I, like many others, am absolutely enthralled with “Succession.” The HBO series, revolving around the precarious machinations of a nauseatingly moneyed and powerful media family, is unquestionably brilliant in its exploration of how money turns in on itself. Though the Roys behind “Waystar | Royco” are based on an amalgamation of well-known media families, like the Redstones and the Murdochs, their outlets being called “poison in the well of public discourse” by neoliberal blue-bloods and other heavy-handed hints point to the latter family as the primary source of inspiration, at least for their contributions to the U.S. political sphere. A member of the family even jokingly referred to their public offering as “hate speech and rollercoasters.” These glimpses, however, really only serve to remind you of what their empire is built on — unlike other works focused on the belly of American conservatism, very little time is actually spent in the trenches. The opulent veneer that lends a layered irony to descriptions of social progress like “United Nations Volvo gender-bender horse shit,” also functions to highlight the distance the family enjoys from the fear-mongering machine that generates their wealth. They gleefully run away from accountability of any kind, tailoring their messaging on the company’s malfeasance according to whatever PR executives have deemed to be the appropriate “line.” Much in the same way, each character’s style is less a genuine expression of character than a calculation based on a compromise between what they feel comfortable in and what plays; the latter almost always taking precedence.

This particular brand of “stealth wealth” calls to mind articles lauding that aesthetic philosophy (and brands that catered to it, like Bottega Veneta and Bruno Cucinelli) in the wake of the economic crash of 2008. Markers of status and excess have always been central to the fashion industry and outlets that drive it, though the shape that those markers take are informed by their cultural environment, and thus have the capacity to clue one into the goings on of their respective cultural sphere. Given the show’s immense, of-the-moment popularity and the amount of traction that the show’s costume design has garnered, it only makes sense that the show’s impact on fashion can be linked to the politics du jour. 

Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), in particular, drew up a media storm last year. She wore high waisted, belted pants that were said to be powerful enough to run an empire of their own. She wore turtlenecks so fine and so weather-inappropriate they could send an icy shockwave through one’s entire body. Her backless Gabriella Hearst dress of Season Two’s “Dundee,” in particular, became a jaw-dropping emblem of the power her character could wield. In fact, some of the most complicated, devastating scenes of hers are the same ones whose looks gained the most traction. The aforementioned turtleneck dress showed her using the childhood death of her would-be aunt to force her business rival, Rhea (Holly Hunter), out of favor with her patriarchal father. The only time she wore a dress all season, she wore double-breasted Max Mara to convince one of Waystar’s many sexual assault survivors not to testify — an action she only took issue with because she considered it to be “soft skills, lady duty shit-work.”

Shiv is particularly enveloping because she’s the character that, at least up until the beginning of the second season, you can most reasonably root for. She was a left-leaning political strategist before being offered her father’s company, she wants to steer Waystar away from what people have come to hate about America and her off-the-cuff retorts are both devastating and show a mindfulness that her siblings simply do not have. It’s when she lops off her curls and channels Dietrich that she reveals just how low she’s willing to go and that her personal politics are no more than a trading card. Her style choices are a reflection of her coming into her own and her brazen quest for Waystar’s helm, but they also signify an ingratiation to the decidedly masculine corporate world where her family once thrived. The decidedly masculine corporate world that has far too long valued capital over family, over personhood, over human life.

“Succession” offers an undaunting exposition of late-stage capitalism, and costume designer Michelle Matland has been masterful in communicating each character’s arc and how they navigate their ice-cold domain. The Roy family postures and maneuvers on the executive floor of a behemoth on the brink of collapse, and their mental state is underwritten by the purposeful and subtly beautiful clothes that they wear. “Succession” is a show that is uniquely of its time, and almost serves as a distilled portrait of an empire, an economic system, before its fall. It’s cliche to say that fashion serves as a cultural barometer, but it will be fascinating to see what will come of Season 3.

Daily Style Columnist Samuel Kremke can be reached at skremke@umich.edu

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