As a professional costume designer and hero enthusiast who’s long since picked up the habit of watching TV for its costumes, of COURSE I followed Marvel’s Agent Carter obsessively as it aired. How long has it been since we’ve had a female-led period superhero show? Awhile.
I wasn’t disappointed. There is some stunning design work and costume construction on Agent Carter, courtesy of its costume designer Gigi Ottobre-Melton and her team. She creates a gently stylized 1946 that is bright, vivid, and superheroic without losing any of its edge, and period-accurate without sacrificing storytelling. It’s a joy to watch her use color, texture, shape, and period detail to masterfully support the story and make a fully-rounded superhero out of Peggy Carter.
1. THAT SUIT
Capslock necessary. I had requests for this in my inbox within only a few hours of the first episode, “This is Not The End”. It’s spectacular: in a postwar sea of mens’ drab two-pieces, a perfectly tailored mid-1940s working woman’s suit and hat in the toyetic colors of a superhero. Peggy Carter is continuing Steve Rogers’ work, but the show is all about her.
Storytelling, suckers.That custom Stetson hat is to die for and deserves every bit of hype.
Gigi Ottobre-Melton’s suit design is perfect. The strong shoulder, darker side panels, and contrast seaming make sure this look, while 1940s-accurate, ticks every box for a classic superhero costume: bold, graphic, and body-conscious.
That being said, THAT SUIT doesn’t show up once in the rest of the season–and for good reason. It’s too opening-credits-iconic for Peggy’s everyday closet. But in a single shot it tells you everything you need to know about the show you’re watching.
Take your eyes off her, I dare you.
2. Peggy’s Work Suits
These are fun little pieces individually, but I’m counting them together because they’re all variations on THAT SUIT.
The palette is toned down for Peggy’s day-to-day, and the flat blocks of color softened with textural checks, plaids, and stripes. But the razor-sharp tailoring sticks around, with strong shoulders, a nipped waist, and the somewhat masculine detailing typical of 1940s women’s suits. Sharp as hell, and totally appropriate for an ex-military woman dressing to impress at the male-dominated SSR.
There’s some variety in collar shape, closure, and pocket detailing, but they don’t deviate too far from the recipe–regardless of her personal style and inclinations, at work Peggy is dressing like an agent, not a fashion plate. She keeps her suits simple and classic, in menswear-influenced fabrics without a lot of ornamentation or fuss.
Of course, once there’s an established precedent, you get to break it for effect. Case in point:
3. The “Dizzy Skirt” Blouse
This look gets its big moment in Episode 3, “Time and Tide”, as Peggy puts her career on the line to get Jarvis out of hot water at the SSR.
She feigns incompetence in service of her covert mission, and pays for it with whatever small amount of respect she’s managed to earn from her sexist colleagues. With its soft peach color, bust shirring, and ornamental mother-of-pearl buttons, this blouse is the most stereotypically feminine piece in Peggy’s work wardrobe. She’s impersonating the dizzy skirt her coworkers have always assumed her to be, and the extra-girly blouse emphasizes her humiliation here.
Did you catch that this blouse is a repeat? It shows up briefly in Episode 1, as Peggy is stuck serving coffee for the boys in our Establishing Moment of Workplace Sexism:
And as she requests a day off for “ladies’ things” (actually, more covert adventuring) to the disgust of her boss:
Gigi Ottobre-Melton has firmly linked this piece with Peggy making lemonade out of lemons and using into the misogyny of the SSR to pursue her own agenda. I’m interested to see whether it shows up again in Season 2, considering the change in dynamic between Peggy and her coworkers. Any predictions?
4. The Jaunty Plaid Jacket
Again, the conventions of Peggy’s wardrobe are stretched, resulting in great storytelling. This is the brightest, most eye-catching piece by far in Peggy’s work closet. I swear I said “JAUNTY!” out loud when the SSR’s elevator doors opened on this number in Episode 3:
It’s sensational, and while still within Peggy’s wheelhouse it’s a definite departure from her more conservative suits, with bold red plaid, a sexy fit, and a more extreme shoulder than usual. She looks like a movie star walking into the office. And then…
Peggy is caught off-guard by Krzeminski’s death, and an outfit that was snappy a few frames ago now looks gauche and inappropriate. This costume choice telegraphs the widening gulf between Peggy and the SSR, and the unsustainability of her double-agent facade. When Chief Dooley swears he’ll catch who’s responsible, that red jacket is like a glowing target on Peggy’s back. She looks like a sitting duck in the frame, doesn’t she?
