The real star of The Undoing, HBO’s absurd marital melodrama, is not Hugh Grant, the Manhattan skyline or even the pair of David Hockneys hanging inside a vast penthouse in episode one. It’s a coat.
Sludge-green, calf-length, with wide lapels and a hood, this coat is worn again and again by Nicole Kidman’s character, a gnomic therapist called Grace, as she floats down Madison Avenue, through Central Park and even into the prison on Rikers Island, brooding over her marriage to a man who may, or may not, have just murdered his lover with a lump hammer.
Other coats appear. One is red faux fur, constructed by sewing several coats together. Another is more of a cape, inspired by the Italian label Etro, but handmade and embroidered with Japanese flowers. But it’s the green coat, which is probably velvet (although it could easily be astrakhan fur, the tightly curled fleece of a newborn lamb), that screams cold winter elite. And if it hasn’t quite broken the internet, it has certainly divided it.
Vogue’s Olivia Singer is “besotted” by it, declaring it “a standout exemplar of autumnal chic”. Vogue’s Alice Newbold calls it “the biggest sin in the programme”. The Daily Mail cites “coat couture”, while New York magazine says it lends Grace “rich-witch energy”. Not since Sarah Lund’s Faroe jumper from The Killing has an item of televised clothing been this pored over.
The coat was designed for the show by Signe Sejlund, the Danish costume designer who put Elizabeth Debicki in all those backless dresses for The Night Manager. It’s not exactly ugly – that particular shade of green also appeared on the Fendi autumn/winter 2020 catwalk, and it certainly blends in with the Central Park elms – but it is conspicuous, a bourgeois, bohemian flashcard intended to differentiate Kidman’s character from the Upper East Side’s 1%. Her rich-bitch counterparts mostly wear cream and cashmere, more obvious signifiers of privilege. By contrast, Grace’s weird coat in a weird colour “is not so easy to read,” says Sejlund.
The show has a lot of fun skewering the look of Manhattan’s elite, and the acute intersection between wealth and homogeny. Glued to her phone in a camel Max Mara coat, Lily Rabe’s lawyer, Sylvie, feels like a grown-up version of the hideous women outlined in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, in their Lululemon and RUN THE WORLD, YOUR WORKOUT IS MY WARM UP and KALE slogan T-shirts. Grace’s father, Franklin (Donald Sutherland), is a lesson in consistency and old money, in his bespoke Savile Row suits which he presumably flies to London for; while Jonathan, Grant’s character, in his Peruvian print scarf, heavy wool coat and aversion to black tie, is a muddle; a middle-class interloper who has charmed his way into a different world.
With her Botticelli hair, stacks of rings and nonelectric toothbrush, Grace is channelling ‘free-spirit’, but she is a capitalist at heart, with a personal trainer and a driver, who hides out in her billionaire father’s Upper East Side palace and refuses to donate anything to the very fundraiser she is organising. And as such, she dresses like one. The coat that looks like a dressing gown? £3,000, Max Mara. The burgundy Phillip Lim coat, a snip at £1,500. The purple floaty Roksanda dress worn to court in order to invite sympathy, a meagre £995. Oh and the rings are Cartier.
“There is certainly a form of bohemian fashion about being able to afford, socially and economically, to experiment and to not need to present yourself formally,” says Susanna Cordner, the archive manager at the London College of Fashion. The pleated metallic Givenchy gown Grace wears to a fundraiser presents as fashionable enlightened but it still cost £6,775. “Bohemian style can be a rebellion from the status quo of sorts, but it’s a cossetted one”. Her love rival, Elena, wears a not dissimilar Grecian-style dress to the same do, although hers costs $150 (£110).
The past few months have been a curious time for fashion on TV, particularly when it comes to dressing the wealthy and despicable – see Succession and its Lanvin trainers and stealth wealth Loro Piana suits, or the neutrals and athleisure of Big Little Lies. Not simply because television is the only real way to see anything new or worn by anyone other than your housemates, but because most of what we are watching now was filmed before the pandemic; most of Grace’s wardrobe comes from the autumn 2018/19 catwalks.
In a year shaped by what it lacked – being outside, getting dressed, touching – the coat is a tactile artefact, a portal into an unfamiliar world rich on cashmere, whiteness, and wealth. And an ugly one at that.