For centuries, there has been a fascination with high-society women: the ones whose every pore exudes beauty, class and elegance, their glossy lives seemingly as perfect as their flawlessly coiffed hair. In Ryan Murphy's FX series "Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans," we get a glimpse into the not-so-perfect lives of Manhattan's (past) elite. The story is one of backstabbing and betrayal, as the series chronicles one of the most scandalous friendship breakups of all time, between writer Truman Capote and his "swans."
In "Feud," Tom Hollander plays Capote, while Naomi Watts portrays Babe Paley, the former Vogue editor and wife of CBS founder William S. Paley. Diane Lane is socialite and original "California girl" Slim Keith; Chloë Sevigny is Warhol muse and model C.Z. Guest, and Calista Flockhart plays Lee Radziwill, the socialite and younger sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. These Fifth Avenue princesses were all fashion icons, the original influencers. In one of the show's scenes, Capote describes his "swans" as "beautiful and unruffled above the waters…stunning, singular, gliding through the ponds of society."
Capote was a part of the women's inner circle for decades until 1975, when he penned a thinly veiled, roman à clef about them called "La Côte Basque 1965" in Esquire. It proved to be a poison arrow to their friendship and an act of social suicide; Capote was exiled from the ladies-who-lunch table, and he spiraled into alcohol and drug addiction soon after. Other meaningful women in Capote's life included Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), another socialite and victim of Capote's pen, and Joanne Carson (Molly Ringwald), the ex-wife of late-night talk show host Johnny and close confidant of Capote's until his death at her home in 1984.
But out of all the swans, it was Babe Paley who captivated Capote the most and whose loss of friendship was the most devastating. "Mrs. P. had only one fault: She was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect," he once wrote. That perfection extended to her sense of style and beauty regimen. "She never had her hair out of place. She had such grace and elegance, and everything about her was so well groomed," Watts said of her character in an interview with Vanity Fair.
Chris Clark, the production's wig designer, and personal hairstylist for Watts, used a total of five wigs to help depict Babe's unwavering perfection in the series. Clark, who has worked on a slew of Murphy's productions ("American Crime Story," "Pose," "Ratched," "The Politician"), pored over "mountains and mountains and mountains of photos" of the socialites for research, while meticulously documenting the date or time of every single picture. "I do really deep dives into each person individually," he tells Fashionista over Zoom. "When we have a show that spans so many decades, I need to be able to reference specific seasons, so I'm making sure that I'm being as truthful as possible in my part of the storytelling."
The series mainly takes place in the 1960s and '70s, so the swans' hairstyles consisted of classic bouffants, flipped bobs and bouncy waves. A total of 21 wigs were used for the show, so Clark tapped industry go-to Wigmakers Associates, with whom he works on all of his shows, to custom build the wigs according to his specifications. To authentically design the wigs, Clark turned to his own expertise in vintage styling.
"The majority of these women did not do their own hair. They would have it done in a very fancy salon on Fifth Avenue or have people come to their homes to dress their hair," he explains. "To get the shapes right and to get them as individualistic looking as possible, I had to go back to the techniques they were actually using."
Once the wigs arrived, Clark cut and styled them, sometimes three in one day. "We're looking at like $30,000 worth of wigs just in my hands that day, so I've got to be incredibly cautious and focused," he says. If I feel like it's in a place to put it on an actor, I will, but if not, I'll have another day with it. During his fitting with Watts, he adjusted the wigs to her stature and shoulders. "Then, her wants and desires and thoughts about everything get all put into the mix," he says.
Not a single curling iron was used in the show. Instead, Clark tapped his extensive collection of standard rollers that he used while working in Broadway productions like "The Lion King" and "Wicked," which he says are very similar to vintage rollers. "It goes back to setting lotion and rollers and figuring out how they were put in and combed out at the end," he explains. For C.Z. Guest, Sevigny's character, Clark figured she used pin curls to get her bouncy waves. "That's something that she would have done early on in her life, so working with Chloë's hairdresser, we did a lot of wet sets of pin curls to get those silhouettes, while the other ladies were more of a classic roller set," he says.
Clark avoided smoothing creams, serums or oils, but used R + Co. hairspray for Babe's wigs and drugstore setting lotion from Lottabody. "I'm a huge nut about that product. I think it's brilliant for vintage hairstyling," he says. "Everything had to have that sort of dry, fluffy texture." To keep Watts's baby hairs safely tucked away, Clark came up with an idea at 2 a.m.: He made a paste out of a Lush Solid Hair Conditioner mixed with some Evian.
Hair health was also a big focus, as Clark's goal with any actor he has in his chair is that, when the show wraps, their hair is healthier than it was at the beginning. He used The Crown Pleaser Conditioning Hair Mask from Stripes, Watts's menopausal beauty and wellness brand, to keep her hair in a "conditioning concoction" underneath the wig. "I also prep really loosely. It's compact, but I don't put a lot of tension on the actor's hair because the last thing I want is for them to be uncomfortable and remember that they have a wig on," he says. There was one swan who didn't wear a wig: Diane Lane's character Slim Keith. Clark says the actor wanted to wear her own hair, which worked perfectly for her turn as Keith.
As for Capote, Hollander made it easy for the hair team to replicate the author's thinning strands: "That man was incredibly kind to let us shave his head," says Clark. We needed the space, and Tom has a much fuller head of hair than Truman ever had. He let us go wild and shave out the kind of shapes we needed, so when we put the wig on top, we had the skin peeking out underneath the hair."
Babe's and the other swans' perfectly coiffed hair symbolized their unattainable perfection, and Capote used it to keep himself somewhat associated with them. In one episode, he brings his young protégé and aspiring model, Kate Harrington, to a salon before a big photo shoot. Under Capote's insistence, the hairdresser styles her hair in a way that reads much older and is very similar to Babe's, despite Kate's objection that it looks "a little matronly." When he takes Kate out to lunch at Côte, it's evident he's trying to make a new cygnet, a move not lost on Lee, who immediately ridicules the hairstyle. It was the '70s, and the tucked-in bouffants were out of fashion. "I think he was stuck in what was beautiful, and it wasn't young," says Clark. "Truman had been with these ladies and idolized these ladies for so long, and the people in that society are dressed up and the hair is very, very done. I just think he missed the mark."
Aside from the famous feud, hanging onto one's heyday and refusing to age are the other main themes conveyed throughout the series. It's partly why the swans' hairstyles and clothing (particularly, a penchant for gloves) don't change much over the years, even though they're fighting against time to look as young as possible. "That's part of the story's overall arc, really, that these women are living in a world that's rapidly changing around them, and they're not adapting," says Clark.
But there's also the personal power of a signature look — some people find their trademark and trying to evolve is not worth it.
"I always go back to my own mom and how she had a little '60s beehive forever. Was it still in style in the '90s? No, it wasn't. But that's how she felt most beautiful," says Clark. "In my experience, I find that a lot of people find a look that they love, that they feel the most themselves, and they feel that they're most beautiful. And it doesn't often change for a lot of people.”