Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Ryan Murphy’s second foray into the dynamics of a societal scuffle, is getting mixed reviews. Some are applauding the FX series for its subdued, somber tone and the unexpected exploration of heavier themes such as discrimination, abuse, and aging. Others feel the angle of a cautionary tale—in the case of Capote’s issues with drugs and alcohol, especially—does not lend itself well to the story, that the time period and nature of a Murphy production demand more of a sexy, stylish spin, while for the most part, Feud is painted in realistic beiges and grays. But no matter one’s take, it seems that everyone can agree that the series’ third episode is a highlight of the season, a faux-documentary style look at the creation of Truman Capote’s famed 1966 Black and White Ball.
The show—written by Jon Robin Baitz, produced by Murphy, and directed by Gus Van Sant—follows Tom Hollander’s Capote through almost three decades, as he meets, infiltrates, and subsequently betrays a circle of New York City’s most influential women with his thinly-veiled fictionalized story, La Côte Basque, 1965, published in Esquire in 1975. Throughout the season’s eight hour-long episodes, the storyline spins the viewer around and around, from post-publication to pre- and back again. In episode three, though, the ever-bouncing timeline rests, allowing the historic party to enjoy a moment in the spotlight.
In 1966, when Capote was at the height of his stardom following the success of In Cold Blood, he decided to throw his weight—and new-found money—into a ballyhoo of a ball at the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. Held in honor of The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, the event was attended by everyone from Mia Farrow to Norman Mailer, and of course, Capote’s “Swans,” including those depicted in Feud—C. Z. Guest, Slim Keith, Babe Paley, and Lee Radziwill. It was a lavish event still discussed and recreated to this day, one that saw society’s biggest stars dressed in the most extravagant black and white fashion and decorated masks. So, when it came to recreating the moment for television, the decision was made to bring in a ringer in order to aid the show’s lead costume designer, Lou Eryich.
The real Lee Radziwill at the 1966 Black and White Ball
Fairchild Archive/Penske Media via Getty Images
Truman Capote and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham at the Black and White Ball
Fairchild Archive/Penske Media via Getty Images
“Ryan said to me, ‘The expectations of this are Met Gala level,” says Zac Posen, the man tasked with bringing the Black and White Ball to life. It’s a fitting choice, considering Posen has constructed quite a few gowns for the actual Met Gala in his life. Plus, the designer has experience working on sets including those for Sex and the City films, Ocean’s 8, and more. “Film and television, the retelling of history is really my jam,” Posen, who was recently named the creative director of Gap Inc. tells W. “Theater and film are my first love. And fashion has found a place in that, and obviously it’s a strong place.”
In fact, Posen loves storytelling so much that when he first joined the Feud team, he did so on a completely voluntary basis, inviting Eyrich over for a two hour research session, simply out of his love of the craft. “I’m a sharer,” he says. “If something intrigues me, I’ll share all the information I have for the betterment of art.” It wasn’t until he ran into Murphy not long after that the producer invited Posen to join the project in a more official capacity.
So while Eyrich and her team are responsible for every other look seen in the eight episode series (and the hundreds of background actors at the ball), we have Posen to thank for the creations shown on C.Z., Slim, Babe, and Lee, as well as Katherine, Ann Woodward, Joanne Carson, and Capote’s apparition of his mother, Lillie, portrayed by Jessica Lange. For the most part, the costumes were recreations—updated versions of the actual pieces these women wore to the ball all those decades ago. That did give Posen a bit more creative license when it came to Ann, Joanne, and Lillie’s designs, as the trio didn’t actually attend the event. The lack of documentation of Slim that night also allowed Posen to use his own discretion when creating the costume for actress Diane Lane.
“She obviously did not want to get photographed, and she went through the side entrance,” Posen explains of Slim. So, the designer drew up a pair of black pants with an overskirt attached to a white satin bodice. “It was really important to me to have Slim in pants,” the designer explains. “She’s worldly and exotic, so she had to do something very dramatic.” Really, though, the drama came from Slim’s opera coat, discarded upon entrance to the Plaza—a black and white segmented voluminous hooded number she paired with white sunglasses as opposed to the customary mask. “I thought that was a cool thing to do.”
