabrics we’re interested in. I’ve been conscientious to mainly use vintage, but we’ve had to take some liberties. When I first heard the job I went to my high school year book. I was 13 in 1981 so I just pored over them to make sure what I pictured was right on. From there, I went to looking at old catalogues, old magazines—you can’t imagine how helpful Playboy was. Because ironically there were a lot of fashion spreads, and the ads themselves were so helpful.
Tell us about dressing Elizabeth (played by Keri Russell).
Elizabeth is the classic hot mom. She has classic tastes, but she’s young and fun and hip. So she’s wearing beautiful high-wasted jeans tucked into high-heeled boots. She does a lot of blazers, sexy silk blouses paired with jeans. I was very much inspired by Charlotte Rampling and these cool, sexy women of the 70s.
Does the fact that they’re undercover agents add an extra layer to the way you dress them?
I think if anything they’re trying to not call attention to themselves. They’re so indoctrinated into being American at this point that it’s second nature. Even though it’s a false identity, it’s a false character. So I don’t think they’re being extra conservative or American.