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7 Tips for Looking Polished and Powerful at Work from the Costume Designer of The Good Wife

Photo by Peshkova via iStock.

As the costume designer for The Good Wife, Daniel Lawson has spent years dressing powerful, professional women. On July 27, he’s headed to the S. Dillon Ripley Center in DC to chat with Independent Journal Review White House correspondent Kate Bennett—who’s also a former Washingtonian fashion editor—about his role as a costume designer and storyteller.

But while Lawson may be spending his career costuming women for television, the rules Lawson follows when outfitting his female leads can apply to any real woman in Washington who wants to look sharp. Prior to the event, Washingtonian caught up with Lawson to get his best tips for what to wear as a professional woman who means business.

Make sure your clothes fit. Like, really fit.

“So many people’s clothes don’t fit well, and as soon as somebody’s clothes are tailored to them, suddenly they stand out,” says Lawson. “One of the big things that goes along with that is being honest with yourself and figuring out what shapes work best on you, and what give you the best proportions… I think anything can work on anybody—it just has to be right proportions. It really makes the difference between just looking okay and average and looking like a player and like someone that needs to be contended with.”

Find a good tailor.

“The last thing you want is somebody that’s going to ‘yes’ you to do death to make the sale,” says Lawson. “For finding a tailor, go online and see what’s in your area, and see if there’s actually a tailor. You need to interview them just like you’re going to interview anybody else. Listen to them and see if what they’re saying makes sense. A good thing to do? Test them. Take something that you don’t care too much about that you need altered—a hem or a waist taken in or something like that—and see how they do. If it’s not to your liking or it’s subpar, move on and find somebody else.”

Know that it’ll take some work.

“I think people watch a show—whether it’s The Good Wife or Scandal or whatever show it is—and they think, ‘Oh, I want to look like that.’ They think it’s like so easy to pull it together. But they forget that there’s a team of trained professionals pulling this look together,” says Lawson. “You can do that for yourself, you can be your own trained professional, but it takes work. You can’t just run out to the store and grab a piece and think it’s going to be perfect. It’s going to take alteration, it’s going to take shopping, it’s going to take trial and error.”

Embrace your femininity.

“I think femininity is a very strong attribute. And let’s face it, half the world’s population doesn’t have it—they’re not feminine. Play up that strength,” says Lawson. “For so long, especially in the business world, it was: you have to look masculine to succeed. And now we’re to the point where, thank God, that’s not an issue. That’s why I you never use—unless it’s for a very specific character choice—I never use collared blouses on women because in the business world, men all have collared shirts and ties. Why do you want to have a collared blouse just like all the men’s collared shirts? Everybody’s got that already.”

You don’t have to spend a ton to look expensive.

“When I started Good Wife, we literally asked ourselves with practically every garment we picked up, ‘Does this look expensive?’ If it wasn’t, we would actually assess each garment and think, ‘How does this read?’ A garment doesn’t have to be expensive to look expensive. It’s perception—it’s taking the time to actually look at it and assess it in that moment. Another really good thing to do is to do what costume designers do: We put people in clothes, and then we take a picture and look at it on our computers. There’s something about that translation onto a screen that gives you a little distance.”

Opt for monochromatic.

“I call it ‘column of color.’ I love when the center of the look is all the same tone because it kind of creates a stronger mass visually,” says Lawson. “If you’ve got a solid-color dress at the core and you have a jacket of a contrasting color, at least at the core, you look solid. You look like a whole. It’s just a little thing, but I do think it makes a difference, and it’s certainly something that I utilized on the show a lot.”

Simplify your look.

“Try not to let your outfit be too chaotic. I think a lot of times, people have a big day coming up and they think, I want to look my best, I want to work really hard and pull all these looks together. Instead of letting one element be the focus, you’ve got three very strong elements that are all vying for attention and vying for importance within the outfit, and suddenly you have a sort of chaotic look and an unfocused look, rather than a laser sharp look,” says Lawson. “I think one of the big things is to not over accessorize. I know there’s this trend now for wearing several bracelets at one time or two or three necklaces at a time. I think clean and elegant is the way to go.”

Lawson will speak in DC on July 27 from 6:45 to 8:15 PM as a part of a Smithsonian Associates event at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. Tickets are $20 to $30, and may be purchased here.

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Caroline Cunningham joined Washingtonian in 2014 after moving to the DC area from Cincinnati, where she interned and freelanced for Cincinnati Magazine and worked in content marketing. She currently resides in College Park.