Posen began the process of creating these looks by first entering what he calls “a full-on, crazy research vortex,” involving not only content surrounding the ball, but also material research, to learn about the fabrics and textiles used at the time. The key was making sure all elements came together to create a realistic wardrobe. “I had to create pieces that worked with these real-life women, but also built on Lou’s beautiful work with the characters, and still made sense through Gus’ lens and in Ryan’s world,” Posen said. “It really was a collaboration.”
To begin, Posen had the idea to assign each woman a “bird at the ball on the lake.” Ann Woodward, for example, was given the sparrow. The character, portrayed by Posen’s longtime friend Demi Moore, was a party crasher in the episode, one who receives quite the tongue-lashing by Capote in front of her peers. Posen wanted the costume to depict her fragility in the moment, so he designed a “psychedelic egg-like raincoat,” decorated in crystals and feathers that matched her elaborate headpiece. But when Moore visited Posen in his studio to try on the costume, something was clearly off. “She just wasn’t feeling it at all,” Posen recalls. So, with just five days to go, Posen created a new, more Bob Mackie-style dress, keeping Moore’s Artemis-style topper in tact.
The other designs came to life with a little less drama. C.Z. Guest, portrayed by Chlöe Sevigny, got a classic white dress in the vein of the socialite’s go-to designer, Mainbocher. “I wanted the drape of it to resemble the gesture of a swan neck,” Posen says. Silk flowers that decorated the back of the strapless gown resembled riding prizes, a nod to Guest’s equestrian background, while a mask of bejeweled white feathers furthered the swan comparisons.
C.Z.’s mask, however, was nothing compared to the feathered masterpiece Posen created for Babe Paley’s entrance to the ball. The design was inspired by drawings of bird wings from Leonardo da Vinci. “I got obsessed with this idea of the side of the coat looking like two giant wings opening up,” Posen said. The coat was a departure from the little fur one Babe actually wore to the event, but as for the dress underneath, that was a pretty accurate recreation. Posen was able to find various illustrations of Babe’s gown by Joe Eula and Kenneth Paul Block. Through his research, Posen also learned that Babe’s original look was lined in crimson red, a color that not only defied the black and white dress code, but proved her access to insider information as she matched the tablecloths for the evening. “I imagine in some capacity that was her probably rebellion,” Posen guesses. “It was her one up on the ball.”
But while for most of the show, Babe is clearly the head swan in charge, when it came to Posen’s ball, it was Lange who got the black swan treatment, closing out the evening when she appears before her son in an all-black creation. “I came up with this idea that she was somehow of every era,” Posen explains. Capote has spoken extensively about his mother, who spent her life trying (and failing) to reach new heights of society, much like her son. So for her elaborate costume, Posen wanted to include a slice of every decade—a Victorian feather stole as a collar, beading a la the ’20s, and a ’60s-inspired shape. The result is a beautiful and ornate gown, likely the only one that gets 360 degrees of appreciation it deserves thanks to its moment in the spotlight during Lange’s final dance with Hollander’s Capote. It was the image of the actors in that moment, Lange in his dress, the music from Swan Lake playing in the background, which Posen will always remember. “It was just one of those full body chills, greatest experiences of my life,” he says. “Seeing Jessica Lange in this incredible costume in a waltz in the Plaza.”
Of course, the designer admits that the whole experience was a fruitful one. He got to embrace his historically-inclined interests, flex his construction and design skills, and work with some women he’s keen to call his sisters. “In a weird way, I felt like I was living this role of Truman, leading up to the ball,” Posen says. He was readying these beautiful women, and just like in the show, there was a camera trained on him the entire time. Yes, Murphy had the idea to get the whole process on the record—Moore’s wardrobe mishap, Lange’s dreamlike dance—meaning we could have quite the behind-the-scenes documentary in our future.