Above: Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford
The First Lady is a 10 episode series detailing the personal and political lives of the three presidential spouses leading up to and through their days in the White House.
Across eight decades we watch three first ladies (Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama) wrestle with the public image of the role.
Overseeing the spectacular styling for the series is costume designer Signe Sejlund, one of TV’s most-respected costume designers and the mastermind who brought us Nicole Kidman’s much coveted coat collection in the 2020 psychological thriller The Undoing.
Sejlund talks to Tyson Beckett about melding historical accuracy and creative storytelling on the small screen.
TB: You're working again with your longtime collaborator director Susanne Bier (The Undoing, The Night Manager). How do you approach a project given you have such an established working relationship?
SS: It's been almost 30 years since we did our first project together, and it's also developed into a friendship. I think by now I am so much in her brain that I know where she's going. It is not that we have long intense conversations about the look, it’s very few words and I know where she wants to go.
She's amazing to work with, and I love her to pieces. She's so fearless, which is amazing. The moment we start shooting, she's so into the characters and telling the story that she trusts me and lets me do what I want to do with the wardrobe.
Talk to me about your research process for The First Lady. Where did you start, and how much did you draw on archival materials?
This is so different from anything I've done before because we are re-making history and there is a limit to how much you can step away from that.
These iconic, strong, amazing ladies, everyone knows them. I think Michelle Obama might be the most photographed woman of her time.
There are so many images of all these ladies, so we had to do replicas of some of their most iconic wardrobe items which was really interesting and fun to do, because we have actresses playing them that don't have the same shape body or height but still, you have to make it feel like the first lady they are portraying.
Because we cover so many decades, I knew from the beginning that the edit process was going to bring everything together - so how are we going to make it look beautiful when you're in the 1930s and then bam, you're in the 1980s and then 2010?
I tried to make each of the first ladies stand out, and I've not been afraid to use colour.
When you worked on the film Serena, you said you weren't overly concerned with strictly sticking to historical accuracy. Did your approach differ here because you are dealing with historic figures?
At that time I thought it was OK because you have artistic freedom to do whatever you want, but here I was trying to get the same accuracy as they do, for instance, in The Crown. You expect to see history. I couldn’t invent too many things. It was a challenge.
I had an amazing co-designer Felicia Jarvis – she knows history way better than me and I thank her for keeping me on a short lead because I go mad [creatively] but on this project I had to be accurate.
Viewers really latch on to sartorial choices when there is interplay between the plot, your costuming and the people bringing the story to life. In The First Lady you had three incredible lead actors to work with...
I mean come one, these ladies! Michelle Pfeiffer, Viola Davis and Gillian Anderson. This job was terrifying in that you had to get it right, for everybody. They all had an opinion, but I think we succeeded pretty well and the costumes help it feel right.
It’s such a close collaboration between the actors and the costumes, especially on this project because we couldn't create a world, the world was already there.
Which outfits were you most excited to bring back to life?
Eleanor Roosevelt's wedding dress. When you see photos, well you've never seen anything like it. We managed to do a complete copy of that.
With Betty Ford, she was just so sassy and so sexy and so cool and the 70s are just to die for. She's the one where we made most of the wardrobe from scratch.
For Viola as Michelle Obama – there's an iconic dress from the first inauguration ball, a white gown designed by Jason Wu. It is incredible. We called Jason Wu to ask, "is there any chance you have it?" but no, it was in the Smithsonian.
But actually he said, “now you call, it's so silly I don't have one in my archive. So let me make you one, and I can have it afterwards”.
Trying to find the exact right jewellery was important too. Especially for Eleanor, she had such little jewellery but what she did have, she wore for her entire life.
She had a watch, brooch and pendant that she began wearing very young, and then she gave to her daughter. There are all these little details that I hope the audience is going to notice.
I often think with first ladies, we see someone who is almost playing a role. We don't get a lot of their own personality, but it comes out in clothing. I'm thinking of course of Melania Trump and that jacket. How did you communicate those individual personalities through the costuming?
This whole show is also about showing the person that we did not know. We know what they did and said, but how was life behind closed doors? We really tried to capture some extremely private moments with these first families.
Each of them have a big range of night gowns and bath robes, lingerie and such. Basically Betty Ford was known for just walking around the White House in her quilted robe. We tried to capture some of those private night moments.
With your last show, The Undoing, you got a lot of attention for those amazing coats. So much so, it became referred to as ‘the coat show’. Do you think there will be one standout outfit in this show?
I never thought that green coat would get so much attention [laughs].
You never know but each of these ladies has about 20 changes per episode, so there's no one piece that returns like that. It's a very different show.
Different in a good way...
It's such a challenge and an amazing opportunity to get to do this show, especially for me as a Danish person.
Sometimes I think it's not a bad idea to have a foreigner tell your history because I do this without having any preconceived [notions]. I did not grow up with this story, so I capture what I think is most important.
New episodes of The First Lady stream Mondays on Neon and Sky Go and Sundays from May 1 on SoHo.