Oh girl, this can’t last.
5. The Good-Time Gal Disguise
Peggy’s episode 1 getup as a Good-Time Gal walks a really fine line between glamorous and goofy.
Don’t get me wrong, Hayley Atwell looks absolutely stunning in Veronica Lake drag tailored to perfection. It’s meant to be a va-va-voom-moment and succeeds:
–mostly. But all that glittery skirt and swag add up to a lot of gown, and that blonde wig is wiggy as all hell, fake enough to lead Sousa to darken the hair in the Mystery Lady photograph a few episodes later. Those little bits of dissonance hint at Peggy’s somewhat precarious disguise, and the danger she’s in.
But it’s also sort of funny, especially once the jig is up and fists start swinging. No elaborate martial arts or graceful whoopass choreography here; Peggy Carter’s fighting strategy is to hit the bad guy really hard with her fists or whatever is at hand. In this case, a stapler.
With gold lamé and blonde wig flying around, the result is slightly comedic, and the hokey knockout lipstick is just the icing on the cake for this moment.
6. The Milk Inspector Disguise
Episode 2, “Bridge and Tunnel”, gives us Milk Inspector Peggy, in a broad American accent and a borrowed Sex Labcoat:
Isn’t it a great coincidence that Mr. Stark’s Fetish Labcoat is tailored exactly like Peggy’s work jackets, down to the strong shoulder and short waist?
…Okay, no shade on the suspiciously well-fitting labcoat. Atwell looks great here, and she’s the star of the show. Everything should fit her perfectly, whether it’s a borrowed labcoat, a stolen flak jacket, or a palm frond that randomly falls on her. That’s showbiz, folks.
As perfect as the pieces are, there’s clever little tells to mark her as an impostor. Peggy lost the lipstick but left her red nail polish on, the glasses slip down her nose, and the shoes aren’t quite right: the real thing would wear a dour little oxford, not Peggy’s peep-toe sandal.
I have a lot of love for Peggy’s disguises. The show can get a little heavy at times (y’know: execution-style murders, abused weapon-children, gassed civilians murdering each other) and it needs some humor to temper its noir. Sure, these disguise moments are a little silly, but in the exact right way: a little Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, a little Indiana Jones “no ticket”. My fingers are crossed for more disguises in season 2.
7. The Ass Kickin Slacks/Leather Jacket Combo
In 1946, slacks are still only very recently acceptable daywear for women, so it’s not surprising that Agent Carter isn’t wearing them to the office in Episode 1. But for Peggy’s extracurricular activities, it makes perfect sense for her to grab a pair of slacks from her closet and go adventuring.
There are a lot of custom-built costume pieces in Agent Carter, which isn’t surprising considering it’s a gently stylized period superhero detective adventure story with a female lead and lots of action. (God, that is a mouthful.) In interviews and behind-the-scenes features, Ottobre-Melton emphasizes over and over again the importance of fit, tailoring, and flattering the body. When costuming for action sequences that involve stunts and harnesses, that becomes even more important.
I have a very un-costume-designery hatred of the adjective ‘flattering’ but Hayley Atwell looks not only totally babely in this costume, but put-together, whether she’s scaling a wall, sprinting away from an impending explosion, or leaping onto a moving car. It’s that rarest of creatures: a plausible woman’s action costume. The crisp white blouse, pinned-back hair, and signature red lipstick add glamour without sacrificing practicality.
The femme Indiana Jones vibes are gloriously strong here. I’m not complaining.
8. The Plum Dress
It’s no coincidence that Episode 4, “The Blitzkrieg Button”, is the first time Peggy shows up to work in a dress–just as she’s resigned herself to fetching coffee and lunch for her crummy coworkers. The men at the SSR don’t respect her and her real hero work is happening covertly, out of the office, so Peggy isn’t even bothering with her work suits anymore.
I’m kind of glad she isn’t, because this custom 1940s dress is a HELL of a look. Love the draped keyhole neckline and the self-belt with what looks like a celluloid buckle. Also, check out how the signature strong 1940s shoulder line of Peggy’s work jackets makes its way into the slight puff sleeve of the dress:
This costume takes Peggy on a long journey in Episode 4: from resignation to the SSR wasting her talents through the discovery of Steve Rogers’ blood to an emotional confrontation with Howard Stark, in which she acknowledges her grief for Steve and re-affirms her determination to do the right thing in his memory.
The lack of pattern keeps the dress somewhat somber, and the deep plum color is a departure from Peggy’s usual palette, with appropriate connotations of nobility and mourning. Interestingly, judging from this sketch, the color was originally intended to be red:
…but the plum color really suits the gravity of the moment, I think. Costumes can be an effective way to influence tone, as Gigi Ottobre-Mellon does when she brings the plum dress back in the finale. In “Valediction”, Peggy wears it on her return to the office to, finally, applause from her colleagues:
…only for her Agent Thompson to immediately take the political credit. Once again, Peggy’s resigned to substandard treatment at work–but now, it’s very different from rolling her eyes at having to take the squad’s lunch orders. “I know my value,” she says, simply.
This dress shows up in the gorgeous closing shot of the season, as Peggy bids a final goodbye to Steve Rogers and lets the vial of his blood fall into the river. She wore it when she discovered the vial in the first place, so this costume choice brings us full circle, with lovely echo of her determination to do the right thing following Steve’s example.
Even if, as in this case, the right thing is letting go of him.
9. The Belted Military Dress
Peggy shows up to work in another dress in Episode 5, “The Iron Ceiling”, but it couldn’t be more different from the one before:
The brown and blue palette and menswear-influenced pinstripe unite her with the office instead of setting her apart. Peggy isn’t playing corporate spy for Howard Stark anymore: she’s re-committed to her work at the SSR and showing up every last one of those bros with her codebreaking skills.
Peggy directly trades on not only her military experience (loved the shoutout to the Bletchley codebreakers!) but also her connections, calling in the Howling Commandos and earning a spot on the tactical team. To drive it home, the dress she’s wearing is pure Wartime Peggy: the lapels and button placement are almost identical to her uniform and the wide leather belt again recalls her magnificent tactical jacket from the 2011 film.
That costume choice is so strong it’s almost a spoiler. Unsurprisingly, Peggy’s war background gets her the mission, and she and the Howling Commandos nail it. She returns from Russia to new respect from the SSR.
9. The Kickass Slacksuit
This look is assembled from pieces we’ve already seen in Peggy’s closet, but it’s anything but leftovers. It represents a collision of identities and plots in the climax of the season and covers a lot of ground–Peggy wears it through Episode 6, “A Sin to Err”, Episode 7, “SNAFU”, and the season finale.
In Episode 6, Peggy’s allowed to chase down her own lead at the SSR for the first time. She begins the day in the sharpest of her work jackets, belted military-style and paired with the crisp white blouse from THAT SUIT. Oh, and also…
That’s right, Kickass Slacks make their SSR debut.
The storytelling here couldn’t be clearer: Agent Peggy Carter of the SSR and the Peggy Carter that secretly chases down arms dealers in the dead of night have combined. This look is a culmination of a season’s worth of character development, and all the plotlines of the season so far are neatly gathered up. It’s one case, one mission, and Peggy Carter is dressed for it. There are consequences to this transparency, though.
Peggy is arrested by her own office, after an absolute gem of a fight scene at the Automat that clocks in at under a minute.
Talk about a plausible woman’s action costume. This suit was made for punchin’. The tailoring moves beautifully and the belt keeps everything in place.
That belt’s a great touch, but I’m not sure how period-accurate it is. On 1940s suits you see a lot of self-belts, where the belt is made of matching fabric, but I’ve never seen a contrast leather belt over a suit jacket of this type. However, snotty details of period accuracy will never be more important than good storytelling. The leather belt looks bold and superheroic, with a nod to Peggy’s military past, and it suits Hayley Atwell so perfectly I’d like to have her declared patron saint of belts everywhere.
Once taken into custody and interrogated, Peggy loses the jacket and exposes the truth:
She’s accepted back into the fold and honored by Chief Dooley with an “Attagirl” before his death. Peggy finds the acceptance she’s been striving for all season, but there’s no time to enjoy it. The agents are immediately called out to a movie theatre full of corpses, and show up looking for the first time like a team:
The slacks-jacket-belt combo seems to be Peggy’s new signature look as a full-fledged agent of the SSR, because she sports something very similar for the following day and season finale:
I’m calling it now for Season 2: Peggy’s new standard work wardrobe will be snappy pantsuits of this type, with the occasional belted dress thrown in for good measure. And disguises. Lots of disguises. I can’t wait.
So those are my favorites of Peggy Carter’s costumes, but it’s hard to pick a single most successful moment or costume piece, so I won’t try. Gigi Ottobre-Melton doesn’t just make Hayley Atwell look great (although she does, many, many times over) or dress her for individual scenes. She’s telling a coherent story over the course of the whole season as much as the cast and writers are, and it’s a pleasure to watch.